The Soul of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human

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Overview

As profiled in the New York Times Magazine…

Based on the author’s twenty-five years of experience as a veterinarian and veterinary behaviorist, The Soul of All Living Creatures delves into the inner lives of animals – from whales, wolves, and leopards to mice, dogs, and cats – and explores the relationships we forge with them.
 
As an emergency room clinician four years out of veterinary school, Dr. ...

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The Soul of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human

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Overview

As profiled in the New York Times Magazine…

Based on the author’s twenty-five years of experience as a veterinarian and veterinary behaviorist, The Soul of All Living Creatures delves into the inner lives of animals – from whales, wolves, and leopards to mice, dogs, and cats – and explores the relationships we forge with them.
 
As an emergency room clinician four years out of veterinary school, Dr. Vint Virga had a life-changing experience: he witnessed the power of simple human contact and compassion to affect the recovery of a dog struggling to survive after being hit by a car.  Observing firsthand the remarkably strong connection between humans and animals inspired him to explore the world from the viewpoint of animals and taught him to respect the kinship that connects us.

With The Soul of All Living Creatures, Virga draws from his decades in veterinary practice to reveal how, by striving to perceive the world as animals do, we can enrich our own appreciation of life, enhance our character, nurture our relationships, improve our communication with others, reorder our values, and deepen our grasp of spirituality.  Virga discerningly illuminates basic traits shared by both humans and animals and makes animal behavior meaningful, relevant, and easy to understand.  Insightful and eloquent, The Soul of All Living Creatures offers an intimate journey into the lives of our fellow creatures and a thought-provoking promise of what we can learn from spending time with them.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

It has been said that much of history before Darwin involved humans working hard to distance themselves from animals. Since then, that trend has abated; in fact, recent studies and memoirs have emphasized our kinship with creatures that our ancestors preferred to regard as alien; few, if any, as touching as this compassionate book by a long-practicing veterinarian. Vint Virga's The Soul of All Living Creatures invites us into the inner lives of animals both domestic and wild. Thus, he writes about the behavior of not only dogs and cats, but also that of whales, wolves, and mice. Coupling his personal observations with the research of others, Virga shows us that animals can indeed teach us vital things about being human.

Publishers Weekly
How is it that animals so touch our hearts? A specialist in veterinary behavioral medicine, Virga probes these and other questions in this beguiling but unremarkable foray into the lessons we can learn from animals. Each chapter focuses on a particular trait—connection, sensitivity, mindfulness to adaptability, forgiveness, presence, and others—and the author regales readers with stories of animals who exhibit such traits. For example, in his reflections on integrity, Virga shares the story of a captive clouded leopard named Sakari and two domestic cats, Pandora and Persephone, concluding that if we “take notice of where we limit their lives, we can better see how we set limits on ourselves.” Animals can also teach us to express ourselves fully, both verbally and nonverbally; when we are mindful of our body language, and that of others, as well as the pitch of our voice and use of language, we can connect with others more deliberately and effectively. Though Virga is passionate about his work, he offers few new insights. Agent: Rebecca Gradinger, Fletcher & Co. (July)
Kirkus Reviews
A veterinarian who specializes in behavioral medicine examines the spiritual bond between humans and their pets. In the early years of Virga's career, when he specialized in emergency medicine, he was struck by the way his animal patients responded to the warmth of human contact. He experienced a life-changing moment while treating a dog in shock, and that led him to change his specialty. Exhausted, he slumped down beside the animal, and as the dog nuzzled against him, its vital signs improved. In the years that followed, Virga came to believe in the deep roots of our human connection to animals. "What I see in their eyes is my own reflection…we share much more than we recognize," he writes. Two out of three Americans own pets, which they treat as members of their family, best friends and confidants. In addition to broadening our perspective, they "embrace a part of our human nature that's as vital to us as our hearts and minds." Virga, who describes numerous instances from his practice, is convinced by his own experiences and modern research that "animals' neurons are very much the same as ours, generating images, emotions, memories and thoughts." That animal neuroses are also similar to those of humans--e.g., dogs with obsessive-compulsive disorder who obsessively bite their tails--is further proof. The kinship that we feel with animals, writes the author, "comes from our souls connecting with theirs." They help us focus on the moment and experience the "heights of joy as well as heartwrenching depths of sorrow," and they make us feel more connected to "the greater world in which we live." An insightful affirmation of our love of animals.
From the Publisher
2014 SILVER NAUTILUS AWARD WINNER

