Read an Excerpt
The Souls of Animals
By Gary Kowalski, Art Wolfe
New World LibraryCopyright © 1999 Gary A. Kowalski
All rights reserved.
Do Animals Have Souls?
What is the Question?
Imagine a warm spring day on a small farm in Mississippi. The flowers are in fragrant bloom, and a sow that has free run of the farmyard has just given birth to piglets. Later that day, a glance under the porch where the new babies are resting reveals a wonderful sight. The mother pig has carefully bitten off blossoms to make a bouquet of jonquils, which she has arranged in a bright yellow wreath surrounding the sleeping litter.
No one who saw such a scene could doubt that animals know just as much about nurturing and celebrating life as people do, and maybe much more. The woman who wrote to tell me about this barnyard nativity accompanied her letter with a hand-rendered drawing showing a halo of flowers with their stems pointing outward, petals toward the center, piglets nestled snugly in the middle. She included other stories as well, like the one about her two horses Rifle, a gelding, and April, a pretty black mare. Rifle was quite enamored of April. When the mare was sent to Missouri to be bred to a race horse, Rifle was never the same again, and he died not long afterward. Such experiences, along with seventy-four years of caring for dogs and cats, convinced my correspondent that animals indeed have souls, with joys and sorrows very much like our own.
Over the years I received a good many letters like that from readers who believed, like me, that animals can inspire us to wiser and more winsome living. When The Souls of Animals was first published, I wrote about my own dog, Chinook, calling him my spiritual guide. Although he is no longer living, what I said then still holds:
"My dog has deep knowledge to impart. He makes friends easily and doesn't hold a grudge. He enjoys simple pleasures and takes each day as it comes. Like a true Zen master, he eats when he's hungry and sleeps when he's tired. He's not hung up about sex. Best of all, he befriends me with an unconditional love that human beings would do well to emulate.
"Chinook does have his failings, of course. He's afraid of firecrackers and hides in the clothes closet whenever we run the vacuum cleaner, but unlike me he's not afraid of what other people think of him or anxious about his public image. He barks at the mail carrier and the newsboy, but in contrast with some people I know he never growls at the children or barks at his wife.
"So my dog is a sort of guru. When I become too serious and preoccupied, he reminds me of the importance of frolicking and play. When I get too wrapped up in abstractions and ideas, he reminds me of the importance of exercising and caring for my body. On his own canine level, he shows me that it might be possible to live without inner conflicts or neuroses: uncomplicated, genuine, and glad to be alive."
As Mark Twain remarked long ago, human beings have a lot to learn from the Higher Animals. Just because they haven't invented static cling, ICBMs, or television evangelists doesn't mean they aren't spiritually evolved.
But what does it mean for an animal (including the human animal) to be spiritually evolved? In my mind, it means many things: the development of a moral sense, the appreciation of beauty, the capacity for creativity, and the awareness of one's self within a larger universe as well as a sense of mystery and wonder about it all. These are the most precious gifts we possess, yet there is nothing esoteric or otherworldly about such spiritual capabilities. Indeed, my contention is that spirituality is quite natural, rooted firmly in the biological order and in the ecology shared by all life.
This book is about the spiritual lives of animals: whooping cranes, elephants, jackdaws, gorillas, songbirds, horses, and household dogs and cats. Much has been written about the intelligence of other species and their ability to solve problems. But spirituality is related less to problem-solving than to the kinds of problems we are even able to consider. We may contemplate death, for instance, without ever really hoping to "solve" the problem of our own demise. In reflecting on the spiritual lives of other creatures, therefore, I am concerned less with raw brain power, memory, and learning ability than I am with more subtle facets of intellgience such as empathy, artistry, and imagination.
Investigations of interspecies spirituality take us into unmapped territory. Are other animals conscious of themselves, as we are? Do they grieve or have thoughts and feelings about the end of life? Do animals dream? Do they have a conscience or a sense of right and wrong? Do other species make music or appreciate art?
In the years that have passed since this book first appeared, more and more experts have begun to address questions like these. A well-known psychologist has published a work on the emotional lives of animals: When Elephants Weep. Frans de Waal, a noted primatologist, has written books on peacemaking among primates and on the ways the political manuevering of chimps often seems to mirror our own. I am glad that these issues are finally receiving more attention from reputable researchers and scientists. Indeed, this book could not have been written without the insights of pioneers like Jane Goodall and Konrad Lorenz. Since I am not a zoologist, I depend heavily on their data. But while I have striven to be accurate and objective in my findings, this is a book that has more to do with religion than with science.
