(For several years on the Internet there has been a feature of two different outdoor church bulletin boards, which carry on a fervent debate over the contention: ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN. Though the signs were created as an Internet hoax, they prompted me to share a column and broadcast I did on WOR-New York in 1986, which won the Delta Society Award.)

Decades ago, when he was first beginning to branch into international evangelism, Billy Graham was in the United Kingdom, for one of his earlier crusades. One of those who came forward was a little girl, who asked if she could ask the evangelist a question. And this was arranged.

The youngster seems very upset. She explained that her puppy had just died – and that her father had said that her idea, that there was room in heaven for any animal, was all wrong. What did Billy Graham think?

“Tell your father that he’s right,” replied the evangelist.

“We’re too busy with humans to worry about dogs.”

I don’t believe – at least I haven’t heard – that Billy Graham has ever again dealt with this sort of bereavement with such pseudo-orthodox cruelty. And not simply because I read a news report about this incident on the other side of the world, in California.

If Billy Graham wasn’t concerned about animals at that stage of his ministry, his attitude then was surely unbiblical. For there are 39 different animals mentioned in the Bible – and there are repeated verses of Holy Scripture that enjoin the love of animals – just as there are verses that speak of God’s concern and love for animals.

For example:

The 50th Psalm affirms that “every beast of the field is mine,” while the book of Proverbs notes: “A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast.” One of the Hebrew prophets named Joel has two references to animals: “The beasts of the field cry unto Thee,” and “Be not afraid, ye beasts of the field.”

And from Jesus of Nazareth: “Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings – and not one of them is forgotten before God.”

I remember once searching six books of theology for any reference to animals – and finding nothing. But then I cam to “Nature, Man and God,” written by the great theologian/philosopher, Archbishop of Canterbury Richard Temple.

Archbishop Temple wrote of deep concern for the suffering of animals – at the end of what Disney films calls “Nature,” and which can sometimes be horrendous. Archbishop Temple noted that the suffering of animals increases with their ability to realize consciousness – which is why we can’t imagine a jellyfish suffering as much as a horse; or an amoeba as much as an eagle. A cow approaching the slaughterhouse worries at the scent of death – a fly does not.

So often with human beings, those who suffer physically and emotionally have displayed great gifts, like Beethoven, composing his immortal Ninth, perhaps the greatest symphony in world history – and being unable, in his being deaf, to hear it performed on this side of eternity.

“Does my dog have a soul?” is a question that has been pondered by millions of dog owners of every age, who, like I, have loved these creatures of God very deeply.

When we read those recurrent news stories of large estates left to assure good treatment of a beloved pet, it may seem bizarre, but in most of such cases, this pet was the only living creature that gave total affection and loyalty to the deceased, in that terrible mental hell of total loneliness.

Someone realized this in posting a sign along a highway: “THE ONLY LOVE THAT MONEY CAN BUY: PUPPIES.”

The idea of animals having souls is often ridiculed by some theologians, just as the concept of a heaven for all those animals mentioned in the Holy Scripture. But surely cruelty to animals is evil in Judeo-Christian ethics. And, is the idea that a dog has the canine equivalent of a soul any more outlandish than the once-scandalous idea that God even loves Samaritans and Gentiles, too?

What is a soul? It cannot be proven or demonstrated by either mathematical or chemical formula – any more than love can. But my concept of a soul is: all of a being except the physical; the character and the personality.

On that criterion, I have known dogs who definitely had souls. They are different from any human being, yet certainly not outside the love of God who created them.

And if some of the theologians opt to smirk at this belief, I can recall that one of history’s most widely beloved saints had no such low esteem for animals – with whom he is usually pictured, or sculpted, there in Assisi.

There are few things that Sen. George McGovern has ever said or done with which I agreed, but when his enormously congenial and enthusiastic Newfoundland, named “Atticus,” became so ill that he had to be put to sleep, this one-time candidate for the presidency of the United States wrote, and the Washington Post published, what I regard as one of the most moving tributes and beautiful memoirs I have ever read. It was entitled, “The Life and Death of a Family Friend.”