“Intriguing... a winning work for all those whose lives have been deepened and enriched by soulful contact with their pets and other animals.” Spirituality and Practice

“This book is a thoroughly engaging and thoughtful consideration of the ways in which humans can benefit from closer attention to the ways of animals.” Bark magazine

“Dr. Virga explores our profound connection to animals–from dogs and cats to whales and wolves. Drawing on decades of practice, he demonstrates how by attempting to perceive the world from the perspective of animals, we can enrich our own appreciation of life, improve our relationships and communication, re-examine our values and deepen our spirituality.” Animal Wellness magazine

“Enjoyable and electrifying reading.” The Inquisitive Mind

“Virga discerningly illuminates basic traits shared by both humans and animals and makes animal behavior meaningful, relevant, and easy to understand. Insightful and eloquent, The Soul of All Living Creatures offers an intimate journey into the lives of our fellow creatures and a thought-provoking promise of what we can learn from spending time with them.” The Edge

“Part animal primer, part detective tale, part existential treatise, veterinary behavioral medicine expert Vint Virga's new book takes us in the minds and motivations of our four-legged friends, and reveals what their actions can show us about ourselves (if we stop to pay attention) ... just as apt for the Personal Growth as the Nature section of the bookstore.” Animal Sheltering

The Soul of All Living Creatures is an inspiring, joyful, uplifting account of the magical bonds between humans and the earth’s creatures.  This book conveys a profound message: We are part of a larger web of life that we must honor, or risk grave consequences.  Thank you, Dr. Virga, for reminding us of this crucial fact.”
—Larry Dossey, MD, author of Reinventing Medicine and One Mind

“Many books celebrate our connection with animals, but the best of them bring that connection to life in a way that truly changes how we see ourselves. Vint Virga's understanding of animals is deep and hard-won, and this haunting, enormously insightful book reflects that on every page.” —Ptolemy Tompkins, author of The Divine Life of Animals

“A beautiful, wise, and inspiring book that will greatly enrich your relationship with all the animals in your life, including the human ones.” —John Robbins, author of The Food Revolution and Diet For A New America

“In his passionate and convincing book, Dr. Virga has taken our understanding of animals a great step further. He helps us see that they are not like us, they are very different, and through powerful and affecting anecdotes with a wide range of species, he shows us what we can learn from them, from acceptance to communication to spirituality. An important and overdue book, beautifully rendered and valuable for anyone who loves animals.” —Jon Katz, author of Dancing Dogs

“Virga’s book is a captivating collection of stories that demonstrate the deep connections possible between humans and nonhumans.  Few veterinarians have had the range of his experience, and the descriptions of how he learns to relate to the many different species in his care are truly enlightening.” —Irene Pepperberg, author of Alex & Me

The Soul of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human by noted veterinarian and animal behaviorist Dr. Vint Virga profoundly delivers on what the title promises. His voice is both intimate and informative, and his collection of stories reads more like a compelling novel than an anecdotal collection. This book takes the reader from smiles to laughter to empathy and tears, then ultimately to a clear perception of how understanding animals can make us better human beings. This is a must-read not only for animal lovers but also for those looking to create a life of compassion for ourselves and others.” —Nancy Ellis-Bell, author of The Parrot Who Thought She Was a Dog and co-author of A Man For All Species

“An insightful affirmation of our love of animals.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Animal lovers will appreciate this tribute to the connection between humans and animals.” —Booklist

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307718860
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/9/2013
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 163,374
  • Product dimensions: 5.88 (w) x 8.32 (h) x 1.01 (d)

Meet the Author

DR. VINT VIRGA is a distinguished practitioner and leader in veterinary behavioral medicine.  He consults nationally to zoos and wildlife parks, private corporations, and professional organizations on the care and well-being of animals and has appeared as featured guest on ABC World News, PBS's Nature, and National Geographic Explorer.
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Read an Excerpt

1

Connection

If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.

