At the Compassion Consortium, we celebrate diversity. We believe every being brings a unique view to the community that we co-create when we gather together. So, each month, we publish an essay which provides a view from our community, a slice of one human's journey of compassionate living.
Recognizing My Liberator in the Mirror
Contextualizing Animal Chaplaincy through the Lens
of an Activist for Collective Liberation
by Alaina Sigler
Kat was seen licking an unclasped lock on our first day visiting the slaughterhouse
“Entangled Empathy is a type of caring perception focused on attending to another's experience of well-being. It is an experiential process involving a blend of emotion and cognition in which we recognize we are in relationships with others and are called upon to be responsive and responsible in these relationships by attending to another's needs, interests, desires, vulnerabilities, hopes, and sensitivities.”
–Lori Gruen, Entangled Empathy
The emergent field of animal chaplaincy promotes individual and collective flourishing. The core focus of chaplaincy work is to be a healing presence and supporting others, regardless of their species and belief systems, is the essence of being an animal chaplain. In animal chaplaincy, we are called to be responsive, advocate, and be intentional about our thoughts, feelings, and actions. We work with a wide variety of species through being a healing presence, companioning, gentle questioning, and encouraging ways-of-being that can promote well-being.
The concept of entangled empathy, as described by Lori Gruen above, is helpful for chaplaincy work, and aptly characterizes my experience as an animal chaplain who is also an activist. As an activist in the greater Denver area, I attended numerous vigils at a local slaughterhouse for lambs and baby goats without an idea of what I was truly getting myself into. Almost every weekend friends, other activists, and I would gather to bear witness while standing directly next to the trucks which hold dozens of lambs and baby goats. While we never touched anyone inside of the trucks, or the truck itself, our collective fear, anxiety, and profound sadness were palpable across all species. Compartmentalization, ventilation, harnessing feelings of guilt, and micro-shocking were common for me and other activists. Animal’s faces have been seared into my memory and I’ll never forget the silk chocolate shades of the eyes of Kat the lamb or Penelope the lamb appearing to have a cold wet nose as I viewed it through a ventilation hole on the side of the truck while it sat adjacent to the slaughterhouse.
Throughout my time bearing witness, I wasn’t prepared emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. At vigils, I was often in a trance, as I have lived most of my life, but my experiences attending vigils were different. I was jarringly brought back into the present moment through smells, sounds, a touch of a hand, or the sight of a truck pulling into the parking lot. In my distressed state, I struggled to stay in the present and was bombarded by many emotions, whether it was the numerous instances that I soaked my sleeves in tears, the overwhelming anxiety that touched every inch of my skin when the trucks would pull into the parking lot, or the profound grief that sunk deep into my conscious and unconscious self.
Without a solid foundation of self-empathy and an inability to companion myself through mindfulness practices, I was left alone with my emotions without an awareness of how to alleviate my suffering. Rather, I had an understanding of systems theory including the terrorization that occurs in animal agriculture and its effects across species lines. Friends figuratively planted seeds and offered guidance throughout my time bearing witness and after I stopped attending vigils. I am incredibly appreciative of the people who never gave up on me, but in the end, I realized that I needed to be open to this much-needed work. As I looked forward to hope it wasn’t until years later that I would appreciate what presence could offer.
Now, in my work as a chaplain, I realize that noticing intersections between cognition, emotional, and spiritual wellness are crucial when supporting others. For example, when working with free-living beings such as a squirrel in a rehabilitation center, it is l necessary to tune into the feelings of the individual I am working with. I need to understand the background story of how the squirrel came to the rehab center and what staff has planned to support that individual. It is also important to understand how the role of the chaplain may influence the rehab center’s plan, to learn species-specific information, and to understand how to interact with that individual that is lending away from projection of our desires and interests (not anthropomorphizing).
If I had the opportunity to be understood by an animal chaplain years ago, I could have been supported through conversation without judgment, shame, or blaming and would have preferred to be asked questions such as taking a moment together to be in silence and how we could generalize a mindfulness practice beyond the property lines of the slaughterhouse. Grounding ourselves in the care seeker’s strengths, narratives, and current resources can aid in our assessment and aid “in capacities for meaning-making through crisis intervention/spiritual first aid, spiritual counseling, advocacy, and group facilitation” (Cadge & Rambo, 2022).