I am a parish minister by vocation, so my own field of expertise is in the realm of the intangible. I pray with the dying and counsel the bereaved. I christen infants, and share in the joy of parents when new life comes into the world. I occasionally help people think through moral quandaries and make ethical decisions, and I also share a responsibilty for educating the young, helping them realize their inborn potential for reverence and compassion. Week after week I stand before my congregation and try to talk about the unfathomed riddles of existence. While I do not claim to know all the answers, having the title "Reverend" in front of my name does permit me to raise a host of questions that might be considered off-limits by hard-headed scientists and academicians. Clergy have a professional license to ponder topics that others consider imponderable.
As late twentieth-century shamans, we are allowed to examine enigmas like "What makes us human?" and "What makes life sacred?" We can ask not only about the mating behavior and survival strategies of other animals but whether they have souls and spirits like our own. The danger here is that we are often in over our heads. But at least we are swimming in deep water and out of the shallows. In searching for answers to such queries, I have found, we not only enrich our understanding of other creatures, we also gain insight into ourselves.
Without anthropomorphizing our nonhuman relations we can acknowledge that animals share many human characteristics. They have individual likes and dislikes, moods and mannerisms, and possess their own integrity, which suffers when not respected. They play and are curious about their world. They develop friendships and sometimes risk their own lives to help others. They have "animal faith," a spontaneity and directness that can be most refreshing.
To me, animals have all the traits indicative of soul. For soul is not something we can see or measure. We can observe only its outward manifestations: in tears and laughter, in courage and heroism, in generosity and forgiveness. Soul is what's behind-the-scenes in the tough and tender moments when we are most intensely and grippingly alive. But what exactly is the soul? Since The Souls of Animals first came to print, a great deal has been written on that subject. Bookstores now have shelves bursting with titles like Care of the Soul and Chicken Soup for the Soul (in multiple servings). Having been neglected and almost lost for many years, the term soul is currently in danger of becoming clichéd through overuse. That would be a shame, for soul is a rich and resonant word that needs to be reclaimed and, perhaps, redefined.
Many people think of soul as the element of personality that survives bodily death, but for me it refers to something much more down-to-earth. Soul is the marrow of our existence as sentient, sensitive beings. It's soul that's revealed in great works of art, and soul that's lifted up in awe when we stand in silence under a night sky burning with billions of stars. When we speak of a soulful piece of music, we mean one that comes out of infinite depths of feeling. When we speak of the soul of a nation, we mean its capacity for valor and visionary change. "The soul," said the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, "is partly in eternity and partly in time." Soul is present wherever our lives intersect the dimension of the holy: in moments of intimacy, in flights of fancy, and in rituals that hallow the evanescent events of our lives with enduring significance. Soul is what makes each of our lives a microcosm — not merely a meaningless fragment of the universe, but at some level a reflection of the whole.
No one can prove that animals have souls. Asking for proof would be like demanding proof that I love my wife and children, or wanting me to prove that Handel's Messiah is a glorious masterpiece of music. Some truths simply cannot be demonstrated. But if we open our hearts to other creatures and allow ourselves to sympathize with their joys and struggles, we will find they have the power to touch and transform us. There is an inwardness in other creatures that awakens what is innermost in ourselves.
For ages people have known that animals have a balance and harmony we can learn from. Their instincts and adaptations to life are sometimes healthier than our own. "In the beginning of all things," said the Pawnee Chief Letakots-Lesa, "wisdom and knowledge were with the animals." The Pawnee believed that "Tirawa, the One Above," did not speak directly to human beings but sent certain animals as messengers and healers, and that humans should learn from them as well as from the stars, the sun, and the moon. Other creatures have inhabited the earth much longer than we have, and as native peoples realized, they have much to teach us about our world.
This book is devoted to exploring the extent to which animals can be our guides, soul mates and fellow travelers, sharing in the things that make us most deeply human. Each chapter looks at a different facet of animal experience. Why do animals play? What are their fears and fantasies? What does the world look like through their eyes? How close are their experiences to our own?
A work like this may raise more questions than it answers. Yet if the questions serve to make us more appreciative of the other creatures who share this planet, the book will have served its purpose. For I believe that if we are to keep our family homestead — third stone from the sun — safe for coming generations, we must awaken to a new respect for the family of life.
Those of us alive today are witnesses and accomplices to an extintinction of the earth's inhabitants unlike any known in previous human history. Millions of species are at risk. Yet as animal rights activist and author Alice Walker reminds us, "anything we love can be saved." In asking if animals have souls, we are also asking whether we can learn to care about them passionately enough to insure their future ... and our own.
Thankfully, more and more people are becoming concerned for other species — one additional reason for an updated version of this book. In a poll of more than a thousand Americans conducted in 1996 by the Associated Press, two thirds of those questioned agreed with the premise that "an animal's right to live free of suffering should be just as important as a person's." The same number believed it was wrong to use animals in cosmetics testing, while a majority disapproved of killing them for their fur or in hunting for sport. In America, as elsewhere, attitudes are changing. The more we learn about other creatures, in their richness and complexity, the more people come to realize the preciousness of life in all its forms.