—­Ted Perry

From birth, even before we’ve begun to focus on what lies beyond our grasp, a world of strange and wonderful creatures gathers together to watch over us: soft bunny faces on plush baby blankets snuggle with us as we lie in our cribs; stuffed teddy bears with bow ties and peacoats stand at the ready to help ease our fears; animal alphabets, murals with monkeys, and paintings of elephants hang on our walls, inspiring us to think and dream and look beyond the world we know. And at last when it’s bedtime, as we drift to sleep, Winnie-­the-­Pooh, Peter Rabbit, Babar, and a parade of storybook characters spring from the pages with lives of their own to become endearing childhood friends, their tales retold on countless evenings.

Though children may set aside these companions (except, perhaps, with the closest of friends) in their urgency to feel more grown up, as adults we very much interweave animals into the fabric of our lives, inspiring new symbols that still captivate us. The cars we drive and sports teams we cheer for invoke their image in using their names with visions of emulating some special trait: the stealth of Tigers, speed of Mustangs, sting of Hornets, or strength of Bulls. From the stalwart elk of the Hartford Group to the sleek, fluid borzoi of Alfred Knopf, icons of animals spark in our minds lasting impressions that span generations. In truth, who among us does not feel some longing—­an impulse to walk out on life as we know it (if merely for only a week or two)—­to flee to some destination down under simply by seeing the Qantas kangaroo?

What underlies this attraction to animals? Why are we humans so drawn to them? How is it that animals so touch our hearts merely by our naming them, seeing their picture? Why do their images echo inside us, move and inspire us to dare dreaming bigger, leaving impressions for most of our lives? Is the grip they hold on our cultural programming instilled by logos and ad campaigns or, perhaps, just a matter of constant exposure, beginning at the earliest age?

I believe our connection is rooted much deeper: lit by a spark before childhood memories, more profound than a yearning for superhuman traits, beyond the comfort we find in their touch, their listening ears, or their steady gaze.

What I see in their eyes is my own reflection and a sense that we share more than we recognize. The people and creatures I see in my practice share a bond that defies any logic or reason that explains what it is that they do to our lives. As I sit in between them and look back and forth from human to animal, in a very real sense I am watching a struggle that has occupied humans since our species began.

Outside the village of Vallon-­Pont-­d’arc in the Rhône-­Alpes region of southern France, the Ardèche River flows through sheer cliff canyons flanked by muted gray limestone walls. On a narrow terrace overlooking the valley lies the entrance to the Grotte Chauvet, a vast primordial underground cavern that shelters some of man’s earliest art. Once a lair for Stone Age cave bears (the size of modern Kodiak bears), Chauvet in its floor holds their pawmarks and scratches and is littered with bony remains of their prey.

As we look to the walls a different picture unfolds. Trekking back from the ledge lined with scrub oak and ivy and into the mountain for a quarter of a mile, through a labyrinth of breathtaking chambers and galleries, is like plunging backward into the last ice age. Well after the cave bears abandoned the cavern for the tundra and steppe with spring in full bloom, the earliest humans ventured into Chauvet for some unknown reason and left a collection that transcends all time between then and now. Each painting, now thirty thousand years old, in its own right is a masterpiece—­strikingly rich in style, depth, and form—­which viewed together capture scenes from a world that footprints, pawmarks, fragments of bones, and carbon dating can’t begin to convey.

More than four hundred animals that then roamed the continent—­with one human figure, a Venus, in their midst—­come to life on the walls singly and in panels. But beyond their artistry, what separates them from their brethren found in other caves lies in which creatures the artists portrayed. Aside from the prey then most hunted by humans (reindeer, horses, ibex, and bison), the walls feature many more dangerous species—­lions, rhinos, cave bears, and panthers, among other predators that once roamed outside. Yet, what stands out clearly and, perhaps, is most telling of what brought these artists inside Chauvet, is that the paintings do not depict a fear of these creatures, but instead celebrate their vitality.

