Research can never break my canine bond

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on Oct. 1

My Siberian Husky, Stella, who lived to the ripe old age of 16.

My Siberian Husky, Stella, who lived to the ripe old age of 16.

Among the many compelling narratives coming out of recent hurricane disasters were stories about displaced residents saving their pets — and rescuing those of complete strangers — amidst treacherous flooding.

From a fleeing Texan saving a dog clinging to the guardrail at the side of a water-logged highway to the story of a Houston woman who spent 14 hours in her attic with 21 dogs — four her own, the rest left behind by neighbours — until she was rescued via boat by a couple of Good Samaritans; these testaments to the love our neighbours to the south have for their canine companions has been unfolding in real-time across social media.

We, Canadians, also love our dogs (and cats). Hockey may be Canada’s national pastime, but pets have become our national obsession. In recent years, they’ve become increasingly important to us — likely a result of the growing number of single-person households, aging population and couples marrying and having children later in life.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that “animals are God’s creatures and He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence, they bless Him and give Him glory. Thus, men owe them kindness.”

stellaAnd kindness we definitely show them. According to a Canada-wide survey commissioned by the Canadian Animal Health Institute, pet ownership is on the rise. The latest figures, released at the beginning of this year, report that there are 7.6 million dogs considered household pets (up from 6.4 million in 2014) and 8.8 million household cats (up from an estimated seven million).

But pet love is nothing new. What has changed the conversation in recent years are the copious amounts of research on the ways in which our relationship with dogs and cats is improving our collective mental and physical health. This is why “pet therapy” has become so common at hospitals, long-term care homes, universities and even in some workplaces. On September 11, the Toronto courts will be welcoming their first facility dog, Iggy, to comfort traumatized children through court appearances.

Much research has shown that our four-legged friends can help to decrease anxiety, loneliness and depression and help with prevention and treatment of a whole slew of physical maladies, such as heart disease, asthma and obesity.

Growing up with two dogs that lasted a combined total of 28 years — first there was Blackie, a rough and tumble German Shepherd and Labrador Retriever mix with a penchant for running away, followed by Stella, a Siberian Husky with a big personality and a knack for catching unsuspecting birds with the misfortune of finding themselves within her radius — I always had unfettered access to unconditional animal love.

These companions ushered me through growing pains: from awkward teenage years and rotating friends to heartbreak and career transitions. No matter how bad your day, a hug from your judgment-free dog somehow makes you feel like everything is going to be alright. (At the time, little did I know this is because as simple an action as petting your dog can increase levels of the feel-good hormone oxytocin in your brain and lower production of cortisol, a stress-inducing hormone.)

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Comment: Bride’s best laid plans melt in Pope’s hand

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Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on July 28

Rome in June is notoriously hot. But Rome in June wearing a wedding veil is even hotter.

Four days after tying the knot in Toronto, my husband Daniele and I were in St. Peter’s Square amid a sea of newlywed lace, chiffon and satin. Along with about 100 other sposi novelli (newlyweds) from around the world, we sweated it out while waiting for Pope Francis to bless our new marriages. (All the marriages were less than two months fresh as that’s the requirement for attendance.)

Seated to the left of the stage at Pope Francis’ weekly general audience, we could see him above a crush of parasols, umbrellas and wide-brimmed sun hats. There was no breeze, only a collective whir from sun-soaked newlyweds furiously fanning each other. I had no idea that a short time later I would be holding the Pope’s hand.

Time crawled by as we waited for the audience to begin and the morning temperature fast approached 30 degrees. Three hours after we arrived in the piazza, the reading began. It was translated into several languages and focused on the example of the saints.

When the general audience ended, some of the newlyweds started to form a line. The opportunity for an individual blessing or a chance to be close to the Pope largely depends on how many newlyweds are in attendance and how busy the Pope is on a particular day, as I was told when calling to book the tickets. With so many excited couples in the square, we figured it was a longshot, yet we shuffled into the queue with high hopes.

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The line led us to steps behind the stage and, after waiting about 20 minutes, we could see the Pope making his way towards where our group was gathered. As he got closer, Daniele and I rehearsed a few words we’d prepared just in case we got a chance to speak with him.

Grazie per essere forte e noi saremo forte con te,” was our Italian script, which roughly translates to, “Thank you for being strong and we will be strong with you.”

The Pope is always asking his flock to keep him in their prayers, so we wanted him to know we were with him and to encourage him to keep up his good work because his daily actions embody the Gospel values of love, justice and love of neighbour — to name only a few.

Vatican view 2

As the Pope arrived in front of our group, a space in front of me suddenly opened up. It wasn’t big enough for me to squeeze into the front row but, instinctively, I reached out and, wondrously, I was holding his hand through the crowd. No word of a lie, time seemed to stop. Then I heard Daniele excitedly urging me to share with Pope Francis the words we had prepared.

The chatty newlyweds around us were suddenly silent. He held my hand but I was still a couple of feet away from him. He was smiling at me. It felt too impersonal to just shout out. I hesitated.

Then, overwhelmed by the moment, I blurted out, “Ciao!”

So much for our script.

Still, I’d like to believe he heard me and that his smile widened slightly as a result, but all I know for certain is that I was fighting back tears of joy.

The rest was a blur. I let go of his hand, then found myself holding it a second time before he continued to make his way among the couples.

To say I felt his presence is an understatement. His friendly demeanour is humbling to experience and witness firsthand. His beaming, infectious smile made Daniele and I feel that he was genuinely happy to see us all. We couldn’t stop smiling.

Vatican 3

The Pope exchanged words and, no doubt, dispensed individual blessings to the newlyweds fortunate enough to be wedged in the front row. We watched for a few minutes before taking as many selfies as possible (albeit poorly executed) with the Pope in the background. (Maybe the selfie stick so many vendors tried peddling to us wouldn’t have been such a bad investment after all.)

Walking back through the crowded streets amidst shouts of “Auguri, sposi!” (“Congratulations, newlyweds”) — since we hadn’t made a wardrobe change — we picked up a panino and pizza and took a cab back to our hotel.

The experience was surreal. It was time for a siesta.

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