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Swimming with Dolphins
    ...and hearing the seventh principle's prophetic call
by John Millspaugh

I was at the beach one day when I spotted a small pod of dolphins swimming in two groups of three. I jumped to my feet immediately, stumbling toward the surf. I had splashed into the waves chest-deep before realizing I still wore my T-shirt, sunglasses, and the watch my father gave me as a token of his confidence when I left for graduate school.

I raced back to my towel, stuffed my clothes into my backpack, and sprinted north until I was well beyond the pod, only then diving in and doing my best freestyle to reach them.

The first group of three came within about 50 feet of me before veering off. I heard their muffled but explosive exhalations. The second group surfaced about 20 feet behind me. I was shocked to discover that I could smell them, salty and sickly sweet. We swam together for perhaps 10 seconds before they disappeared.

The dolphins resurfaced some 20 feet ahead of me. I watched them slide under the waves and emerge again, farther in the distance. I was amazed and grateful for the experience, if a bit disappointed that they had not accepted me as a swimming companion. But then I reveled in the apparent snub. "I was just rejected by a pod of dolphins! This is not a dolphin tank at Sea World. This is how it should be." Later, walking back along the beach, I was struck by how limited, arbitrary, and finite my worldview is, and how vast is the world beyond my experience.

We Unitarian Universalists covenant to respect all life, the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part. In the brief time that this seventh principle has been part of our common vocabulary, it has become one of those that we cherish most. The dolphins inspired me to understand our principle at a deeper level. Too often I have affirmed the seventh principle as if it were just a vague sentiment, an abstraction. Swimming with dolphins awakened me to the prophetic call that the principle contains, the call to transform my attitudes and actions.

What does the prophetic call of the seventh principle mean when it comes to dolphins and other animals? To begin to answer this question, we would have to understand what animals are, or who they are. Most of the ways we've learned about animals have been distorted or extremely limited at best: stories, pets, cartoons, visits to zoos or farms. We have learned what animals mean to us, as symbols, as cuddly companions, as resources. We have not learned what animals' lives are like for them. Scientists are now discovering that animals are much more like us than we might be comfortable knowing.

Take prairie dogs. Con Slobodchikoff, biology professor at Northern Arizona University, has identified more than 100 nouns and adjectives prairie dogs use to describe predators, not counting the "social chatter" that fell outside his experiment. Chimpanzees that have learned American Sign Language from Dr. Roger Fouts go on to teach the language to their offspring. Dr. Irene Pepperberg and others have demonstrated that gray parrots and even pigeons can understand abstract concepts. How well do these discoveries fit with our beliefs about animals' lives?

I'm not sure we want to come to terms with these mainstream scientific findings. Doing so would remind us that, as Universalist minister Clarence Russell Skinner put it, our current comprehension "is not a tombstone marking the resting place of truth, but is rather a milestone on the long arduous journey to the truth."

These observations challenge our fundamental worldview. Taking animals' experiences seriously might lead us to see that animals have not only biological lives but biographical lives, too.

I am used to asking myself if I am in right relationship with other humans; now I ask the same question about other animals. To my discomfort, I've realized that this question encompasses the animals I eat.

Are we in right relation with the animals we eat? This is an uncomfortable question. Or is it not so much the question as the answer that makes us uneasy?

I believe it is our very connection to the interdependent web of existence, a deep and spiritual part of us all, that finds the question of right relationship and its answer distressing. Personally, as I have explored this issue, I have come to believe that I cannot be in right relationship with other animals as long as I pay people to confine them in terrible conditions, like those I've found touring some of America's factory farms.

The standard egg-laying chicken in the year 2001 is debeaked at birth, fattened, and confined with four other birds in a wire cage with a floor space smaller than two sheets of typing paper, where all five will live piled on top of each other for the two years before being killed. Of those five chickens, four will suffer broken bones by the time they are hung on the slaughter line. These are five individuals who each experienced every moment of their waking lives. American factory farms "processed" 9.8 billion such individuals in 1999, according to the USDA.

As one who respects the interdependent web of existence, I believe I am called to become aware of, to challenge, and to withdraw from participation in systems that cause such unnecessary suffering. I now strive to avoid purchasing animal food products. My transition to vegetarianism was initially unsettling, but our religion should be unsettling.

I've been surprised to learn how many Unitarians and Universalists have answered the call to concern for animals, and through their honest exploration have changed their attitudes, their perspectives, and their actions. Charles Darwin's discoveries led him to remark that the difference between humans and other animals "certainly is one of degree and not of kind." That's a morally loaded statement. A similar understanding led Unitarian Henry Bergh to found the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1866. The famous New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, a devout Universalist, became one of Bergh's strongest supporters. Henry David Thoreau advocated vegetarianism in Walden, writing, "[Humanity] can and does live, in great measure, by preying on other animals; but this is a miserable way.... I have no doubt that it is part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals."

These spiritual ancestors inspire me not only in the answers they found, but also in their struggle to find answers. They honored the tugging prophetic call they felt when it would have been easier simply to turn away from difficult questions.

The seventh principle we affirm leads us to ask: Are you and I in right relation with the animals in our lives? How can we learn more about the larger realities in which we participate, as we are called to do as religious people? How can we explore and grow and heal, and not let these questions slip back below the surface?

The seventh principle is not a vague sentiment. It contains a prophetic call. I am striving to develop the courage it takes not only to hear but also to swim out to meet that call. In so striving, I feel I am participating in the holy. In the act and consciousness of engagement, and even resistance, there comes a great joy, not unlike that of swimming with brother and sister dolphins.

John Millspaugh, a member of First Parish UU in Cambridge, Massachusetts, will receive two master's degrees in May, from Harvard Divinity School and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He is at work on a book tentatively titled Unitarian Universalists and Other Animals.

UU World XV:2 (May/June 2001): 12-14.

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