Love Lessons: A talk with Dr. Bernie S. Siegel and Cynthia J. Hurn

By Dr. Bernie S. Siegel & Cynthia J Hurn


Cynthia to Bernie: In our new book “Love, Animals & Miracles” we revealed a side of your life that many people didn’t know about. You call it the Siegel Zoo. As you were reminiscing about your kids growing up with all those animals, I found myself wishing I’d been one of your kids.

Bernie: It was a great way to raise a family. Our place was an acre and a half. We had goats, ducks, and geese in the front yard with kiddie pools all through the house for turtles and fish. One son had a dead tree in his room for snakes and chameleons. Crickets chirped all year round, and everything from the South American kinkajou to cats and dogs wandered loose inside. Local vets would call and ask us to take in another neglected creature because they knew we would care for them. Everybody was family.

Cynthia: What was it like coming home after work every day to all those creatures?

Bernie: I’d be physically tired but more exhausted in an emotional sense because of those people I couldn’t cure. One day I got home to find a guinea pig struggling in labor and unlikely to survive, so I did an emergency caesarean section. Another time I operated on a turtle with an abscess. The kids expected me to save everybody because I was a doctor. I finally had to sit them down and explain that after a full day of operating as a pediatric surgeon, to then come home and be a doctor to all these pets was more than I could handle emotionally. I wasn’t God; I couldn’t cure every affliction of every pet. I said I would try to save their lives, but you can’t expect success 100 percent of the time. It helped them understand that death is a part of life. When an animal dies, its body is gone, but the love stays. The kids gained a reverence for life, which they exemplify today with their own pets and the wild creatures they have helped or rescued.

Our kids learned about the power of love too. The ducks and geese were born in incubators, so the first thing the chicks saw was our kids, and they imprinted on them, thinking the kids were their parents. Whenever the school bus came to pick up the kids, ducks and geese would walk down and stand by the road watching them go. We finally had so many fowl I brought some to my mother’s house on the shore of a lake. One day Mom called to say that every time a school bus drove by, the birds would leave the lake and stand beside the road. They were looking for our kids to get off the bus.

Cynthia: What was the most powerful lesson you gained from your animals?

Bernie: Forgiveness. Animals would lick my hand when I was treating their wounds, and I felt so awful. I knew it was hurting them. Yet they’d lick my hand. The lick was saying, “Please be gentle; stop for a minute.” It blew my mind that they didn’t instead take a bite out of my finger.

Our rabbit Smudge Bunny got shaken by our dog Furphy when we left the house and forgot to close the pet door that separated them. Smudge nearly died of the injuries. I felt terrible and very guilty. Weeks later I went into the yard to call Smudge inside for the night and found her curled up against Furphy. She didn’t hold a grudge. Smudge and Furphy had become the best of friends.

They taught me about forgiving your family too. I was running a support group at an elderly care facility, and I always brought our dogs Furphy and Buddy along. One day Buddy must have eaten something that upset him because he went to the corner of the room and left a smelly mess on the floor. I apologized to the group and cleaned it up. The people at the facility didn’t mind; they dealt with human accidents regularly. It struck me as I was driving home that I hadn’t yelled at Buddy or embarrassed him in front of everybody. I’d just cleaned up his mess. If that had been one of our kids, it would have been a different story. I realized then that scolding our child for an accident would have been poor parenting. I should show our kids the same patience and forgiveness I showed our dogs. The connections we have with animals are often stronger than the ones we have with relatives. We can be so critical of relatives, not showing them pure affection and love.

Nine hundred years ago, Maimonides said, “If people took as good care of themselves as they do their animals, they would suffer fewer illnesses.” And that was the attitude we taught our kids: it isn’t just that you care for the animals, you have to live that way for everybody and be an example, taking care of your needs too.

Cynthia: This book is filled with stories we gathered from people across America, Britain, and Europe. Were any of their stories particularly moving or surprising to you?

Bernie: There were so many that touched my heart, it’s hard to pick just one. I was surprised and delighted to read our grandson Charlie’s story about interspecies bonding, one I’d never heard before. He had an ailing turtle that lived alone. The vet recommended putting a fish in the tank for the bored turtle to hunt. Charlie’s turtle took one look at that fish and fell in love. He never ate it. The creatures lived together for years and actually looked after each other.

Another story was contributed by a woman whose daughter had been murdered. Before the daughter’s death, she had gone to buy a surprise puppy for her dad, but the dog she wanted was already spoken for. Two years after her death, the still-grieving parents went to visit the breeder, not knowing what their daughter had intended. All the breeder’s dogs sat well behaved, but suddenly one flew across the room and jumped into the father’s arms, crying his heart out. Before long everyone was crying without realizing why. The breeder then explained what their daughter’s wish had been, and that this was the very same dog their daughter had chosen. He’d gone to another family, but recently that family had returned him. They all felt that the daughter was communicating with her parents through the dog, saying she was okay. Not surprisingly, the couple took the dog home. Having the dog and the sense that their daughter was still communicating with them helped to heal their grief. That story had me in tears.

