After reading some positive Amazon reviews, I thought this book looked interesting. So when I saw it in a charity shop, I snapped it up. This is one time where it might have paid to read the back cover more closely, for then I would have learned that Jenny Smedley is a columnist for magazines such as "Love it!" Now, I don't want to be snobby about such publications... but I can't help it. Reading this book was essentially like reading a bumper issue of "spiritual pets" in a trashy magazine; all presented with absolutely no scepticism or questioning.
I'm sure some people might enjoy Jenny Smedley's conversational style of writing, but I found all the comments of "you know" and "don't get me wrong" etc made my brain hurt. It was like having a conversation about spirituality with your extremely suggestible next door neighbour over the garden fence. Many stories were rounded off with a "There, you see! That PROVES it!" footnote.
She does attempt to get a bit scientific by addressing sceptics' concerns, saying that they would argue that animals don't have souls because, "if you show an animal a reflection of itself in the mirror, it won't recognise what it's looking at." But, she explains, "people look in a mirror for two reasons - to admire themselves or to try and change the way they look... animals simply never consider how they look and they're not curious about it, so generally there's no point in them recognising themselves in a mirror. "
Well, that's that sorted then. For a self proclaimed animal lover, you'd have thought she might have seen some of those youtube videos of puppies or kittens attempting to play with their reflections, or peeking behind the mirror to find the other animal. I may not be the most scientific type, but even I know that recognising your reflection is something that only happens at a certain stage of development - which is why babies and MOST animals can't do it. However, I don't think anyone is using this as an example of why infants don't have souls. Incidentally, as Jenny later points out, chimpanzees do pass the mirror test. With a quick google search, she would have discovered that bottlenose dolphins, orcas, elephants and magpies can also recognise themselves. (By the way, this isn't even the whole list - and I imagine, there are many animals which have not yet been tested.)
The book is divided into chapters such as "Spirit pets" (those which have died and return to comfort their owners) "Guardian pets" (such as the dead horse who whinnied in order to warn his owners that the barn was on fire) and "Pets that return" - the writer herself has a dog which she believes is the reincarnation of one of her former dogs.
Helpfully, the final chapter explains how to communicate with your own pet, presumably so they can miaow from beyond the grave to let you know the winning lottery numbers. (FYI, it boils down to relaxing and then asking your pet questions, such as "What is your favourite food?" in the hope that the answer will psychically pop into your head. Jenny points out that animals gaze at us intently, "almost willing us to understand them." This is true, although I'm pretty sure that the message your pooch is trying to convey is "Give me some of that delicious smelling grub," not "let's discuss some philosophy, old chap."
I am about 50% sceptical and 50% willing to go along with the ideas in this book - I see no reason to disbelieve stories of spiritual animals if we're willing to accept similar stories about human beings. I've always found it somewhat bizarre that people can happily believe that people "go to Heaven" but automatically assume that animals don't. So if this subject ever comes up in church, try them with this: If I love my cat, then either God loves her too, or I have a greater capacity for love than God does - which is impossible. See, it's simple. (Or as Jenny Smedley would say, THAT PROVES IT!)
Some of the tales described here are genuinely sweet and moving. However, the dreadful writing style and occasional ridiculous story makes the book as a whole unintentionally hilarious.
For instance, one owner of a ghostly mutt mentioned "The dogs were never allowed upstairs in the bedrooms, but now she is in spirit she has no boundaries." (Well, good luck in keeping an apparition off the sofa.)
Jenny also describes the theory of "soul configuration" - that souls begin as a huge number of "sparks" - they may start as a million blades of grass, then as they gather experience, graduate to 2.000 tadpoles, working their way up to mammals (perhaps four sheep souls), before finally becoming one human. (Am I the only person who thinks this theory is kind of insulting to animals?) She also describes flocks of birds as having a "collective soul," meaning that they have "a fragment of a soul and need the others of its group to function as a whole." I'm fairly sure anyone who has loved a pet bird would dispute this idea.
She uses the collective soul to answer that age old question "Whoever heard of a ghost ant or dinosaur?" Apparently because "an ant contains only a fraction of a soul, and therefore doesn't hang around after death, it's immediately absorbed back into the whole," and "the same would apply to early life forms such as dinosaurs." Why? It seems odd to me that the world should be awash with spectral dogs, cats and horses, while no spooky dinosaurs have ever appeared in Times Square.
This prejudice for pets is apparent again in her introduction to one anecdote; "When I got this following letter from Mimi about her tortoise, I was amazed. It just goes to show that just because an animal isn't fluffy and cuddly, that doesn't mean they don't have some soul inside." Well, that's a relief.
There are some genuinely interesting stories - we've all heard about pets who "know" when their beloved owner is coming home, but some stories can be explained by their super sensitive hearing. Not so the story of Moxy the dog, who will only relax when her master is safely home - at his university digs 50 miles away. (As he ruefully points out, this made it impossible to stay out all night without his mum knowing.) Another dog reacted oddly at the exact time his human daddy was boarding a homebound plane.
But for every fascinating story, there is one which makes you groan - such as the man who was afraid of cats - but accepted one which he believed to be the reincarnation of his dog. He describes the way this cat would growl and spit at other felines - "It was really strange, and to this day Cilla still won't tolerate another cat near me." Protective reincarnated dog, or averagely feisty kitty?
In the "About the author" section, much is made of her TV career, with one description of Jenny being introduced to a pen of semi-wild foxes "and they gathered close around her, one fox even scented on Jenny's hair to welcome her to the pack." Now, the picture in my mind may not be accurate, but it is funny.
If you're looking for books on animal spirituality, a better choice might be "When elephants weep" by Jeffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy, or any of the animal related "Chicken soup for the soul" books. If you do want to read this book, check your local Oxfam - it's where my copy is going.