Sixteen hundred years ago, St. Basil, the bishop of Ceasarea, wrote the following prayer about animals:

“And for these also, dear Lord,
a humble beast
who with us bear the burden and heat of the day
and offer their guileless lives for the
well-being of their country
we supplicate thy great tenderness of heart,
for Thou has promised to save both man and beast
And great is thy lovingkindness, O Master,
Savior of the world.”

More than half a century has past since the occasion when I took my 5-year-old daughter Laura to a Walt Disney movie called “Parry.” It was about a family of squirrels. I’ve never forgotten when one of that family was caught and killed by a predator, how my daughter wept – and how that made me weep, too.

Her love of animals has grown through the years. And it brought into our home the most unforgettable dog I have ever known.

We already had two dogs. She brought him as a puppy, with huge oversized paws, and pleaded to keep him. He was three-quarters Labrador, and one-quarter Dalmatian; which I can now affirm is the most devastating amalgamation since nitroglycerin. He took one look at me – and I was hooked. He and Laura overwhelmed me.

Those in the blessed company known as the owners of Labradors will attest that in all zoology there is nothing that can quite match or exceed the absolute tidal waves of affection emanating from Labrador Retrievers.

At the same time, the one-quarter Dalmatian provided him with enormous high spirits. I have never seen or heard of a more enthusiastic dog than Brandon. The Dalmatian in him made him love to go with us in the car, where he would sit in the front seat, his white speckled chest and white paws suggesting he was on his way to a black-tie dinner. My wife, Sylvia, and I have both had dreams of Brandon driving the car.

He adored retrieving anything thrown. And on our daily walks he would dislodge dead trees, grasp them in his big jaws, and trot by us, proudly; his tail waving about like a radio arial, with just a tuft of white at the end, which provided hilarious flair.

Brandon had a bark that could be heard a block away, and that was the greatest sort of reassurance when we heard from the FBI that the Rev. Jim Jones of Jonestown had put me as No. 2 on his hit list – and that he had organized death squads. For anyone unknown to Brandon who put foot on our property was confronted by that tremendous bark.

Then, when Brandon was 10 years old – and growing into old age for a big dog – he began losing his voice; his bark and all the rest of the expressive noises and irresistible expressions which made him part of our family; one who stood guard when our lives were threatened.

He had developed an enlarged esophagus, which meant he could hold down only part of his food. Twice he contracted pneumonia and finally he lost that inimitable voice of his altogether.

No longer was he inclined to look at me and cock his head to the side – something in the manner in which President Reagan so often overwhelmed his news conferences – and the way that Brandon regularly reduced me to putty in this paws. Brandon was in constant hunger, often with an inability to walk, an almost terrifying listlessness and constant congestion of his lungs. His eyes, which once flashed, became painful to look at for those of us who loved him.

One morning my daughter Laura, who first brought Brandon into our lives, made the most unbearable decision to “let him go,” as put it, so poignantly. And while she is now happily married and a psychiatric nurse, I saw her weep – just as I remember her in that theater years ago – when she returned from the veterinarian’s office without him.

For my daughter, and for all those who have suffered bereavement in losing such a beloved friend – an animal whose return affection is complete, without guile and without reservation; there is St. Basil’s great affirmation:

“For Thou has promised to save both man and beast.”

On that, and on St. Francis, and on so much in the Bible, including Jesus and his assurance that even a sparrow is not forgotten before God, did I commend this beloved friend, Brandon, to the Everlasting Arms.

Therefore are they before the throne of God
and serve Him day and night in his temple
they shall hunger no more – neither shall they thirst
for the lamb, which sitteth in the midst of the throne
shall lead them into living fountains of waters
and God shall wipe away all tears from our eyes.

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