Vint Virga’s The Soul of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human opens with a quote from Hippocrates: “The soul is the same in all living creatures, although the body of each is different.”
Following next is an author’s note in which Virga explains why he uses the pronouns “he” and “she” when referring to animals, rather than the often-used “it,” which, as he writes, “draws a distinction between them and us and reinforces viewing them as objects rather than fellow human beings.”
From these lovely beginnings, the book goes on to recount stories from Virga’s work in veterinary and zoological medicine, highlighting the many ways in which we humans can—and should—be more sensitive, aware, and empathetic to the animals in our care. This compassionate look at how animals tick is a great read for all animal lovers, particularly those with pets.
Virga uses both allegories and case studies to show how human compassion can help animals lead happier lives. Because many of the allegories are familiar, I’d have loved to see more case studies instead—these, to me, were most fascinating. Many of us, at some point in our lives, have lived with an animal with a few quirks (if not more serious behavioral issues), and Virga’s advice is invaluable; even if it’s specific to a particular animal, he teaches us to see the world from our pet’s point of view in order to help him or her overcome the behavior.
Virga consults with zoos as part of his work to better the lives of animals, and probably the saddest aspect of this book is that there is little to be done for animals in captivity. In one chapter, Virga writes about Sakari, a leopard living alone in a zoo. She has an entirely bald tail, which Virga attributes to stress. “In the wild, [leopards] avoid stress by retreating deeper into the jungle or climbing up into the canopy above…In captivity, however, they have nowhere to escape.”
Virga notes the importance of providing enrichment for zoo animals (“…it’s not surprising that Sakari licks her tail for hours. What else has she to do? What can she look forward to?”), and provides a case study later in the chapter that about a family who adopted successful enrichment exercises for their two wildly playful kittens. Yet, as he notes later, the “cats adjusted well to their home. Sakari did not to her habitat…Regardless of her keepers’ efforts, the limits set by Sakari’s enclosure were just too oppressive for her to overcome. It failed to meet her most basic needs.”
It’s heartening to see how much good humans can do for their pets with a little effort, yet heartbreaking to know that most zoos will never be able to provide anything like home.
There is a passing mention of animals as food—Virga writes, “When I watch others eat, I find it so curious how absently most people cut at their steak, tear off a chicken wing, or gnaw at a bone, without a thought to their prey, the abbatoir, the life that passed” — a brief but important moment in a book about the souls of all living creatures.
As Virga notes in his introduction, “this book is as much about people as animals,” and it’s one that will enlighten even the most passionate animal lovers, as well as confirm the bonds we all share.
Midge Raymond is a co-founder of Ashland Creek Press. She is the author of the novel My Last Continent and the award-winning short story collection Forgetting English.