“So, God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.” – Genesis 1:2
Seeking the monastic life, young Cypress resident Damien Giap chose to enter St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado Canyon, immersing himself in the quiet contemplative existence of the Norbertine Fathers.
Hiking the forested land surrounding the abbey he learned how to observe and attract the native creatures who lived alongside the abbey’s human population. It occurred to him, as it did to St. Francis of Assisi many centuries ago, that animals, reptiles and even arachnids have important lessons they can teach us.
Twenty years later, Fr. Damien serves as school chaplain at St. John the Baptist School in Costa Mesa. During a lifetime of collecting critters of all kinds, he uses his rag-tag menagerie of reptiles, amphibians, mammals and spiders to teach young children about life.
Fr. Damien uses the animals as an icebreaker.
“I can talk sports with young men, and clearly with young ladies in high school I can speak to them about life,” Fr. Damien says. “With kids you can have a snack and watch a chameleon and talk about how everything created by God is good and redeemable.”
By the time he was busy earning his bachelor’s degree in biology from UC Irvine he had fallen away from the Catholic faith that nurtured him throughout childhood as a member of St. Irenaeus Parish. But in his senior year of college, Fr. Damien says, he returned to the faith.
“I began to ponder the things of life,” he recalls. “I came back fully to my faith. As profound and intellectually gratifying as it is, I’m a Catholic because Catholicism is all truth.”
Fr. Damien appears much younger than his years. His impressive knowledge of Scripture and Catholicism is vast; prior to his arrival in Costa Mesa, he served for a decade as chaplain at JSerra Catholic High School. His education included four years studying theology in Rome.
Still, it was working at St. Michael’s summer camps for kids ages 7 to 12 that showed him the importance of setting himself apart as the kind of priest kids can confide in.
“Most priests are not into reptiles,” he notes drily. “But to me, animals and reptiles are beautiful and can be a means to an end. I’m not an ultimate authority but I know more than most people.”
Fr. Damien presently has in his collection a frog, two snakes, two chameleons, a brown gecko, three chinchillas and two bunnies, but that can change at any time. He also has two female tarantulas that he coaxed out of hiding on the St. Michael’s property.
Because he has spent many hours with breeders and in pet stores, Fr. Damien says he knows most of the managers of pet shops throughout central and south Orange County.
Visit any pet store or animal shelter and you’ll find young children up front, asking if they can touch and hold the animals, he says. “Kids have an utter fascination with animals. And animals inhabit a whole spectrum, with each of them unique.”
Debbie Leath, who runs the after-school program, attended St. John the Baptist School herself and has three daughters who also are alumnae. Leath says many of the kids don’t have any exposure to animals.
“They look forward to learning about them,” she says. “They learn to be respectful, careful and to handle the critters carefully. They understand that they can’t drop them and must be kind and soft-spoken.”
Fr. Damien, who has a green python and a boa constrictor, notes that even snakes, which frighten many people, are part of God’s creation.
Seventh-grader Julian Gamboa, who assists Fr. Damien, says he’s always wanted to work with animals.
“Everyone knows dogs are man’s best friend,” Gamboa says with a smile. “There is a strong connection between animals and humans. They give us a second chance to have a friend.”
Gamboa hopes to volunteer at an animal shelter when he’s old enough and has dreams of working with animals as a professional someday.
So, too, does Faith Hauke, an eighth-grader who says she’s always felt a special connection with animals. Hauke says she especially loves looking after the three chinchilla brothers.
“We feed them, give them water, and clean up after them,” notes the aspiring veterinarian. “They take dust baths and sometimes we bathe them with water. Reptiles are different – they are not my favorite, but they are God’s beautiful creations.”