The blink of a horse’s eyes. A thrust of a rhino’s head threatening to charge. The outward stare of a pride of cave lions, furtively stalking and ready to pounce. Scraping layers of clay to uncover the limestone, sketching and adding dimension in charcoal, painting in pigments with nuance and shading, the artists inspired their creatures to life. In the flickering torchlight, with blackness around them and their breath alone breaking the silence of the cave, the painters descended the depths of the earth to focus their vision on animals: their behaviors and patterns, the life force within them, and a sense of the deep-­rooted kinship we share. In spite of a rock slide ten thousand years later that cached them in rubble for twenty thousand more, these paintings convey Chauvet’s sacred importance as a place where man pondered his connection with animals.

Around the world, from culture to culture, our histories, traditions, and lifestyles as humans intrinsically mingle with animals’ lives and many times depend upon them—­for giving us food, clothing our bodies, and hauling our belongings around the countryside. Yet, at the end of the day, once their roles are fulfilled, we still feel a sense of connection to them. That perennial place that they hold in our psyche, the strength of their image we cherish as symbols, the parts that they play day-­to-­day in our lives: All exist because of our kinship with them. As our ancestors found in the Grotte Chauvet, we are drawn to bring animals into our lives because we see ourselves reflected in them.

Though, no doubt, the creatures we see now are different from those that once roamed the steppes outside Chauvet, it seems we are no less beguiled by their presence. Nearly two out of every three American families currently share their homes with pets. This amounts to an impressive 90 million cats, 74 million dogs, 151 million fish, 13 million reptiles, 16 million birds, and 24 million small mammals of sorts. Joining this impressively popular tribe, four million families own one or more horses, with three out of four horses living steps from their doors.

Reaching much further than the walls of our homes, we thrill at the chance of finding wildlife in nature. Impressions of paw prints emerge from the brambles, wander across our path, and lead off into the shadows. A fresh pile of scat with a few tufts of fur buzzes with flies at the edge of the trail. Claw marks in tree trunks so deep that we can’t fathom the strength of a bear's paw swipe command our attention. Dare we go further? Due caution forewarns us . . . but the thought is enticing.

Craving more contact than we find in nature, 143 million guests flock to zoos and wild animal parks each year in North America. On paved-­road safaris through mock African savannahs, dark winding trails in lush aviary glens, and footpaths weaving back and forth between a maze of habitats past impalas, kangaroos, zebras, and bears, we at last catch a glimpse of our favorite creatures, even if we stand apart behind a fence or across a moat.

On a drive up the freeway to a conference in Boston, I smile as my mind drifts to what lies ahead—­not as much to the meetings as where I’ll be staying—­a chance to return to a favorite haunt, the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel. My delight in this grand old dame lies not in her history or stately decor, but instead in my times spent there with an old friend. The first time I entered the hotel lobby, Catie greeted me with the same doe-­eyed look I’ve come to expect every time I see her. Raised as a puppy since seven weeks old to serve as a guide dog for the blind, she came to the Fairmont as a two-­year-­old Lab after a screening before her adoption revealed a small cataract in her left eye. Though her vision then, as now, was essentially sound—­aside from the tiniest error, at times, when tracking a ball tossed high in the air—­it disqualified her as a seeing-­eye dog. Hired as the Copley Plaza’s canine ambassador, with an e­mail address, appointment book, and business cards of her very own, Catie commands a devoted clientele for jogs to the commons, walks round the square, or strolls through the shops of Newbury Street. For me, my day just seems to flow better knowing most times I end up in the lobby, there’s a good chance I’ll find her there patiently waiting—­ready to offer a welcoming wag, a kindhearted face, and a tummy for petting.

