By Duncan Strauss
As one measure of the quixotic charisma and mystical allure radiated by veteran veterinarian Dr. Vint Virga—without even meeting him, no less; just in his writing—allow me to re-create a scene that took place while I was reading Virga’s book, The Soul Of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human.
I was in my office, where I should have been working, but instead was sneaking more time with the final pages of The Soul Of All Living Creatures.
An enchanting book from start to finish, it deftly blends elements of memoir, case studies from Virga’s career as a behaviorist working with pets and animals in zoos, and a spiritual-oriented examination of the connection between humans and animals.
While particularly enraptured by a passage, I picked up the phone, and dialed my wife.
Me: Hi. You know, this is probably the kind of conversation we should have in person–
Her: What kind of conversation?
Me: Well, I think I’m falling in love with someone. (Pause.) It’s Vint Virga.
I was kidding, of course. But not by much.
I’m pretty certain I’m not the first person, nor the last, to have become big-time beguiled by Virga’s supreme kindness and magical manner.
I’m nearly as certain that countless animals who’ve been patients of Virga feel the same way.
That represents a lot of animals over a lot of years.
While Virga spent decades as a practicing veterinarian, it was peeling off into the behavioral side of treating animals where he found his true calling, dovetailing as it did with the potent personal quest driving him to seek knowledge and enlightenment. And I don’t mean poring over the latest medical journals.
Soft-spoken and eloquent, Virga can barely utter a word, or write a sentence, without telegraphing that he’s a deep thinker.
Indeed, you can’t help but quickly glean that Virga has forged a visionary view of animals that often prompts him to ascribe considerable depth and complexity to critters, a view that might at times seem improbable—OK, nutty—if it weren’t informed by tremendous training, extensive experience, and a keen intellect.
Dr. Vint Virga interviewed by Anderson Cooper on ABC World News regarding ‘the truth about dogs’
For example, a fundamental tenet of his book posits that the kinship we feel with animals turns out to run a good deal deeper than “Boy, I love hanging out with my dog” or “I sure enjoy looking at that tiger in the zoo.”
Rather, it’s Virga’s belief that what accounts for the more acute attachment we feel toward animals amounts to our souls connecting with their souls.
In our August 20 conversation on Talking Animals, I asked Virga to explain this notion.
“Well, if we look even at the Latin root of animal, which is animalis,what it refers to is a vital, essential life force within a being,” he said. “Or if we look at the current definition, or the Latin original intention, it relates to any being.
“It didn’t say ‘the vital, essential life force within a human.’ And yet what we’re talking about, what that translates to is, in essence, the soul.
“There are very few people that I come into contact with, keepers at zoos, dog or cat owners at home, people who work in wildlife rescue organizations—if they have any contact with animals over any length of time, for more than just a passing acquaintance, they start to recognize that that animal has a unique identity and personality that is very distinct from the other owl or dog or giraffe they’ve seen before.
“And that unique identity and personality relates to the animal’s perception of who they are in the world. I have no doubt, from my work in zoos, as well as with dogs and cats, and other companion species, across a wide range of species, animals have a sense of self awareness, a sense of identity. And that used to be considered to be a controversial issue.
“Nowadays, particularly in the last few years, since the Cambridge Declaration, where prominent scientists from around the world started to recognize, ‘Maybe we’re dragging our feet in science,’ people have been really starting to acknowledge more that animals are self-aware beings, with a sense of purpose and intention in their routine, day-to-day lives.
From National Geographic Explorer, an excerpt from a feature titled ‘The Secret Life of Cats,’ featuring Dr. Vint Virga’s house calls to several feline patients, exploring the diagnosis and management of behavioral issues in cats.
“That’s what I’m talking about, when I’m talking about an animal having a soul. They have their own unique perception and identity and sense of purpose in the world. They are not just automatons, living out their biological lives.”
Virga referred there to The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, a document signed by an international group of prominent scientists who had gathered at The University of Cambridge in July of 2012. In essence, the Declaration proclaims their support for the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are.
I mention to Virga that The Cambridge Declaration was notable in multiple ways, not least that there were many people who had long held the very beliefs articulated in the Declaration, but whispered them in hallways or spoke them off the record—just because it seemed to fly in the face of the more scientific view.
He laughed heartily. “That was me early in my veterinary career,” he said, “and then I got to an age, quite honestly, where I [decided] I can’t ignore what’s there. What I’m doing is ignoring the animals that could benefit from my working with them.
“But more importantly and on a bigger scale, I can’t sweep under the carpet what I feel is very true. And at some point, I decided I’m not going to worry about what other people think. I need to speak what I know to be true from all my years working with animals.”
And as something of an animal wizard counterpart to a certain stock brokerage firm, when Vint Virga speaks, people listen. Moreover, they go well beyond listening–they embrace, they report, they champion.
The Give Voice To Virga movement has largely coalesced, and gained momentum, around The Soul Of All Living Creatures.
The book directly elicited such kudos as Kirkus Review calling it “An insightful affirmation of our love of animals.”
Jon Katz, the New York Times bestselling author of 25 books who’s been a guest multiple times on Talking Animals and was once profiled in this column, wrote “In his passionate and convincing book, Dr. Virga has taken our understanding of animals a great step further.”
And a publication called The Inquisitive Mind simply stated “Enjoyable and electrifying reading.”
From PBS Nature, ‘The Animals We Live With,’ following Dr. Vint Virga on his house calls
Less directly, Virga, his book, and his singular sensibility rocketed onto a national platform in early July, when The New York Times Magazine ran a major profile of him, which included the good doctor espousing his fauna philosophy and discussing the unusual career path he’d traveled, interspersed with vignettes of Virga tackling behavior problems at various zoos that had sought his consulting services.