Frequently, it is one particular animal that opens our hearts. For me, it was my dog Chinook, who was twelve when he lay down last summer for the final time. Now that I have a galloping, bouncing puppy in the house, I realize that Chinook was an "old soul" even as a youngster: considerate, calm, even-tempered, and gentle. But while Chinook was a remarkable animal, I also realize that he was far from being unique. The world is full of astonishing creatures, each with a gift to share and a lesson to impart. Is it possible, I wonder, to embrace all of creation — the insects, the birds, the plants, wild creatures and tame ones — with a degree of the same doting fondness I felt for that wise, sweet-natured old dog? If I can learn to love that much, then there's hope for me, and maybe hope for us all.
* * *
Life is filled with grief. Death and loss are unavoidable companions of the flesh. But are we the only animals who grieve? Do other creatures have thoughts and feelings about the end of life or wonder what lies beyond? The consciousness of our own mortality is part of what makes us human — it is one of the elements that makes us a spiritual animal — but it may be an aspect of life we share with many other species.CHAPTER 2
Are Animals Aware of Death?
It's always hard to say good-bye. As a parish minister, part of my job is caring for the dying and bereaved, but finding the right words doesn't get any easier with practice. What do you say to the parents whose one-day-old daughter — their first child — died because she was born with part of her heart missing? What do you say at a memorial service for a middle-aged man, a cancer victim, that will give solace and support to his widow and two teenagers? Words aren't adequate to address the shock and desolation we feel when a loved one dies.
The only thing that seems to help is a caring presence. So we gather with our families. Our friends come around. We assemble in our spiritual communities. We light a candle, share a hug, or join in a moment of silence. And although we don't stop grieving, we know that we don't grieve alone. Others, who have also borne tragedy in their lives, understand the pain we feel. And out of that shared suffering we somehow gather strength to endure the loss.
Do other animals feel grief? We know that people grieve for their pets, of course. People in my congregation have come to me many times for counseling when their animal companions die. The loss of a beloved dog or cat can be very upsetting and naturally makes us sad. But I was stunned the first time I heard about Koko, the gorilla who grieved for her pet kitten. Koko's story convinced me that animals, like people, also have strong feelings about the end of life.
Koko is a female lowland gorilla who for more than two decades has been the focus of the world's longest ongoing ape language study. Instead of using spoken words, Koko communicates in Ameslan, or American Sign Language. Her teacher, Dr. Francine "Penny" Patterson of the California Gorilla Foundation, has helped the ape master a vocabulary of more than five hundred words. That's how Koko told Penny she wanted a cat for her birthday. She signs the word cat by drawing two fingers across her cheeks to indicate whiskers.
One day a litter of three kittens was brought to the rural compound in Woodside, California, where Koko lives. The kittens had been abandoned at birth. Their "foster mother" was a terrier, who suckled them through the first month of life. Handling them with the gentle behavior typical of gorillas, Koko chose her pet, a tailless kitten with grey fur. She named her young friend "All Ball."
Koko enjoyed her new kitten, sniffing it and stroking it tenderly. She carried All Ball tucked against her upper leg and attempted to nurse it as if it were a baby gorilla. Koko was surprised to learn that kittens bite. When All Ball bit her on the finger, she made the signs for "dirty" and "toilet," her usual expressions of disapproval. It wasn't long, though, before Koko was signing the cat to tickle her — one of the gorilla's favorite games. "Koko seems to think that cats can do most things that she can do," said Penny.
"Soft/good/cat," said Koko.
One night All Ball escaped from the Gorilla Foundation and was accidentally killed by a car. When Koko was told about the accident, she at first acted as if she didn't hear or understand. Then a few minutes later she started to cry with high-pitched sobs. "Sad/frown" and "Sleep/cat" were her responses when the kitten was mentioned later. For nearly a week after the loss Koko cried whenever the subject of cats came up.
The gorilla clearly missed her feline companion. But how much did she understand about what had happened? Fortunately, it was possible to ask
Koko directly. Maureen Sheehan, a staff member at the Gorilla Foundation, interviewed Koko about her thoughts on death.
"Where do gorillas go when they die?" Maureen asked.
Koko replied, "Comfortable/hole/bye [the sign for kissing a person good-bye]."
"When do gorillas die?" she asked.
Koko replied with the signs "Trouble/old."
"How do gorillas feel when they die: happy, sad, afraid?"
"Sleep," answered Koko.
Gorillas not only mourn. Like human beings, they seem able to reflect on their own demise and struggle with the same sorts of questions that haunt us when a loved one dies.
Excerpted from The Souls of Animals by Gary Kowalski, Art Wolfe. Copyright © 1999 Gary A. Kowalski. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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