Thursday, August 16, 2012

Was that Pooch an Angel?

Was that pooch an angel? A good question to ask today, during the Feast of Saint Roch, who was once helped by an angel taking the form of a dog.

This Italian saint of the 1300s caught the plague while nursing the sick during an outbreak -- a time when doctors often ran away from the filthy germ-ridden medieval cities along with panicked citizens. At that critical point, the story goes, an angel took the form of a dog and licked a plague sore on Roch's thigh. 

However, in other stories like this one, the animal helper is not a disguised angel but just inspired by a higher power to assist -- as when the out-of-favor Hebrew prophet Elijah flees to the desert and is fed by ravens. 

Both explanations crop up in modern tales, such as women facing would-be attackers -- who are suddenly escorted by a guard dog out of nowhere, shadowing them until they reach safety, then disappearing. 

In fact, a third explanation for animal altruism also is made: Sometimes, it seems that the animal itself in spirit form may have returned to the physical world. During a radio interview in the early 1990s in Seattle, a paramedic told me that he was led to a wrecked car where a driver lay trapped -- led there by a yellow lab whose dead body was later found in the vehicle's rear seat. Thanks to the dog, its master was rescued.