A travel-­weary, bedraggled couple, spent from their flight and with bags still in hand, set all aside to crouch down by Catie and linger awhile, petting her on the rug before, at long last, going up to their room. A middle-­aged man in a trim business suit on his way to a meeting room somewhere downstairs risks wrinkles and dog hair on his pants, sleeves, and coat in exchange for a moment to nuzzle with her. The flush, tear-­stained cheeks of a young red-­haired girl—­perhaps five years old—­not wanting to go home break with a smile as Catie leans into her arms. As I watch from a corner, in the course of an hour, a stream of admirers shower Catie with affection. With an open-­armed ease saved for familiar friends, they speak to her with blissed squeals of excitement, cooing oohs and baby talk, and softly murmured confidences. Furrowed brows wrinkled with worry and stress softly melt as her eyes meet theirs and she gazes at them with unguarded acceptance. One after another, the change is uncanny.

We reach out to people as well as animals out of a longing we hold deep within to not be alone, to share what we feel, to relate in some way to the world around us. We yearn to be accepted for who we are, warts and all. We spend much of our lives in an unfolding saga, sorting among all the others we meet to find those who we believe best understand us, with whom we can feel free to just be ourselves. Yet with animals, I find, we do so quite differently.

By their sides we let down our guard and show them more of who we are.

Within the shelter of our own homes, one-­half to two-­thirds of us look on our pets as full-fledged family members. We speak of our pets as if they’re our children, invite them into our beds with us, celebrate their birthdays, take them on vacations, and even chat to them on the phone as we leave messages on the answering machine. While we all talk to animals in one way or other, an astounding 94 percent of us speak to them as if they were human. And more than 90 percent affirm that our pets indeed respond in turn to our human fancies, emotions, and moods. By the same token, just as many believe our pets share human personality traits, such as being inquisitive, outgoing, or shy. Considering how we regard our connection with them, perhaps it’s not surprising at all that slightly more than half of us would willingly risk our lives for our pets, and even more believe that our pets would devotedly rescue us.

Based on the findings from a recent survey, should fate somehow leave us for the rest of our days on an island living with one single companion, most of us would choose a dog or cat above a human (stranger, family, or even best friend). Perhaps even more telling, when asked, “Who listens to you best?” almost half of us confess that we feel most heard by our animal companions. And yet, though these may seem remarkable statistics, from the close bonds I’ve forged with my clients through the years—­the stories they’ve shared, the relationships I’ve studied, the ties that I’ve witnessed between people and their pets—­I simply accept them as a matter of truth.

Why would we choose to spend the rest of our lives with a pet as our partner instead of a person? How does an animal, simply with their presence, bring us more comfort than the arms of a friend? Why do we feel other species listen better, understand our emotions, and attend to our feelings more than our fellow human beings do?

I believe the answers to these questions lie in the sense of belonging we feel in the company of other creatures. In the presence of animals, we find true acceptance. Unlike with our peers, we feel no need to explain ourselves. Alone with them, our self-­consciousness dissolves. With radios turned up as we drive down the freeway, we croon, trill, or belt out our songs with abandon, mindless of our dog panting in the seat behind us. Stepping from the shower to dry ourselves on the bathroom mat, we stand stark naked toweling off despite the gaze of our loitering cat. Upset and shaken by a fight with a friend, with our dog in our lap closely snuggled in our arms, we let the tears roll down our cheeks and confess to them where we went wrong.

We trust less conditionally in the bonds we share with animals. Unfettered by the judgments of others, in their silent presence we feel free to be ourselves. In place of solutions or answers to our questions, we gratefully welcome their quiet attention. Whether joining them in silence or relying on our words, we sense their regard for our thoughts and feelings. And we respond to our animals in kind.

Each day in my practice, I witness this kinship tested and proven strong time and again. Perhaps even more than with medical issues, the behavioral concerns that lead my clients to me challenge the very essence of what binds them to their animals. The zookeeper ambushed each day by the emu and the client whose cat howls all through the night share a desire to heal the bond that, somehow, has changed from what it once was. In their stories, filled with hours of struggles and worries, I hear their devotion to care for their animals. The lines on their faces and the look in their eyes convey without words the connection they share and how precious it is to them in their lives.

