Are Animals Spiritual?

On 21 August this year a woman died in a road accident in China. Tragically, more than 700 such deaths are likely to have occurred in China on that single day. However, in the months since, her passing has become a matter of international public interest as her canine companion has continued to stand steadfastly by the guard rail near the spot where she was killed. Allusions have been made to Hachiko, the Akita dog that for almost 10 years from 1925 waited at the end of each day for its dead owner outside a train station in Tokyo (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-11-13/loyal-dog-waits-for-almost-three-months-for-dead-owner-to-return/10491620), although there are many examples upon which one could draw of such canine “loyalty”.

I wonder though if the commonly used term “loyalty” properly captures the sentiment behind these actions. I consider them more properly understood as “faith”, a steadfast and unwavering belief that their human companion will rejoin them. Is “faith” spiritual? Are the actions of these dogs evidence to a human mind of a spiritual ethos? And the deeper question: Are animals spiritual?

Why is this a question even worth asking? Much has been written on whether animals have souls and, amongst those who believe in reincarnation, what form if any that might take for an animal. For my part, I have no doubt as to the answers to both these questions. Indeed, I recently enjoyed a most memorable experience at a spiritual conference where I had the opportunity of watching some of the most internationally renowned mediums assisting those seeking contact with others who have passed. On at least two occasions this involved contact with a close animal companion, a dog and a horse in each instance. The experience was both profound and compelling. So why the further question whether animals are spiritual? The answer is simple. Many of us look to those who are spiritual for guidance in our own lives. That guidance is no less valuable if we can take it from other beings with whom we share this planet. There is much we can learn from animals. One only has to look at the relationship many indigenous cultures had, and continue to have, with the animals around them to appreciate that.

One of the difficulties in answering the question whether animals are spiritual is the lack of any agreed understanding of what it means to be “spiritual’. Over time and in different contexts, the concept has had, and continues to have, different meaning for different people. Given this lack of accepted meaning, in this note I will focus on what it means to me.

There seems to be a general acceptance that in modern usage in Western culture the term “spiritual” involves the abandonment of material wealth as a principal goal in life. It is in the expression of what primary goal or goals should fill that void that views differ, in some cases, subtly, in others, more dramatically.

Expressed in its essence, “spiritual” means simply “of or concerning the spirit”. And “spirit” has its Latin foundation in spiritus – “breath”. To breathe is to “be”. So for me, the essence of spirituality is that which most puts me in touch with my “being” – your inner self, that is “amazed at things outside yourself” (Goodall, 2011). I may also have the capacity to then analyse that “amazement” as a path to better understanding my inner self, but this merely serves to possibly amplify or enhance my spiritual understanding. It is not a prerequisite to the spiritual experience itself. Can it be said of animals, or at least some animals, that they have spiritual experiences and are, in this sense, spiritual?

The biological evidence

In her book Spirit Unleashed: Reimagining Human-Animal Relations (nominated for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction), the psychologist and interdisciplinary scholar Anne Benvenuti has commented that “[w]hile much research remains to be done, the weight of evidence is now solidly on the side of evolutionary continuity of mind” (at 30), that “humans are not unique in possessing the neural substrates that generate conciousness” (at 30, quoting the conclusion of a 2012 Cambridge University Symposium on Conciousness). The “core functions of conciousness …are located not in the neocortex (thinking cap) of the brain, but in older and more primitive structures that all mammals share” (at 31, referring to the work of Jaak Panksepp). Dr Benvenuti believes that this “may point all the way to what I might call shared animal spirituality” (at 31). She quotes Kevin Nelson, the University of Kentucky neuroscientist:

We have strong indications that much of our spirituality arises from arousal, limbic, and reward systems that evolved long before the structures that made the brain capable of language and reasoning. Neurologically, mystical feelings may not be so much beyond language as before language. … Given that we share many of the structures and systems in our brains with other creatures, we may not be the only ones with spiritual feelings. (at 31)

The Observational Support

The primatologist Dame Jane Goodall, widely considered the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, has described a “dance” performed by chimpanzees before a waterfall:

Deep in the forest are some spectacular waterfalls. Sometimes as a chimpanzee – most often an adult male – approaches one of these falls his hair bristles slightly, a sign of heightened arousal. As he gets closer, and the roar of falling water gets louder, his pace quickens, his hair becomes fully erect, and upon reaching the stream he may perform a magnificent display close to the foot of the falls. Standing upright, he sways rhythmically from foot to foot, stamping in the shallow rushing water, picking up and hurling great rocks. Sometimes he climbs up the slender vines that hang down from the trees high above and swings out into the spray of the falling water. This “waterfall dance” may last for ten or fifteen minutes. … After a waterfall display the performer may sit on a rock, his eyes following the falling water. (Goodall, 2005 at 1304)

