Of Great Apes and Lessons for Humanity

Ota Benga was born more than a century ago. He was a Mbuti, a short statured indigenous peoples of the Congo. As a four foot 11 inch pygmy with teeth filed to sharp points, he found himself in 1904 headed to the United States to be part of an anthropology exhibition. By 1906, he was working in a role helping maintain the animal habitats at the Bronx Zoo before the interest the public took in the young Ota saw his gradual but ultimate degradation into one of the very exhibits he had been helping maintain. In a sad poststcript, in 1916, aged 32, Ota took his own life.

Ota’s treatment evokes a feeling of revulsion by the standards of our day. Yet Ota shared his cage in the Monkey House with an orangutan named Dohong. Dohong’s circumstances were no less desperate yet even today there is little public interest in his story or the degradation he experienced.

Orangutans are a member of the family of Great Apes which also includes other primates such as gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos, who all share a very close genetic similarity with humans. Perhaps less well known is the fact that humans are also classified in this sub-group of primates (Family Hominidae). We are all hominids. Indeed, orangutan is a Malay word that means “person of the forest”. It is not only in their genetic makeup that other Great Apes share close similarities with humans.

Chimpanzees have perhaps received the most attention in this regard. The Jane Goodall Institute Australia (https://www.janegoodall.org.au/great-apes/) points not only to their sharing almost 99% of the same DNA, but also to their “striking similarities in … blood composition and immune responses”, “startlingly similar” brain and central nervous system, capacity for human languages such as American Sign Language, mastery of complex computer skills, capacity for “reasoned thought, abstraction, generalisations [and] symbolic representation”, having a concept of self, “uncanny similarities in … nonverbal communication patterns”, and similarities in their “behaviour, intellectual performance and emotions” and biological composition. Indeed, it is precisely because those biological similarities are so close that they are used in medical research.

Recognising these similarities, the Animal Legal and Historical Centre (https://www.animallaw.info/intro/argentina) has noted that Argentina was the first country to go so far as to actually grant rights of legal personhood to an orangutan (Sandra) and a chimpanzee (Cecilia).

I admit though that it is gorillas that hold a particular fascination for me. I recently attended a spiritual conference where in one of the sessions I was taken on a past life regression which quite vividly suggested to me a previous existence as a gorilla killed by poachers. Even if one does not accept either the beliefs of the many cultures and religions which recognise the reality of reincarnation or the body of evidence supporting its existence, my experience was at the very least a powerful reflection of my deepest underlying beliefs. From my mid-teens I had felt a very close affinity with animals, going on as an academic in my early professional life to publish quite widely in the field of animal welfare. Amongst the animals with whom we share our planet, gorillas are for me the most noble of creatures, “gentle giants” who avoid physical confrontation wherever possible recognising their strength and exercising it with restraint and understanding.

Dian Fossey’s extensive work over some two decades with mountain gorillas in Rwanda was immortalised in the 1988 film, Gorillas in the Mist. The bonds that she developed with the gorillas, particularly Digit, and the life and experiences of other gorillas such as Koko and Michael (both associated with the Gorilla Foundation), have done much to bring to the public eye the “humanity” of these magnificent creatures. Having had the profound opportunity to watch Michael apparently describing the murder by poachers of his mother, I share the view that he possessed an “intense emotional and intellectual personality” (http://www.koko.org/node/273). It is Koko though, with whom Michael grew up, whose life captured the public’s interest, twice appearing on the cover of National Geographic. The following is an extract from an article published about her in 2003 in the Journal of the Gorilla Foundation (Francine G.P. Patterson and Wendy Gordon, “Thirty Years of Project Koko” (Spring 2003) 25(1) Gorilla 2-4 at 2 (http://www.koko.org/sites/default/files/root/journals/gorilla_vol25_1.pdf)):

She communicates using sign language, with a vocabulary of some 1,000 words. She also understands spoken English, and often carries on “bilingual” conversations, responding in Sign to questions asked in English. … She has achieved scores between 85 and 95 on the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test.

She demonstrates self-awareness by engaging in self-directed behaviors in front of a mirror, such as making faces or examining her teeth, and by her appropriate use of self-descriptive language. She lies to avoid the consequences of her own misbehavior, and anticipates others’ responses to her actions. She engages in imaginary play, both alone and with others. She has produced representational paintings and drawings. She remembers and can talk about past events in her life. She understands and has appropriately used time-related words such as before, after, later, and yesterday.