And then three months later, perhaps certifying Virga’s growing status as the go-to guru, The New York Times Magazine itself sought his consulting services.
In the October 19 edition, The Ethicist Column focused on Koko The Gorilla–who had become fast friends with Robin Williams upon meeting him in 2001–carrying a question from a reader about the moral purpose of Koko being told of Williams’ death.
Ethicist columnist Chuck Klosterman weighed in, as he does each week, but also chose to buttress his response with an expert opinion. For this, he contacted none other than Dr. Vint Virga, whose view was that Koko should absolutely have been told, and questioned the ethics of not informing Koko. (You can reach that column here.)
Thus The Vint Virga Fan Club counts among its members a venerable book review magazine, a hotshot author, a weighty publication you and I haven’t heard of, and the august magazine of The Grey Lady.
So, you see, I’m hardly alone in my man crush. I’m guessing there are plenty more of those around, not to mention woman crushes, and—an even safer bet—no shortage of animal crushes.
Hell, forget Raymond—Everybody Loves Vint.
And by this point in the story, it will likely come as no surprise that for Virga to become so broadly embraced, to muster this sort of sweeping influence, to become such a spiritual-minded savior of critters, large and small, represents an ongoing journey launched by a fateful encounter with an animal. A dog named Pongo.
Virga recalls that encounter in some detail, underscoring his eloquence as a gifted communicator who doesn’t merely talk in perfect sentences, but also, often, in perfect paragraphs.
On Steve Dale’s Pet World, Dr. Vint Virga sits down with the host to discuss his book, The Soul of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human
“Well, I met Pongo three or fours years into practice,” he remembered. “I was working as an emergency vet at that time, in the central valley of Oregon, the Willamette Valley. It was a November night, the waiting room was filled with a variety of animals, of different species, even. All waiting their turn for emergency care and treatment.
“And Pongo was a Flat-Coated Retriever that was rushed past all the other patients in the waiting room, straight back to the treatment room of the emergency hospital. Which usually is a sign for the doctors that you need to stop what you’re doing and rush to this patient’s side.
“Pongo had been hit by a passing pick-up truck that had been driving by his home, when he saw another dog in the back of the pick-up truck. And unfortunately, he was hit by the pick-up truck. When I came to Pongo’s side, he was in critical condition. His gums were pale and grey and his pulse was so weak, I could barely feel it in his paw.
“He wasn’t responding to anything I did to try get his attention, even his family’s stroking his head and calling his name. I knew that he wasn’t long for the world. I immediately, of course, provided him with intensive care.
“We tried to get him stabilized as best we could, while we did diagnostic tests, x-rays, blood work and so forth. And all the tests, interestingly enough, didn’t show anything that would account for Pongo’s critical condition. There were no broken bones, there was no bleeding that I could find in his abdomen, no major organ dysfunction. His heart and lungs and chest were working just fine.
“Yet, he was definitely on death’s doorstep. I left him in the care of my nurses and technicians, and I tended to the rest of my patients through the night. I kept checking on Pongo through the night, and nothing seemed to really change in his condition. By the time I was finally done with the evening’s work, about 2 or 3am, I sank exhausted to the floor in the room where Pongo was resting.
“And, at a loss to do anything else for him, I just sat with him, as I worked on my stack of medical records. Something very interesting happened in that hour. And that was, at the beginning of the hour, I sat next to an unresponsive dog who, for all intents and purposes, was no better than 6-7 hours earlier, when I first saw him, when he was first admitted to the hospital.
“But over that hour, he started edging closer to me, nudging my leg, eventually resting his head on my lap, wagging his tail, and licking my hand. I hadn’t done anything medically for Pongo—I even reviewed his chart to make sure that nothing had changed in the past few hours, in his care.
“So the only thing I could come up with that could account for this dramatic shift, of him returning to the world as we knew it, was the simple connection I made with him: Sitting by his side, talking with him, and offering him some care and attention and companionship.”
This spurred an Epiphany. Yes, with a capital E.
“It left a huge impact on me,” Virga said, “and I realized, in spite of all my science and medical training, I saw the value and importance of connection. And that relates to what we were saying earlier about our kinship with animals, and our connection with them. I feel like there’s a lot more to that connection than we even appreciate right now.”
Virga being Virga, the revelations attendant to the Pongo experience propelled him toward an ongoing search for more revelations, and more experiences.
This expedition also prompted him to examine long held positions—the first hunk of our Talking Animals conversation, for example, dealt with his near 180-degree shift from anti-zoo guy to ardent proponent who now spends much of any given work week at zoos.
I ask if it’s fair to say that he really seems to be a seeker, and wonder when that began.
“I think that’s very fair to say,” he answers, “and that probably began in my childhood. I think I’ve always been looking for more.
“I certainly felt that my role in the world, and my perception, my experience with other beings—for me, I sometimes feel like I connect with animals a lot easier than I do with people.
“I’ve always been looking for what is at the root of that, how can I relate to the world, and what is my purpose in it.”
Click here to go to the Talking Animals featuring the interview with Dr. Vint Virga
About the author: Duncan Strauss is the producer-host of “Talking Animals,” which he launched at KUCI in California in 2003, combining his passions for animals, radio, journalism, music and comedy. The show has aired since late 2005 on Tampa’s WMNF. Strauss lives in Jupiter Farms, FL, with his family, including four cats, two horses and one dog. He spends each day talking to those animals, and maintains they talk right back to him, an as yet unverified claim.