Living on Purpose: Until one has loved an animal

Published 2:30 pm Wednesday, August 16, 2023

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By Billy Holland


Cheryl and I grew up around dogs, and when we were married, it did not take long for us to bring home our first fur babies, a Scottish terrier and a wire-haired terrier. Over the years, we’ve had Cocker spaniels, Bostons, Frenchies and many other wonderful companions that were members of our family. James Cromwell is quoted as saying: “Domesticated animals are humanizing. They remind us of our obligation and responsibility to preserve and care for all life.”

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Animals are truly special creatures, and it’s an honor to share our lives with these remarkable individuals. They are such a blessing for being loyal, protective, and with a sincere desire to love us unconditionally. Therapy animals have proven they have a special sensitivity that can detect human emotions and even the condition of our health. When we make eye contact with our furry friends, it seems they can see into our soul with a pure devotion that is without question. Our last companion was an English bulldog named Teddy Roosevelt and at seventy pounds, loved to take turns squeezing into our recliners with us in the evenings. At bedtime, he would labor to make it upstairs for another chance to snuggle with us. Anatole France is quoted as saying: “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”

Sometimes I’m surprised by just how intelligent and aware animals are. Have you noticed when your companions are laying around and relaxing, they seem to always have one eye on you and it’s like they listen to every word you say? I believe for all the things they do not understand, they learn to interpret our voice intonations, certain words, and routines to somewhat figure out what’s going on. Speaking of the ability of animals to comprehend, I want to share a story with you about an amazing and highly adored companion that for over the last one hundred years has been declared as one of the most intelligent animals ever known. It’s not a dog, dolphin, elephant, or monkey, but rather a horse named “Beautiful Jim Key.” It’s a fascinating and true account of the deep love between a compassionate man and a clever stallion and how this relationship revealed that animals are much more perceptive than was ever imagined.

In the late 1800s, a former slave and self-taught veterinarian named William Key had the idea of breeding two extraordinary horses with the hopes of producing a super racehorse. The Arabian-Hamiltonian colt was quite a specimen alright, but instead of being a champion athlete, he turned out to be super-intelligent. At birth, the colt was very weak and sickly, and his mother passed away shortly thereafter, which caused William to consider euthanizing him. Instead, a strong bond was formed between them. It’s documented how the wobbly young colt insisted to spend every minute with William and so he was brought into the house as a member of the family where he lived and slept. William named the horse Jim on his birth papers along with his own last name, and the nickname “Beautiful” was added later. Right away Mrs. Key noticed that Jim was very attentive and developing human-like behavior so she started asking him questions to which he would nod yes or no. After observing Jim’s desire to communicate, William the “horse whisperer” was eager to see just how much Jim could learn.

William had a gentle and kind personality and slowly began to teach Jim the alphabet where he quickly responded by supposedly spelling words, understanding math problems, and eventually advanced to sentences and Bible verses. He introduced Jim to local fairs where they astounded large crowds with Jim’s ability to spell words by putting letters on a rack in the correct order. In 1897, Jim performed in the Tennessee Centennial Exposition as thousands witnessed his incredible abilities including President William McKinley who was quoted as saying, “This is certainly the most astonishing and entertaining exhibition I have ever seen.” Performing all over the country including the World’s Fair in 1904, it was said that Jim was the most famous celebrity of this era. With more than 1 million supporters of the “Jim Key Band of Mercy” that ignited the animal rights movement, Beautiful Jim Key passed away in 1912, and on his grave displays the popular slogan “Be kind to animals” as a lasting tribute to God’s spectacular creation.

Dr. Billy Holland is an ordained Christian minister, community chaplain, and author. Discover more about the Christian life at