Bless these pets: Shaman to give pets rites at Grand Army Plaza

Bless these pets: Shaman to give pets rites at Grand Army Plaza
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

Dog bless you.

On Oct. 4, Catholic and Episcopal pet owners around the borough will pour into neighborhood churches for the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, also known as the blessing of the animals. But the following week, a woman who describes herself as an urban shaman is offering her own ceremony for animal-loving pagans. Humans’ love of animals dates back to before Christ — way before, she explained.

“Every culture has stories about animals, and many origin stories begin with animals,” Donna “Mama Donna” Henes said. “Our connection to animals is as old as we are.”

Henes has been plying her polytheistic trade for decades, marking the turn of the season four times a year without missing a single solstice or equinox in 40 years, she said. She has, she said, blessed ships for Gov. Patterson, blessed a parade for Mayor Koch, and Mayor Dinkins labelled her the “shaman in the streets.”

Her Mother-Nature oriented spiritual practice may seem like an odd fit for a Prospect Heights resident with an expansive internet presence, but Henes says she sees it as her duty to help New Yorkers reconnect with — and realize they are — nature.

“People ask me what I’m doing in New York,” she said. “But there is nature here. The moon is here, and there are trees here. The people here are New York’s wildlife. We are part of nature and if people in the city make a concerted effort, they can remember that.”

Originally from Ohio, Henes has lived in Brooklyn since the early 1970s, first Downtown near where Metrotech Center now stands, and for the past two decades in Prospect Heights. It was amid the cultural ferment of the late 1960s that she began exploring shamanic traditions from around the world, including indigenous communities throughout the United States and in Mexico. Her rituals may borrow from many cultures, but Henes avoids leading ones she does not consider herself qualified to do, she said.

“I’m not out to imitate anyone else’s culture,” Henes said. “I would never lead people in a sweat-lodge ceremony or a pipe ceremony. I find that hugely offensive.”

The blessing of the animals is an example of her grab-bag approach. This ritual, it turns out, draws heavily from the one happening inside church doors to honor Saint Francis. Legend has it that the saint found Jesus and turned his back on a life of wealth and excess to live as a pauper, sleeping outside, talking to animals, and spreading the gospel.

In the Christian version of the rite, a priest leads the flock in prayer, then congregants line up to get their pets a hands-on blessing.

The Henes version is similar, but with a different script. And as her white-collared counterparts do, she tries to imbue the critters with good luck, good health, and long happy lives. Then she slips the pets a treat for their troubles.

Most of the animals who get the Henes touch are dogs, but she has seen stranger species in her day. Last year, according to Henes, a woman brought a stuffed cat and asked that she bless it in place of the colony of stray cats the woman was feeding. Henes said she obliged.

“Blessing of the animals” at Grand Army Plaza (Prospect Heights, www.donna‌henes.net). Oct. 11, noon–4 pm. Free. Bring your own animal.

Reach reporter Noah Hurowitz at nhuro‌witz@‌cnglo‌cal.com or by calling (718) 260–4505. Follow him on Twitter @noahhurowitz
Time is a flat circle: Donna “Mama Donna” Henes, center, claps as children participate in her fall equinox ceremony at Grand Army Plaza on Sept. 22.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini