Editor's note: Baylor University Press conducted the following interview with author Laura Hobgood-Oster.MNN: Why do you think the number of Christians working for humane treatment of animals is growing?

Laura Hobgood-Oster: Several reasons: broader cultural shifts that involve a growing awareness of the fate of animals in the world as it is today, an increasing recognition that animals have been part of the history of Christianity, and the importance of pets, a relatively new phenomenon that has had significant impacts on individual human and animal lives.

How can Christianity be “good news” for animals?

Well, it hasn’t been good news much of the time. Animals have been ignored while humans have been elevated and made the exclusive concern. This is a misreading of history and theology. If one reads the biblical texts and other sacred stories from the history of Christianity carefully, then it can be “good news” for animals. Those stories involve numerous examples of God’s direct care for other animals — the book of Job is an excellent example of God’s reminder that all animals are sacred parts of the creation. They also point to the holiest of people — from St. Jerome to St. Brigid to St. Martin de Porres — considering animals compassionately and treating them with great care.

Why do you think that animals appear in the stories of Christian saints with such amazing frequency? What are some examples?

Animals have, throughout human history, provided a connection to the mysteries of the divine. They live and die, just as we do. They are very much like us — but are also unique. We can’t create them, but we also can’t live without them. We need them, for our physical and spiritual well-being, and somehow we know this. The earliest images we draw (ancient human images in cave art) are of other animals. So there is this deep sense of connection and of the sacred in other animals.

The stories I mentioned above offer lovely images. St. Jerome, best known for translating the Biblical text into Latin, was also great friends with a lion who came to his monastery seeking care. The lion had a thorn in his foot and the saint removed it. Much of Jerome’s imagery includes the lion at his side. St. Giles is another favorite of mine. He was a hermit who lived by a stream and his primary companions were the other animals in the forest; among them was a beautiful hind. Hunters were pursuing her one day and Giles knelt in prayer to ask God to save her life. When one of the hunters shot his arrow, St. Giles took the hit of the arrow in order to save the hind’s life.

What are some of the ethical issues around animals that should concern Christians?

The most appropriate place to begin is the decision about what to eat. The choices we make about what we eat have huge impacts. If we eat food that was produced in a way that inflicts incredible, unnecessary pain and suffering — on both the animals and the humans involved — we have made an ethical choice there. The number of animals who suffer in the factory farming system is beyond comprehension for most people. Christians should be deeply concerned with a system that requires so much suffering.

One problem you discuss in the book is pet overpopulation and puppy mills. What should Christians do about this, and why?

Don’t buy dogs from a retail pet store. There are fewer of these around; in fact, Austin, Texas, just banned the sale of pets from retail facilities. People are starting to learn about the mass production of puppies for sale and are putting a stop to it. But there’s a long way to go. There are so many dogs who need homes — we end up euthanizing millions of dogs and cats each year in the U.S. because there aren’t homes for them. Adopt a dog from a local animal shelter. Also, there are dog rescue groups out there for just about every breed imaginable!

How should Christians respond to the use of animals for sport and entertainment — both legal, such as horse racing, and illegal, such as dogfighting?

If the activity causes undue suffering and pain, people should question it, not participate in it, and actively work to stop it. Dogfighting is obviously cruel and violent. Horse racing is more nuanced — horses love to run! But it’s the breeding, training and racing in the thoroughbred horse industry that is questionable. The horses are too young, their legs are too fragile and they are too prone to injury in the current system. Another area that I don’t mention in the book but that needs to be highlighted is circuses that have animals as entertainment — elephants, chimpanzees, tigers. The animals in circuses live horrible lives, so an easy thing to do is boycott these public displays of cruelty.

What are some ways animals are showing up in churches?

Blessings of animals have been happening with increasing frequency, usually in early October for the Feast of St. Francis. More communities are recognizing the pain involved with the death of a pet, and are offering memorial services for these companions. A few churches in the country hold services for people who want to bring their dogs. Animals were in churches before, particularly in the artwork and stories, but also really there too. St. Francis is well known for beginning the live nativity scene in the church, for preaching to birds, for praying with crickets. So they have been present before, now we are inviting them back again.

How might the Christian tradition of “radical hospitality” be extended to animals?

Christianity is a religion of hospitality — sanctuaries are places of safety, monasteries in the Middle Ages were open for all travelers to eat and sleep, orphanages were established and accepted any children who were abandoned. Today many churches participate in programs that provide housing for homeless people. The same concepts need to extend to the entire planet. Habitats must remain intact for animals so that they have a home as well. Christians need to make lifestyle choices that help to preserve these spaces.

What have you learned from your work as a dog rescue volunteer?

The many dogs who I have had the joy of knowing give me so much more than I could ever give in return. I continue to learn how wonderful this other species is. But I also learn how cruel some humans can be. That’s one of the hardest parts, just when I think it can’t get any worse, another dog comes to the shelter who has been abused, or neglected, or bred to death. And often those dogs are the mildest, sweetest, most loving dogs I have ever encountered. They still long for human affection. It is in that relationship that I find something intangible, but something that I know is sacred.

Christianity's good news for animals
Q&A with Laura Hobgood-Oster, author of 'The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals.'