I’ve also learned there is beauty in the idea of restoration and grief. Coming from a perception of wholeness to integrate our spiritual, psychological, physical, and social selves is relieving as I’m considering it. When we contemplate the whole being, “experiences with presence within absence require those living with loss to remember and to reengage with the healing energy of grief” (Burke & Rynearson, 2022). How could presence within absence manifest if we consider entangled empathy within the context of the healing energy of grief? Can we embody the act of restoration through wholeness and not delve into singular acts that leave us in states of uncertainty and suffering? Contemplation and initiation of various practices for those supporting other-than-humans in any capacity could be the bridge needed for long-term sustainability in any field of compassionate actions for others.
To support activists, animal chaplains [and others who support activists] can use entangled empathy, contemplation, and empathy to ground themselves in energy based on emotions felt, feelings that are voiced, and digging into the unvoiced feelings and needs. There are times when needs are expressed. Other times, the act of companioning and gentle questioning will help ensure that we are being responsive to someone’s well-being since “needs, interests, desires, vulnerabilities, hopes, and sensitivities” (Gruen, 2022) are not always voiced out loud. We can also weave in the understanding of why an activist has chosen to advocate for another. Background knowledge of the organization (if applicable) is necessary for understanding how, when, where, and why activists have organized. Educating ourselves to become intimately aware of another’s needs and how they’ve chosen to act on these needs creates a solid foundation for anyone including those who have given up their lives and are currently or previously incarcerated because of the liberatory work they are grounded in. Take a moment to consider the needs that have been addressed so far and reflect on how those needs.
Leo Tolstoy once said, “When the suffering of another creature causes you to feel pain, do not submit to the initial desire to flee from the suffering one, but on the contrary, come closer, as close as you can to her who suffers, and try to help her.” I wholeheartedly agree with Tolstoy, however, be sure to do the same for yourself. While I wouldn’t change the experience I had at the vigil all those years ago, I have set personal boundaries for myself that are rooted in mindfulness practices. Through the use of nonviolent communication, walking meditations, connecting with other beings, and reminders to be present throughout my day, I have transformed my inability to give myself compassion. This path has no limits and I am grateful for seeing light through the darkness. As I’m writing and sharing this, I can feel sadness start to overwhelm me. The difference is, as I’m listening to a song that I sang many times at vigils, it is my ability to regulate and be present with myself.
As a result, I conclude this reflection by offering a blessing for those I was and was not present with at the slaughterhouse. This is a song that we would often sing in those days, titled “Courage, My Friend.” It was originally written as a South African anti-Apartheid call and response song. Words in bold can be replaced with others on the repeat. Words such as freedom, activists, families, sanctuary, liberation, and more.
Goats and lambs, (goats and lambs) my friends (my friends)
You will not walk alone
I will (I will) walk with you (walk with you)
And sing your spirit home
As I sit with myself and walk my spiritual path, I have seen some depths of my past as an activist. In the mirror, I now see self-empathy and compassion. How this continues to transform into my advocacy work and as an animal chaplain manifests into joy, wonder, and awe. As we move forward, let us walk in meditation and lean into the feelings that arise as we step toward restoration and healing. Empowering ourselves to heal and recover will bring a new light into our world and I believe we are more ready than ever.
Bekoff, M. (2015, April 28). "Entangled empathy: How to improve human-animal
relationships" HuffPost. Retrieved January 18, 2023, from
Burke, L. A., & Rynearson, E.T. (2022). The restorative nature of ongoing connections
with the deceased: Exploring presence within absence. Routledge/Taylor &
Cadge, W., & Rambo, S. (2022). Chaplaincy and spiritual care in the twenty-first
century: An introduction. The University of North Carolina Press.
About the author
Alaina Sigler (she/her) is a long-time advocate for other beings, and she is studying in the Ordained Animal Chaplaincy Training with the Compassion Consortium. She brings unique skill sets with over a decade of experience working with children and teenagers of all abilities. Alaina's desire to become an Animal Chaplain student stemmed from a vision to companion human and other-than-human individuals experiencing grief and other emotions and connections to permaculture design.
Learn more about Alaina's work and follow her at thenightskygarden.org/blog
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