In 2005, a band of men abducted and severely beat a young Ethiopian girl, trying to force her into a marriage. In what some called a miraculous intervention, three lions came to her rescue and chased the men away. They continued to stand guard over her until authorities discovered and returned the girl to her family. Per the Associated Press, wildlife officer Stuart Williams attributed the girl’s rescue to her crying: “A young girl whimpering could be mistaken for the mewing sound from a lion cub, which in turn could explain why they didn’t eat her,” Williams said. Surely, the reason breaches the boundaries of scientific explanation.

Those of us who consider animals sacred guardians of the spirit explain it differently. The lions exercised compassion — a Divine trait — which we instinctively know the spirit bestows upon us. Those who live compassionately also live close to the Source…those whose inner compass is programmed by benevolence and empathy live at the soul level.

So here comes the million-dollar question: Do animals have souls? Are they the same as ours? Or are they, as some adherents of formal religions proclaim, devoid of souls and just slaves to their biology? Asked this question, many would say that animals have some form of spirit, such as possessing the breath of life which is extinguished upon death, but nothing greater.

Such pronouncement disregards and disrespects the beliefs of global indigenous people who view animal spirits as teachers and guides. Those who have intimately shared their lives with animals would agree with those tribal spiritual systems that embrace all nature as Divine.

To answer the question of whether animals have souls, we must we position western tradition against inner experience, doctrine against intuition. We in the west cling steadfastly to religious proclamations and laws without considering their historical and social context. Take divorce, for instance, and the religious decrees forbidding it.

Open-minded scholars understand that the social structure of Jesus’s time made no provisions for a woman to survive on her own. If she divorced, she she’d be unable to care for her children, no means of support, no survival tools. To ensure that a woman would not live desolate the streets, the early Church outlawed divorce. In this way, she and her children were guaranteed comfort. But times change, and doctrinal elasticity becomes possible. Modern scholars understand that Church doctrines (regardless of the denomination) are human constructs.

The Bible and apocryphal writings underwent the scrutiny of religious leaders’ redaction after redaction, translation after translation, diluting the original message, sometimes sacrificing critical contexts and definitions. As a matter of fact, today we even celebrate those who defied doctrinal practice. Take, for example, St. Francis of Assisi, who took great risk by separating himself from Church doctrine to apply the Christian philosophy of unconditional love to the earth’s most innocent creatures, the animals. Churches around the world celebrate St. Francis Day with special Blessings of the Animals services, during which pets often come into the church. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Proverbs tells us that “A righteous man knows the soul of his animal.”

In 2014, Pope Francis either settled or created controversy (depending on one’s holistic perspective) generously proclaimed that animal indeed have souls: “One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures,” he said, breaking with traditional thought.

While both Catholicism and Judaism have always taught respect for and fair treatment of animals, issuing very specific instructions to ensure their welfare, they stopped short a deeper theological assertion. The Pope’s departure delighted animal guardians everywhere. Note the Pope bypassed the generic article “the” in favor of the possessive pronoun “our,” as in “our Father, our brothers, our sisters, our families.” And this is just how we integrate our animals as family members and relate to them, on both a familial and a soul level. This relationship remains unfettered by human frailty and egoistic flaw.

In the Bhagavad Gita 5:18 we read, “Those who possess this wisdom have equal regard for all. They see the same Self in a spiritual aspirant and an outcaste, in an elephant, a cow, and a dog. When we look at an animal, we enter soul territory. We experience, as the Lakota believe, that “we are all related.” Thus, when compassionate souls witnessed the brutal slaying of Cecil the Lion, we grieved so intensely, emitting reverberating lamentations that awakened the world to this shamefully overdue acknowledgment. In our soul-level relationship with all life, we experience the “Namaste,” the divine meeting the divine.