We may not be able to know and appreciate all the animals and plants, but we sense that something important might emerge if we can know and appreciate one animal. This has led some to have an interest in looking for a “power animal.” I think this interest comes from a desire to be connected to our fellow creatures here on earth. Finding a power animal began in some ancient shamanic traditions but has become popular in the modern spirituality marketplace, where often the idea is romanticized. People look for the exotic and the wild.
But there is another way to find a power animal. First, you can start by thinking about your food. If you eat meat or fish, or eggs or milk, what are the animals that give you their life, so you can have food?
In our culture, it is difficult to honor the animals who are most important to us. Chickens, cattle, and pigs are the most widely eaten animals in the United States. Most of them are raised in horrible conditions. My purpose right now is not to talk about the nightmare of factory farming. But when we begin to open our hearts to our connection with other animals, we have to ask ourselves about the animals we eat for food.
Let’s focus on the chicken—the animal most eaten in the United States. Sometimes they have been given a bad image in the media—we call someone “chicken” when they are lacking in courage. But chickens lay eggs that feed us, and give their lives to feed us. When allowed to roam a yard, chickens will kill and eat the ticks that can cause Lyme disease. They have their own nobility and useful simple lives. A chicken would be a fine power animal. Except that perhaps we feel too ashamed of how the humans have treated them. If we respected the chickens, how could we consider the agricultural practices that confine them to torturous cages?
To eat is a sacred act. So often, we eat mindlessly. We don’t pay attention. When we eat, we take one part of Mother Earth, and unite it with another part of Mother Earth—our own bodies. Eating is necessary for life, and yet always includes death of some kind, whether of plants or animals. The great mystery of life and death can be present to us every single day, in the ordinary communion of eating a meal. But most of the time we are separated from that mystery because we can pick up our food in the grocery store, without any indication that this food is from living beings.
One of Henry David Thoreau’s practices when he went to the woods was, for a time, to try to catch or grow whatever he ate. He spoke about how needing to kill and prepare one’s meat was something that inclined him toward being a vegetarian. Some people do make that choice, out of respect for the animals. For my part, I try to honor the sacredness of food by thanking the creatures who have given their lives that I might eat. And because of that, I try to buy meats of animals who have been raised with dignity. In our culture, it can be a difficult thing to do. But it all begins by making one simple change—to recognize and celebrate the source of our food at each meal.
The Indigenous Innu people of northern Quebec did rituals in which they asked the caribou spirit to help them in the hunt. They believed that the caribou spirit helped them find caribou to kill and eat. They did rituals after they killed a caribou, and made sure that none of the bones touched the ground. The animal they ate was the animal to which they prayed. We can do that too.
When I watch our cats looking at the birds outside, it seems to me that they are doing something like praying. We don’t let them go outside—we’ve interrupted their hunting of birds. But when they shiver and chatter in excitement just watching the birds, it seems very much like deep devotion.