She laughs at her own jokes and those of others. She cries when hurt or left alone, screams when frightened or angered. She talks about her feelings, using words such as happy, sad, afraid, enjoy, eager, frustrate, mad, shame, and most frequently, love. She grieves for those she has lost a favorite cat that has died, a friend who has gone away. She can talk about what happens when one dies, but she becomes fidgety and uncomfortable when asked to discuss her own death or the death of her companions. …

Sadly Koko, aged 46, died in her sleep in June. The Gorilla Foundation in noting her passing, observed of her legacy that she had “touched the lives of millions as an ambassador for all gorillas and an icon for interspecies communication and empathy” (https://www.koko.org/gorilla-foundation-sad-announce-passing-our-beloved-koko).

In 2015, Koko was invited by NOE Conservation to represent the “Voice of Nature” at the COP21 Climate Conference in Paris. Recognising that “[b]ecause of her unique ability to communicate with humans in sign language, Koko is a natural ambassador for endangered species”, the Gorilla Foundation approached Koko about the invitation with a view to recording a short video PSA (Public Service Announcement) (https://www.koko.org/blog/video/2015-12-01):

Turns out Koko was very interested in the subject, which we briefed her on via a recent issue of National Geographic titled “Cool It!” We also presented her with a script drafted by NOE (as any celebrity ambassador asked to do a PSA would expect) and allowed her to improvise during [a] series of brief daily video discussion sessions …

The resulting PSA … was edited from a number of separate takes, for brevity and continuity. However, Koko was clear about the main message: Man is harming the Earth and its many animal and plant species and needs to “hurry” and fix the problem.

To me it is a matter of profound significance that one of our fellow beings on this planet has been able to adopt a means of communication meaningful to us to exhort us to act urgently to address the environmental degradation humanity is wreaking upon the planet.

When in Argentina in 2016 a court granted rights of legal personhood to the chimpazee Cecilia, the decision has been noted to have been founded not only on the evidence of the genetic proximity of the other great apes to humans, their sentience, cognitive abilities and emotional life, but also on the basis that:

… the human being today stands at a crucial ecological crossroads where humanity is confronted with self-inflicted ecological disasters and catastrophes. By referring to theories of Gaia (the Greek goddess of mother Earth), Pachamama (the Andean goddess of mother Earth) and indigenous thought – which all hold that the Earth is a living organism and that all the species and ecosystems, including humans, are interrelated – [the judge] emphasised that it was our human responsibility to protect the environment and the ecosystems which the human being is also a natural part of. (Fraundorfer at 23)

As Fraundorfer concludes, we “need to rethink our relationship with other species. We need to recognise that we are intrinsically connected to the species living on this planet” (at 23). He sees a way forward in Indigenous thought, particularly Amerindian perspectives: “Many indigenous cultures see the world as a living organism where everything is connected” (at 18). If we are to take the steps which we must urgently take to address the ecological crisis we have created, we must change our thinking. We must accept and understand the intrinsic indivisibility of all things, that ultimately everything is one:

The greatest illusion in this world is the illusion of separation.

If we look at the path, we do not see the sky. We are earth people on a spiritual journey to the stars. Our quest, our earth walk, is to look within, to know who we are, to see that we are connected to all things, that there is no separation, only in the mind.
(Native American)


In the preparation of this post, I would like to acknowledge the contribution of a friend and writing colleague, Ms Marianne Schmidt, who was kind enough to provide her thoughts on it.

All internet citations were current as at 12 November 2018.

Much has been written in more recent years of Ota Benga’s life. The short account provided in the text is principally drawn from the brief but informative treatment to be found on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ota_Benga).

Markus Fraundorfer, “The Rediscovery of Indigenous Thought in the Modern Legal System: The Case of the Great Apes” (February 2018) 9(1) Global Policy 17-25 at 23 (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/1758-5899.12517). Fraundorfer draws his analysis of the 2016 Argentinian decision concerning the chimpanzee Cecilia, to which I have referred, from Poder Judicial Mendoza (2016) Presentación Efectuada por A.F.A.D.A. Respecto del Chimpanzé ‘Cecilia’ – Sujeto No-humano, 3 November at 32-43 [online] – available from: http://www.projetogap.org.br/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/329931683-habeas-corpus-cecilia.pdf.

The two quotes concluding this note can be found at https://awakenthegreatnesswithin.com/34-inspirational-quotes-enlightenment/.

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