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Living Closer to the Bone (Part 6)

Animal emotions connect us to one another and affirm our ensoulment in nature.

A Dutch ethologist named Adriaan Kortlandt once observed a wild chimp in the Congo “gaze at a particularly beautiful sunset for a full 15 minutes, watching the changing colors” and forsaking his customary evening meal in the process.   Renowned primatologist Jane Goodall and her videographer, Bill Wallauer, have likewise observed chimps sitting and staring at a waterfall for many minutes. What could be going through these animals’ minds at times like these?  To Goodall, it seems contemplative.  Since the chimpanzee’s brain is so much like ours, “why wouldn’t they also have feelings of some kind of spirituality?  Which is, really, being amazed at things outside yourself.”     

Speaking of amazement, here’s a remarkable anecdote from zoologist Frans de Waal:

“On a cold December Sunday in 2005, a female humpback whale was spotted off the California coast, entangled in the nylon ropes used by crab fishermen.  She was about 50 feet long.  A rescue team was dispirited by the sheer amount of ropes, about twenty of them, some around the tail, one in the whale’s mouth.  The ropes were digging into the blubber, leaving cuts.  The only way to free the whale was to dive under the surface to cut away the ropes.  Divers spent about one hour doing so.  It was a herculean job, obviously not without risk given the power of a whale’s tail.  The most remarkable part came when the whale realized it was free.  Instead of leaving the scene, she hung around.  The huge animal swam in a large circle, carefully approaching every diver separately.  She nuzzled one, then moved on to the next, until she had touched them all.  [One of them] described the experience: ‘It felt to me like it was thanking us, knowing that it was free and that we had helped it…It seemed kind of affectionate, like a dog that’s happy to see you.  I never felt threatened.’”

On the Web, I found this video of a nearly identical rescue, which occurred on Valentine’s Day, 2011, in the Sea of Cortez.  After a young humpback whale was freed of netting that had completed tied it up, “She slowly swam away but about 500 feet from our boat, she breached high into the air…For the next hour, she provided us with an incredible full-surface display.  We saw at least 40 breaches as well as tail lobs, tail slaps, and pectoral fin slaps.  We all believed it was at least a show of pure joy, if not thanks…It was an incredible experience that none of us will ever forget.”

For an animal to express joy and thankfulness at being alive is the flip side, in my view, to contemplating nature.  Both have to do with connection – with other beings and with creation.

This sense of connectedness, though it may exist among all mammals, is evidenced plainly and poignantly by elephants.  Consider the way African elephants that belong to the same family or group greet one another after a separation.  They rush together, flapping their ears and spinning in circles, emitting a loud chorus of rumbles and roars.  Researcher Joyce Poole, who’s observed and written extensively about them, is convinced that “greeting elephants feel a deep sense of joy at being reunited with friends, and that their [vocalizations] express something like: “’Wow!  It’s simply fantastic to be with you again.” 

Conversely, elephants seem to react sorrowfully to death.  Poole, Andrea Turkalo and other field researchers have recorded instances of the animals standing beside the body of a dead relative, touching it with their trunks, apparently trying to coax it back to life.  Elephants will carry the tusks and bones of their departed kin great distances and may even try to cover them with dirt or leaves.  They are also known to form funeral processions.  According to Turkalo, “They seem to recognize death and it upsets them.  It [brings] home how emotional these animals are.”  (Apropos of a complex emotional life, elephants are even believed to suffer from PTSD.)  The title of a groundbreaking 1995 book on animal emotions – When Elephants Weep – captures our dawning realization of the feeling life of these magnificent creatures.  

Animals that express gratitude, that play (a joyful expression of aliveness), that contemplate nature, that react mournfully to the loss of family members or other close companions, or that save a fellow creature are all, in my view, demonstrating aspects of connectedness.  In all cases, the capacity to feel and to express feeling (i.e., emote) are central.  This connectedness – underpinned by emotion – is the core of spirituality.  At its root, spirituality really is a matter of “fellow feeling.”    

What all creatures have in common, of course, is that none of them willed themselves into existence.  Those animals that are sentient, and have the capacities noted above, are able to literally feel a part of something greater.  It is as if each of us – dog, cat, whale, seal, mouse, pig, elephant, monkey, human – is ensouled in nature.  Each of us, to varying degrees, knows we have an existence and can feel pleasure and pain, wonder and threat, happiness and dejection.  We can and do show compassion for other living beings.  (Beyond mammals, science is also disclosing that at least some birds and invertebrates may have these same capacities.)

In sum, it’s the embodiment, in nature, of the call enunciated by one of the characters in E.M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End – “Only connect!” It is also the basis of the empathosphere or psychesphere (alluded to in my last post), that source of mysterious coincidences that occasionally – at conjunctures of deep, if unacknowledged, emotion – have us scratching our heads in bewilderment.


Bradshaw, G.A., Schore, Allan N., Brown, Janine L., Poole, Joyce H., and Moss, Cynthia J., “Elephant Breakdown.” Nature 433 (Feb. 24, 2005), 807.

de Waal, Frans. The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2009, 129-30.

Keim, Brandon. “Chimps and the Zen of Falling Water.” Nautilus. June 29, 2015.

Kortlandt, Adriann. “Chimpanzees in the Wild.” Scientific American 206 (May 1962), 128-38, cited in Harrod, James B. “The Case for Chimpanzee Religion.” Journal for the Study of Religion Nature and Culture 8:1 (June 2014): 8-45.

Masson, Jeffrey Moussaieff, and Susan McCarthy. When Elephants Weep. New York: Delacorte Press, 1995.

Tangley, Laura. “Natural Passions.” National Wildlife, July 2001.

Wallauer, Bill. “Chimpanzee Central – Waterfall Displays.” The Jane Goodall Institute.