It is not only waterfalls that can trigger displays of this sort. Chimpanzees ‘dance’ at the onset of a very heavy rain, reaching up to sway saplings or low branches rhythmically back and forth, then moving forward in slow motion loudly slapping the ground with their hands, stamping with their feet, and hurling rock after rock. (Goodall, 2005 at 1304)

Goodall asks “Is it not possible that these performances are stimulated by feelings akin to wonder and awe?” (Goodall, 2005 at 1304) And given that their brains are so like ours, and their emotions also so clearly similar, she asks “ … why wouldn’t they also have feelings of some kind of spirituality?”. (Goodall, 2011)

And there are many other examples of animals behaving in similar ways:

A wildfire “dance”

  • a small party of chimpanzees having encountered a wildfire, rather than fleeing, “calmly monitor [the fire] at close range”, with a dominant male “exhibit[ing] a slow and exaggerated display ‘toward’ the fire in a manner analogous to the ‘’rain dance’”. (Pruetz and LaDuke)

Climbing glaciers without apparent purpose

Sitting in quiet contemplation

  • Barbara Smuts, who over a period of many years studied wild baboons in East Africa, recounts:

The Gombe baboons were travelling to their sleeping trees late in the day, moving slowly down a stream with many small, still pools, a route they often traversed. Without any signal perceptible to me, each baboon sat at the edge of a pool on one of the many smooth rocks that lined the edges of the stream. They sat alone or in small clusters, completely quiet, gazing at the water. Even the perpetually noisy juveniles fell into silent contemplation. I joined them. Half an hour later, again with no perceptible signal, they resumed their journey in what felt like an almost sacramental procession. I was stunned by this mysterious expression of what I have come to think of as baboon sangha. (Smuts at 300-301)

  • There is a somewhat similar description of “South African baboons … ritually huddl[ing] together with the setting of the sun, gaz[ing] at the western horizon, observ[ing] a period of silence, and ‘then from all sides would come the sound of mourning …” ( Siegel at 918, referring to the ethologist Eugène Marais). Siegel also notes that “[s]imilar behavior has been observed among the Colobus monkeys of Madagascar at sunrise and sunset”. (at 918)

Ritualised stone use

“Moon worship”

  • Elephants are recorded as “practic[ing] ‘moon worship,’ waving branches at the waxing moon and engaging in ritual bathing when the moon is full” (Siegel at 918). That elephants have some sort of “religious reverence (with a kind of devotion) not only [for] the starres and planets, but the sunne and moone they also worship” was noted even from the time of Pliny the Elder. (Pliny, Natural History VIII. Chap 1) (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/holland/pliny8.html)

Treatment of the Dead

  • Arguably to similar effect, it has been noted that:

… animal responses to death show striking similarities to how humans religiously respond to death. For instance, magpies, gorillas, elephants, llamas, foxes, and wolves all use ritual to cope with the death of a companion. Magpies will peck the dead body and then lay blades of grass next to it. Gorillas hold something so similar to a ‘wake’ that many zoos have formalized the ritual. Elephants hold large ‘funeral’ gatherings and treat the bones of their deceased with great respect. Llamas utilize stillness to mourn for their dead. Foxes bury their dead completely, as do wolves, who, if they lose a mate, will often go without sex and seek solitude. In all of these cases, the animals rely on ritual to ease the pain of death. (DiDonato, referring to Schaefer, see pp s182-183)

These examples are drawn from observation of animals in the wild. It is at least arguable that equally relevant are examples of animals in domestic environments engaging in:

Painting

Although the examples are of representational painting, in representing things in the real world, even representational painting is arguably abstracted in some degree. It is also interesting that not only do several species of animal paint, but it has been noted that the painter will get angry if the work is removed before they feel it is finished and that the “act of painting yields satisfaction apart from materialistic rewards” – in humans too “[r]ewards and praise have been shown to have a chilling effect on creativity and output” (Gurney, referring to Desmond Morris) (see further https://www.nytimes.com/1997/11/08/arts/it-seems-art-is-indeed-monkey-business.html; https://frieze.com/article/ape-artists-1950s; https://www.facebook.com/27035532105/posts/besides-eating-nia-loves-to-paint-she-starts-humming-a-gorillas-way-of-singing-w/10154887687147106/).

