Monday, September 1, 2008

Gana the gorilla: grieving mother? News - August 24, 2008


It was a poignant scene which reduced many onlookers to tears. Gana, an 11-year-old gorilla at Germany's Munster zoo, cradled her dead three-month-old son, unable to accept that he had died in her arms. Yet no matter how tenderly she nudged, caressed and cuddled the lifeless form, there was no movement from Claudio.

She carried his corpse everywhere, guarding the little figure so zealously that wardens at the zoo were unable to retrieve the dead baby gorilla for four days. But it wasn't her anger that left a lasting impression; it was the rawness of a mother's pain.

So clearly inconsolable, bewildered and shattered, her face displayed a range of emotions that we once thought of as uniquely human. This week she was a grieving mother first, an ape second.

Gana demonstrated, movingly, just how alike gorillas are to us. They live in sophisticated social groupings with complex, hierarchical structures and are known to mourn the loss of their young. The American anthropologist Dian Fossey, who devoted her life to the study of lowland gorillas, even witnessed them burying their young by shovelling leaves over their corpses.

The DNA of gorillas and humans is 99.9% identical, yet it is one thing to accept in theory the extent to which we are related to the great apes, quite another to witness it. "Many of the visitors were terribly shocked," said the director of Munster zoo, Joerg Adler. "This, perhaps, is one of the greatest gifts that a zoo can bestow: to show that 'animals' are very much like ourselves, and feel elation and pain. Gana lost a child, but I think in that loss, she taught people here so much."

Is this really true? Do we actually believe that gorillas are so similar to us that there's an equivalence in our feelings? Or are we just fooling ourselves? Did Gana simply show us that apes are sentient beings worthy of being treated as such, rather than as dumb animals?

Like virtually all our cultural mores, our attitude towards animals has been defined by faith. Religions differ profoundly in their approach to their relationship with animals: the Hindus believe all animals have the capacity to be reincarnated as a human; while India's Jains go further, believing that all living beings possess a soul so all life is considered worthy of respect, even the life of a fly, which is considered sacred.

Traditionally, Christianity is diametrically opposed to that view: humans are the only beings to enjoy free will, the only beings to possess a soul (even though the Latin for "soul" is "anima", the derivation of animal). "Thomas Aquinas and the scholastic tradition said very clearly that animals have not got souls and this has been used in the past to justify the exploitation of animals on the basis that they are just things," says John Austin Baker, the former Bishop of Salisbury and a prominent animal rights activist. It remains the prevailing view in the West. In one survey, just 19% of British vets agreed that animals have souls.

Yet there has recently been a profound sea change in Christian attitudes to animals. In 2000, Pope John Paul II created uproar in the Catholic church by decreeing that "also the animals possess a soul and men must love and feel solidarity for our smaller brethren." Society's attitude towards animals is also changing, and there is little doubt why. Darwinism was the first scientific challenge to the concept of the dumb animal, but ever since The Origin Of Species holed the creationist myth beneath the waterline, the weight of scientific evidence suggesting animals have a previously unsuspected range of emotions has stacked up.

Instinctively, we know that Greyfriars Bobby possessed sentiments such as loyalty, devotion and the pain of loss, but more quantifiable animal emotions are also being revealed. Just last week came evidence that chimpanzees who have spent time in vivisection laboratories suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder exactly as humans would.

In 2004, researchers at the Babraham Institute at Cambridge University proved that when sheep were isolated from their flock they experienced stress, while showing them pictures of sheep reduced their stress levels. Dr Lynne Sneddon at the University of Liverpool has published research which comes close to proving that fish feel pain, while Prof Kevin Laland of St Andrews University showed that fish have long-term memories and sophisticated social skills."

We are living through an ethical revolution when it comes to animals," says theologian Andrew Linzey, an expert in the ethics of animal welfare at Oxford University. "We are shifting from seeing them as objects, commodities, resources, to seeing them as beings in their own right."

While there are obvious differences, the debate on the degree to which animals are sentient beings is in some ways reminiscent of the process that brought the end of slavery and the emancipation of women. Slavery began to unravel in 1772 when black slave James Somerset successfully argued in a British court that he was a sentient being who should be accorded rights rather than viewed as property. Campaigners seeking female emancipation followed the same tactics, establishing a wife's right to be a being in her own right, equal with her husband when it came to important functions like voting and divorce.

One sure sign that society's attitudes towards animals are changing is the creeping use of a politically correct vocabulary of parity to describe the relationship between man (or "human animals") and animals ("non-human animals"). In American officialdom and at England's DEFRA, the word "pet" has been replaced by "companion animal", suggesting some sort of meeting of equals.

This creeping de facto change of the status of animals is being consolidated by a series of law changes which may have profound long-term consequences. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 doesn't just require pet owners to give their animals a suitable environment, a healthy diet and protection from injury and disease, but also to cater for their pet's emotional needs, including "the desire to exhibit normal behaviour patterns" and be "housed with, or apart from, other animals". Failure to comply can carry a £20,000 fine and/or a custodial sentence.

If attitudes towards animals in particular and great apes in general are changing, as shown by the ban on fox-hunting and medical experiments on gorillas, chimpanzees and orang-utans, we are still lagging behind some nations. The EU accepted as long ago as 1997 that sentient animals are those which can not only suffer physical pain but mental trauma, an important legal precedent. In New Zealand in 1999, a coalition of scientists and lawyers only narrowly failed in its attempt to get parliament to go one step further by extending rights to large primates. In Spain, it will be two months tomorrow since the country's Parliament passed a law giving great apes a whole range of legal rights.

The trend is exacerbating our tendency towards anthropomorphism – the allocation of human traits to animals.

Occasionally this has tragic results. Timothy Treadwell wanted to prove that bears inherently share our values of loyalty and friendship, so went to live among them in Alaska. It was a triumph of hope over expectation that lasted 13 years until Treadwell and his girlfriend were eaten alive, a story that inspired Werner Herzog's award-winning film, Grizzly Man.

This anthropomorphism extends to regarding an animal's death as we would the death of a human being. Researching her book, Goodbye Dear Friend: Coping with the Death of a Pet, author Virginia Ironside discovered endless epitaphs, like this one, published in an 'In Memoriam' column in Dog's Today: "Shayne 1972 – June 90. I can't believe it's two years since you left me, but in my heart you live on for ever. We have 18 wonderful years together. You helped me grow up and taught me so much with your love. We will be together soon, wee man. Wait for me, son, love Mum XXX (Michelle)"

But there are moral problems with the prevailing trend. If we no longer see animals as our property to do with as we wish, then it becomes very difficult to sustain the case for killing and eating them. That is certainly the case for many of the 12.5 million British vegetarians who refuse to eat meat. Inspired by Australian activist Peter Singer and his seminal 1975 tract Animal Liberation, animal welfare organisations have long argued that our level of civilisation is determined by the degree to which we treat animals as equals.

For the silent majority to whom the ideas of animal rights activists such as Singer are anathema, the ending to Nim's story was telling. So, too, is a detail of Gana's story which emerged in Munster this week. Far from being the ideal of the doting mother, last year she rejected her six-week-old daughter Mary Zwo, who is now a star attraction at Stuttgart zoo.

Would most human mothers in similar circumstances do likewise? For the moment, it seems, some animals are still created more equal than others.

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