Cynthia: Several stories involved animals rescuing or healing humans. Have you had any experience of this?

Bernie: In my experience of miracles, more often the animal was healed. One of my patients had a cat that was dying of cancer. The vet called to say he couldn’t do anything more; the kindest thing was to euthanize the cat. The whole family came in to say good-bye to their beloved friend. The doctor entered the room holding an unresponsive, limp animal, but when the cat saw her family, she launched herself eight feet across the room into the dad’s arms and began to purr. The surprised vet said, “She was dying a minute ago.” That cat went home healthy and lived for several more years.

What I always say to people is, love your life and love your body. When you live what you love, your body gets the message; that’s when miracles happen. People with terminal disease who go off to the mountains or a beautiful place to die, or spend all day in the garden doing what they love, start enjoying their life so much they often forget to die. One patient said to me, “I’m so busy now, I’m killing myself.” And she lived a long, meaningful life. But people have to learn this, whereas animals know it already.

Our dog Oscar had an inoperable malignant melanoma in his mouth and was deteriorating fast. The vet recommended euthanasia. I called the kids to get their agreement, but they said, “Dad, you don’t put your patients to sleep; you can’t put Oscar to sleep.” I brought Oscar home and started giving him lots of love. He was too weak even to stand up. I sat with him every day, putting my hands on him, visualizing his body strong and healthy doing all the things he loved to do. When I ate, I shared my food. I gave him vitamins and supplements to build up his strength and immunity. Soon he started going outside to play with the other dogs, and the melanoma disappeared. The vet couldn’t believe it. Every time we met, he’d say, “I’ve never seen a dog that sick recover.” Oscar lived years longer. One might say it’s a miracle or a perfect example of self-induced healing.

Cynthia: Would you sum up the lessons that the animals in these stories are teaching us?

Bernie: Have a relationship with an animal. Caring for an animal is good for your health. When you pet an animal, your body releases the same bonding hormones that affect a mother when she holds her baby. It lowers blood pressure and gives one a sense of loving euphoria. Scientific studies show higher rates of recovery and survival and lower rates of disease in those who live with an animal.

Don’t judge each other or yourselves. Furphy was attacked by a dog, losing one eye and part of his tail. He never looked in the mirror saying, “I can’t go out for a walk like this; I’m too ugly.” Animals accept themselves as they are — feeling complete, no matter their defect — and they love us regardless of our defects.

When we die, life goes on, so live in the present moment — the gift of today — and enjoy your life. I wrote a children’s book called Buddy’s Candle. When his dog, Buddy, died, the little boy couldn’t get over the loss. One night in a dream the boy went to Heaven and saw all the dogs that recently died walking along, each one carrying a bright candle. Then he spotted Buddy carrying a dark candle. The angel said, “Go and light his candle.” The boy approached his friend, saying, “Buddy, I am here to light your candle.” The dog replied, “Angels keep lighting it, but your tears keep putting it out.”

A strange thing happened immediately after I finished writing that book. I heard a voice, clear as day, saying, “Go to the animal shelter.” So I got in the car and drove over there. When I walked inside, a dog was sitting by the door. The first words out of my mouth were “What’s his name?” They said, “He’s called Buddy; he arrived less than fifteen minutes ago.” When I heard that name, I knew a greater hand had guided me there. I said, “I’m here to take him home.” Was this a coincidence or a miracle? You tell me. Buddy is still with us today at sixteen years of age.

Cynthia: Who would you have become without animals in your life?

Bernie: I would have felt lonely and with less sense of purpose in my life. People spend too much time thinking and analyzing, whereas animals show us how to live from the heart. Caring for them takes time and effort, but when you climb into bed at night and somebody — regardless of the number of legs they have — is right beside you, loving you no matter what happened that day, you know you’re okay. You’re home.

Based on the book Love, Animals & Miracles. Copyright © 2015 by Bernie S. Siegel and Cynthia J. Hurn. Printed with permission from New World Library.

Retired surgeon Bernie S. Siegel speaks, writes, and runs support groups in his effort to empower patients. He lives in Woodbridge, CT. Bernie’s website is

Cynthia J. Hurn is the coauthor of No Buddy Left Behind (with Terri Crisp), The Art of Healing (with Bernie Siegel), and Not My Secret to Keep (with Digene Farrar. She is the founding Member of Cafe Write Writer’s Workshop. She lives in Somerset, England.

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