Singing

Animals singing along to rythmic music. (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/9762709/Parrots-have-personal-musical-tastes-and-even-like-to-sing-a-long-scientists-find.html)

Dancing

Animals apparently moving spontaneously to a beat.(https://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2014/04/01/297686709/the-list-of-animals-who-can-truly-really-dance-is-very-short-who-s-on-it).

Animals as spiritual

Critics counter that while these behaviours may be seen as expressions of awe, wonder and the like, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they demonstrate spirituality (for example, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/03/chimpanzee-spirituality/475731/). That may be true, but equally, “if we encountered a group of humans who returned to the same trees over and over and performed the same inexplicable action near them and didn’t seem to have any practical reason to do so, there would be lots of people who would interpret it through the prism of religion” or, similarly, spirituality (https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/03/chimpanzee-spirituality/475731/, quoting Schaefer).

While concluding that “chimpanzees are as spiritual as we are”, Goodall notes that “[t]hey can’t analyse it. … They can’t describe what they feel. You get the feeling that it is all locked up inside them and the only way they can express it is through this fantastic rythmic dance”. (Goodall, 2011)

Yet that same inability to use language to describe what they feel may arguably be part of what inspires an animal’s sense of the spiritual. As the veterinarian and animal advocate Linda Bender has noted:

… spiritual teachers will often exhort us to ‘quiet the mind’. … to quiet the verbal centre of the brain, to slow down or stop the incessant stream of words in our heads. … Animals … come by this inner stillness naturally. If to meditate is to stop talking to oneself, animals are meditating all the time. Imagine what they might have to teach us if we regarded them as our gurus! (at 35)

Notes and Bibliography

This post benefited greatly from the very valuable comments upon an earlier draft kindly provided by my friend and writing colleague, Ms Marianne Schmidt.

All internet citations were current as at 19 November 2018.

I have used the term “animals” throughout this note though technically, as humans are also biologically animals, I am discussing non-human animals properly described.

The statistic on traffic related deaths in China was sourced from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_traffic-related_death_rate.

An account of Hachiko appears in Wikipedia (://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hachik%C5%8D)

Bender, L., Animal Wisdom: Learning from the Spiritual Lives of Animals (North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, 2014)

Benvenuti, A., Spirit Unleashed: Reimagining Human-Animal Relations (Cascade Books, Oregon, 2014) (a preview of the book is available at https://books.google.com.au/books?id=AHUNBQAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false)

DiDonato, N., Science on Religion: Animals may have religion, 3 October 2013) (http://www.scienceonreligion.org/index.php/news-research/research-updates/570-animals-may-have-religion)

Goodall, J., “Primate Sprituality” in Bron Taylor (ed.), Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (Continuum, London & New York, 2005) 1303-1306 (relevant sample entry extracted at file:///C:/Users/Philip/Downloads/Goodall–PrimateSpirituality%20(1).pdf)

Goodall, J., Waterfall Displays, the Jane Goodall Institute, transcript from video, 2011) (https://vimeo.com/18404370)

Gurney, J., Gurney Journey: Why do chimps paint? ( 14 March 2013)(http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com/2013/03/why-do-chimps-do-art.html?m=1)

Pruetz, J. D. and LaDuke, T. C., “Brief communication: Reaction to Fire by Savanna Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) at Fongoli, Senegal: Conceptualization of “Fire Behavior” and the Case for a Chimpanzee Model” (2010) 141 American Journal of Physical Anthropology 646–650 (http://www.academia.edu/13429443/Brief_communication_Reaction_to_fire_by_savanna_chimpanzees_Pan_troglodytes_verus_at_Fongoli_Senegal_Conceptualization_of_%C3%A2_fire_behavior%C3%A2_and_the_case_for_a_chimpanzee_model)

Schaller, G., The Year of the Gorilla (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2010) ( a preview of the book is available at https://books.google.com.au/books?id=Pg-jF6yErU8C&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ViewAPI&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false)

Schaefer D., “Do Animals Have Religion? Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Religion and Embodiment” (2012) 25:sup1 Anthrozoös s173-s189, DOI: 10.2752/175303712X13353430377291 (http://donovanschaefer.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Schaefer-Do-Animals-Have-Religion-AZ.pdf)

Siegel R.K.,”The Psychology of Life After Death” (1980) 35(10) American Psychologist 911-931 (https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/f425/35b88e8e463117d8a54b70cd02f55f85f3a4.pdf)

Smuts, B., “Encounters with animal minds” (2001) 8(5-7) Journal of Consciousness Studies 293–309 (https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/cross_fac/iatl/study/ugmodules/humananimalstudies/lectures/32/smuts.pdf)

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