Snowy Day Play

I love videos of animals playing. This one from the Oregon Zoo showing animals in the snow is particularly cute. Isn’t it weird how we’ve been indoctrinated to see animals as unthinking creatures, devoid of relationships and driven only by the instinct to eat and reproduce? Why do we even think that’s the sort of world God would create? Silly.

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Animals and Religion

Did you know that animals engage in what appears to be ritualistic behaviors which appear to show some awareness of the luminous, if not the spiritual? It’s true. In particular, a variety of animals have death rituals:

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.

That’s from an article on titled Animals May Have Religion. The author goes on to say, “in all of these cases, the animals rely on ritual to ease the pain of death.” Scientists are usually hesitant to ascribe motivation to animals beyond the desire for sex, food and survival. But it doesn’t appear to be too much of a stretch to make the claim that animals experience pain and may use ritual as a way to help transition into life without their former companion.

Consider the case of the funeral procession or wake which a pod of dolphins were observed holding for a young dolphin who had died:

Or this recent story about how scrub jays react to dead scrub jays. Or observed cases of mother giraffes spending time alone with her dead child’s remains.

It’s not just death rituals either. Primates have been observed engaging in behavior which could indicate awe or ritual practices:

The chimpanzees of Gombe “dance” at the base of an enormous waterfall in the Kakombe Valley. This “dance” moves slowly and rhythmically alongside the riverbed. The chimps transition into throwing giant rocks and branches, and then hanging on vines over the stream until the vines verge on snapping. Their “dance” lasts for ten minutes or longer. . . . 

the savanna chimps of Senegal, perform a fire dance. Most animals flee from wildfires, fearing for their lives. To the contrary, these chimps only slowly move away from it, and at times even move closer to it. One dominant male went so far as to make a slow and exaggerated “display” at the fire. . . 

Gombe baboons perform a “baboon sangha.” Without signal or warning, these baboons sat in silence before a stream with many small pools and simply gazed at the water. They did this for over 30 minutes, without even the juveniles making a peep. Again without signal or warning, they resumed their normal activities.

Can somebody please hurry up and make an animal translator already? Wouldn’t you love to know what they’re thinking?

Playing With Our Lives?

Did you know that all animals play? I knew some did, but hadn’t realized how widespread play is in the animal kingdom:

the existence of animal play is considered something of an intellectual scandal. It’s understudied, and those who do study it are seen as mildly eccentric. As with many vaguely threatening, speculative notions, difficult-to-satisfy criteria are introduced for proving animal play exists, and even when it is acknowledged, the research more often than not cannibalizes its own insights by trying to demonstrate that play must have some long-term survival or reproductive function.

Despite all this, those who do look into the matter are invariably forced to the conclusion that play does exist across the animal universe. And exists not just among such notoriously frivolous creatures as monkeys, dolphins, or puppies, but among such unlikely species as frogs, minnows, salamanders, fiddler crabs, and yes, even ants—which not only engage in frivolous activities as individuals, but also have been observed since the nineteenth century to arrange mock-wars, apparently just for the fun of it. ~ David Graeber*

Aside from just being cool, it also makes me wonder if God’s intention for us doesn’t include a good deal of pleasure. Scripture says that creation is a testimony to God. If play is so widespread that ants do it, then that must reflect something about God’s nature and therefor ours.

In the article I quote above, Dr. Graeber goes on to postulate that play at it’s most basic level may even exist at the quantum level. That even subatomic particles may be chosing their paths and that they may sometimes do it for the sheer pleasure of it.

It’s an axiom of JudeoChristian thought that there is something wrong with humanity. If we learn that play is a driving force in the very foundations of the universe. And if we accept that living things appear to all play. Then, it would appear that our impoverished concept of play and its role in our lives may be one of those things that’s really wrong about us. Who woulda thunk it?

*That quote comes from a delightful article I read recently on the role of play in creation. It’s really long and rather scholarly though. Sample:

What would happen if we proceeded from the reverse perspective and agreed to treat play not as some peculiar anomaly, but as our starting point, a principle already present not just in lobsters and indeed all living creatures, but also on every level where we find what physicists, chemists, and biologists refer to as “self-organizing systems”

If that sentence made your heart sing, you can go read the whole thing here. If you’re a normal human being and that sentence gave you a headache, here’s an awesome video of a whale and dolphin playing: