We humans puzzle over the internal lives of our animal neighbours. In spite of of all the years we have observed them at close hand, we are wary of attributing feelings to them. We fear being accused of anthropomorphizing if we say they are joyous or grieving.
Fortunately, scientists are giving us a small opening for trusting our observations. In this National Geographic video (Chimps “Mourn” Nine-year-old’s Death), a research team in Zambia films chimps reacting to the death of a nine-year-old male at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage.
The 200-acre enclosure is home to 43 chimps. On the day of the filming a chimp dies near the fence. The scientist are there for a regularly scheduled research visit. When they start recording, a few chimps are examining their dead comrade. Within a few minutes, more arrive. They gather quietly, in a way the scientists have never before seen. They touch, smell, and gaze at the dead chimp, who has died of pneumonia.
The scientists are careful not to call this unusual behaviour “mourning”. That’s appropriate, as naming these primates’ emotions requires using human labels researchers can never be sure apply. But these careful scientists are clearly excited.
I find hope in the slow, gradual admission that animals plan, use tools, socialize, and experience emotions. The more we acknowledge that we are not the only creatures who think and feel, the more respect we will accord the beings with whom we share the planet.
After all, we get communications wrong with each other, but we don’t stop naming what it is we think we are observing.