It was difficult to hear Marianne Erickson's words above the whines, pants, barks and embarrassed whispers of "sit," "stay," and "good boy."
On Sunday, Erickson, the service's lay leader, welcomed congregants of the four-footed variety and their owners to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia for the church's ninth annual animal blessing service.
"Today's service celebrates our caring for all animals, not just our household pets," Erickson told the congregation. "We gather today in recognition of our attachment to all the animals who share or have shared our lives and this planet with us."
The service, which began nine years ago as an outdoor event, has been attended in the past by ferrets, snakes and even a horse that got spooked when it saw its reflection in a window. Sunday's service saw mostly dog owners struggling to keep their pets calm in the presence of others, though a rabbit and a cat were also present.
To some of the people in attendance, a loving relationship between humans and animals is fundamental to the seven Unitarian Universalist principles, which include respect for the interdependent web of all existence.
"I think that we need to recognize that we're all God's creatures," said Anna Whitacre, who's been attending the church since June. "People and animals are part of a continuum, and to set a bar between people and animals, to say that we're one thing and they're another doesn't make sense."
She and her son Bill described themselves as "between pets," but have owned a host of animals, including dogs, fish and rats.
"I am baffled by people who say that animals can't think," Bill said. "I mean, they have a brain, and they act what they're thinking."
Fran Reynolds, who has been a member of the congregation since 1977, brought her 4-year-old cocker spaniels, Toby and Maggie, whom she adopted from Columbia Second Chance. Maggie, who was rescued from a puppy mill, was calmly hiding under Reynolds' chair. While Reynolds also called the animal blessing service as "a manifestation of respect for the interdependent web of all existence," she also brought her dogs in because, "the dogs need opportunities to be in more formal social situations. Last year, Maggie was tugging on her leash, so she's getting better."
Susan Stanley and her husband, Bob, had never attended the Unitarian Universalist Church but came to the service to bless their 11-year-old shipoo, Buster.
"Buster has been such a blessing to us, so we thought we would come in and have him blessed," Susan said as Buster, sporting a blue silk scarf, sat at attention in her lap.
Before the service, Erickson explained the goal of the animal blessing in detail, emphasizing humans' connection to all animals.
"One of the main objectives of this service is to inspire people to take good care of the pets they have, to be concerned about animals in general, not just about their own pets," she said.