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?