March 3, 2005
On February 14, officials at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago announced that a thirty-five year old gorilla named Kumba was euthanized following a slow decline related to renal failure. The Chicago Tribune offered a short piece on the passing of this "shy and mostly quiet" animal, but did not report whether Kumba was given a "gorilla wake," as was done for Omega, a male gorilla who died at the Buffalo Zoo in January, and Babs, a female gorilla who died at the Brookfield Zoo in December.
The practice of holding wakes for deceased gorillas -- an opportunity for other gorillas to say goodbye and to mourn the death of a member of their social group -- has gone on for at least a decade. Donna Fernandes, now president of the Buffalo Zoo, was present ten years ago at the wake of a gorilla at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston. She described the event, during which the longtime mate of a female gorilla who had died of cancer was allowed to say goodbye: "He was howling and banging his chest ... and he picked up a piece of her favorite food -- celery -- and put it in her hand and tried to get her to wake up. I was weeping, it was so emotional." The scene at Babs's December funeral was similarly moving. As CBS 2 reported it, family members "one by one ... filed into" the room where "Babs's body lay," approaching their "beloved leader" and "gently sniffing the body."
While the concept of a gorilla wake is relatively new and apparently newsworthy (each of these events was widely reported), human interest in the possibility of mourning in the animal kingdom dates back millennia. Both the second-century natural historian Aelian and the essayist Plutarch report that the ancient philosopher Cleanthes witnessed the following scene: One group of ants carried the body of a dead ant to the hill of another colony; other ants emerged, and an apparent conversation followed. The ants from the anthill disappeared below ground, reappearing with a grub -- an apparent ransom. The first group of ants then turned over the dead body and, as Aelian tells it, "the ants in the nest were glad to receive it, as though they were recovering a son or brother."
The fact that it was Cleanthes who supposedly witnessed this scene is important. The story is introduced as evidence in the Greco-Roman debate over the rationality and general status of animals vis-à-vis mankind. Cleanthes, a Stoic, categorically opposed any notion of animal rationality; animals were created solely for humankind's use, and no bond of kinship, such as that between human and god, exists. Any notion of justice, of right and wrong behavior toward one another, is based on that bond of kinship; thus, there is no such thing as "just" or "right" behavior in the animal kingdom. Yet Cleanthes himself commented on this "human" behavior among ants, and the story was used by Plutarch in an argument supporting the existence of justice and rationality in animals.
Judeo-Christian opinions, both ancient and contemporary, overlap with the Stoic position; the Genesis account of animal creation, at any rate, accords well with the Stoic view of animals as having been created for humankind's use. The majority of contemporary Americans subscribes to some version of this view. Nevertheless, we regularly attribute "human" behavior to animals, even inferring a religious context for "rituals" surrounding death and mourning, as media descriptions of gorilla wakes clearly show.
That said, religion seems to be where the rubber finally meets the road. The fourth-century Pythagorean scholar of religions Porphyry suggests that the Egyptians represented their gods zoomorphically to denote the close bonds of divinity shared by gods, humans, and animals alike. It was this very aspect of Egyptian religion that was most objectionable to Christians and other ancient sects.
I suspect that many contemporary Christians are similarly uneasy with the inclusion of animals in the central aspects of religion: while a quasi-religious "gorilla wake" is charming, a funereal "gorilla mass" would probably not be so happily received.
Janet Spittler is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of New Testament and Early
Christian Literature at the University of Chicago and a Martin Marty Center