A Grieving Gorilla: A Picture That's Worth Entire Courses
A photo of a sad gorilla and a human comforting him raises numerous questions
Posted May 27, 2017
A moving photo of a sad orphaned gorilla and a comforting human could form the basis of entire courses centering on the study of animal minds
An essay by Katie Cleary titled "A Park Ranger Comforts A Sad Gorilla Who Just Lost His Mother To Poachers" has generated a lot of global interest. Ms. Cleary begins, "A heart-wrenching photo has surfaced recently, it shows a park ranger sitting and quietly comforting a gorilla. This gorilla has sadly just lost its mother to poachers." The park ranger's name is Patrick Karabaranga, and in the photo (below) "The gorilla can be seen showing his appreciation for the sympathy by tenderly placing his hand on the ranger’s leg."
Iv'e had a good number of queries about this story and especially the photo, most people asking me what I thought the gorilla was thinking and feeling. I've looked at this photo countless times for minutes on end, and the sadness displayed by Mr. Karabaranga and the young gorilla is palpable. While I really don't know exactly what this young gorilla is thinking and feeling -- what he knows and doesn't know about his loss -- I would argue that Ms. Clearly is correct when she writes, "This story is so important as a tale of love and loss but most of all, it’s a story of breathtaking compassion and understanding between animals and humans." Recently I saw a prairie dog whose behavior lead me to argue she was grieving, and numerous animals are known to grieve and mourn the loss of family members and friends (please see "Grief in Prairie Dogs: Mourning a Death in the Family" and links therein).
This particular photo goes considerably beyond discussions of grieving and mourning by nonhuman animals (animals). It's often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and this particular photo could surely generate endless conversations totaling far more than a thousand words. It could easily form the basis of entire courses that focus on the cognitive and emotional lives of other animals and comparisons among different species. Furthermore, it not only raises all sorts of questions about what other animals think and feel in different situations, but also could generate wide-ranging discussions about empathy and other emotions that are shared between nonhumans and humans in different contexts.
Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential will be published in early 2018. Marc's homepage is marcbekoff.com.