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September 1998
Angels of Mercy

Book Review by Terri Lujan



Animal Angels: Amazing Acts of Love and Compassion by Stephanie Laland (Berkeley: Conari, 1998). $12.95 paperback. 218 pages

Stephanie Laland's Animal Angels is a collection of 19 short stories demonstrating the acts of kindness and compassion which animals bestow on their owners, strangers and animals of different species. Ms. Laland's use of the term "angels" in describing the animals in her book is appropriate. Indeed, these animals, including cats, dogs, birds, horses, monkeys and, yes, even rats, show such incredible unconditional feeling when performing their various good deeds that a more suitable term could not be found.

There are several wonderful stories of rats (!) saving lives. A West Virginia coal miner befriended a rat while working in the coal mines, sharing his lunch with him day after day. A day arrived when the usually complacent rat was extremely nervous and began running around in such a state of anxiety that the miner stopped working and followed his little friend to see what the problem was. Within moments, the ceiling of the room in which the miner was working collapsed. Had the rat not sensed this danger, the miner would have been killed instantly. In another instance, a rat "warned" a clergyman to leave his home just before it went up in flames. The rat went directly to the sleeping man and bit his cheek to awaken him to the smell of fire.

The author relates how animal trainer Ralph Helfer works with animals such as lions and bears using a method called "affection training." His success in this fashion made possible movies like The Bear and The Lion. Mr. Helfer's methods are simple: infuse the animals with love. It is unnecessary to use savage methods to force animals to do humans' bidding. There is a lovely story of a cowboy who was going blind. His fear that he would no longer be able to ride the range devastated him. Thanks to his faithful companion, a horse named Shotgun, he now continues his work, although blind, with Shotgun more attuned to him than ever before.

Animal Angels also provides numerous examples of animals defending and caring for others not of their species, even those who are natural enemies. Laland tells of a tale when two robins saved the life of a young rabbit. Another story brought tears to my eyes. When a dog noticed his companion (another dog) very ill and dying, he accompanied him outside in a terrible rainstorm and waited out the night with him. The dog who stayed with his friend was ill himself but never gave a thought to his own well being.

There are the usual stories of animals saving their owners' lives but it is always heart-warming to read them. One family owned a small Staffordshire Bull Terrier. who, without hesitation, died saving the life of his owner when four armed strangers attacked her. There are poignant quotes throughout the book, from among others, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gilda Radner and Walt Whitman. A quote by Dostoevski states that "compassion is the highest form of human existence." What a wonderful virtue that animals already possess this gift.

Animal Angels is a book which should be in every household to be read and re-read. It is a book to be shared with those who can learn the message which our animal friends are trying to impart to us. I think Tippi Hedren masterfully sums up this book by calling it "a lovely tribute to all creatures great and small."

Terri Lujan is a long time animal activist. She works as a Program Administrator during the day for a health organization geared to women. Her dream is to be able to own a home specifically to care for abused and abandoned animals.



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