Regardless of how many years I have practiced, the faces of clients often linger in my thoughts not for the details involving their cases, but instead for the bond they shared with their animals and the lessons they taught me about that connection. Among those I’ve worked with who come to mind often, William and Margaret Robinson stand out for their selfless acceptance of their beloved Prudence and the ties they shared through the course of her life.

I’d first met the Robinsons at their front door after they’d called less than one week before, desperate to see me as soon as they could. It appeared from their story, as Margaret explained, that Prudence, their twelve-­year-­old calico cat, had switched personalities just overnight, though she’d never done so before in her life. After a week though, she hadn’t changed back—­not that they’d really believed she would—­and Margaret and William didn’t know what to do.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 23, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Good insight into how and why animals act as they do

    For those of us who believe animals are more than just soulless creatures who inhabit the earth, THIS IS A MUST READ ! The writer describes how he went from standard veterinarian medicine to behavioral therapy and why. His stories and how he treats his patients will confirm to those who believe animals are more, and quite possibly convince some others of the belief. As in human medicine the practice of veterinarian medicine can be as much of an art form based on scientific fact, except this doctors patients cannot tell him where it hurts. If you read this book it may well challenge your belief on this topic. I recommend it highly !

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2014

    Highly Recommended

    A wonderful story teller who truly loves animals. Dr. Virga is an exceptionally close observer of his patients and demonstrates again and again how each one possesses a unique personality, different from all others and how much we have in common with all the creatures of the earth. You will come away from this book not looking at animals the same way again and wishing that Dr. Virga was your vet and that your own doctors were more like him. I love this book. I also hope that the doctor is a vegan because all of his insights and observations are applicable to farm animals as well.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 25, 2013

    I loved this book. It is definitely a book to read and reread. I

    I loved this book. It is definitely a book to read and reread. I have not yet come across a book that blends together so beautifully the impact that animals have on us with the spiritual messages we all need to remember.  It has a much deeper underlying message than just a book about animals. Or just a book about spirituality. The author reminds us that lessons are in front of us all the time. And we can especially learn them from animals. And the beauty of animals is they are everywhere. From the dog who relishes sticking his nose out the window. To learning forgiveness from a pair of cats. To remember to live, truly live and experience life. Animals are so present. I encourage you to read this book and allow the stories to help you remember what is important in life; remember to live; remember to be authentic. Animals are here to remind us of this everyday and the author does an amazing job through his stories, experiences and true connection to animals helping us see our connection.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 30, 2014

    * I would have given this book 2 1/2 stars but it is not availab

    * I would have given this book 2 1/2 stars but it is not available*

    Beautifully wrote book that reminds us of the importance of animals in our lives. They are our companions, our comfort in times of sorrow, our friend in times of joy, our protector in times of trouble and our family above all us. Inspiring and passionate book that teaches us how to embrace life, grow in character and morality, and how to gain insight into what is truly valuable and precio

    It was fascinating to read the authors take of basic traits that we share with animals. Really intriguing and eye opening. I enjoyed reading about the impact Dr. Virga has on improvements made to the zoos for a better quality of living for all animals. I would love one day to walk into a zoo and not see concrete surrounding the animals, but more free roam, natural habitats. Small improvements are being made, but we have a long way to go still. The whole time I read this book I kept thinking about the documentary I watched on Sea World and how the mother wales cry for their children and will actually chase after the boats that take them. Heart breaking. I do not agree with everything that the author wrote though. Dogs and wolves do run in packs and there is always a alpha.

    There are a couple negative thing I can say about this book. One is that I would have appreciated more practical tips and application on how to deal with some of the issues that are brought up. Secondly, I feel the author took some personal opinions about animals and tried to turn them into facts based on non-scientific evidence. Although for me this was a bit of a boring book it was still wrote beautifully and despite the writing style his message is a beautiful one. You can feel the authors love for animals and how desperate he is to convey that love through these pages.

    Other than that I can recommend it to animal lovers everywhere that are into new age type philosophy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 11, 2014

    Like

    I like it so much.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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