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Buddhism in the News


Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Compassion of Animals.

The November issue of National Geographic magazine features a moving photograph of chimpanzees watching as one of their own is wheeled to her burial. Since it was published, the picture and story have gone viral, turning up on websites and TV shows and in newspapers around the world. For readers who’d like to know more, here’s what I learned when I interviewed the photographer, Monica Szczupider. On September 23, 2008, Dorothy, a female chimpanzee in her late 40s, died of congestive heart failure. A maternal and beloved figure, Dorothy had spent eight years at Cameroon’s Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center, which houses and rehabilitates chimps victimized by habitat loss and the illegal African bushmeat trade. Szczupider, who had been a volunteer at the center, told me: “Her presence, and loss, was palpable, and resonated throughout the group. The management at Sanaga-Yong opted to let Dorothy's chimpanzee family witness her burial, so that perhaps they would understand, in their own capacity, that Dorothy would not return. Some chimps displayed aggression while others barked in frustration. But perhaps the most stunning reaction was a recurring, almost tangible silence. If one knows chimpanzees, then one knows that [they] are not [usually] silent creatures."

James: It touches me deeply that this chimpanzee family lined up to view the dead body of one of their own as it passed by them. It's similar to the funeral possessions that are common amongst humans, which makes sense on one level when you consider that humans and chimpanzees have DNA that is 95-98% similar. In Buddhism we are taught that the human realm offers the best chance for realizing liberation from suffering and the cycle of birth/death. In addition to that it is said that the animal realm is a horrendous station and from what I have observed of the animal kingdom it does seem rather harsh and rough. Sometimes this unfortunately leads people to see animals as "dumb" and that delusion often leads to taking advantage of them.

We do so at our own peril because animals are embedded in our DNA if you believe the generally accepted theory of evolution. Taken a step further in Buddhism, of course we know that we are interconnected to all beings regardless of evolution or not. The molecules that make up our body blend with the molecules that make up the air, which blend into the molecules that make up other people, animals, rocks, water and on and on. It is not a connection we can see with our eyes of delusion but if we look closer with a mindful eye that web of connection shines forth in beautiful and reassuring ways.

Those chimpanzees might not know the Dharma but they do understand love and compassion. How could a mother of any species not have a bond with their offspring that is an expression of concern and care? In my mind, that is but another way of showing and experiencing compassion and love. The uncharacteristic silence of the chimps is something a being wouldn't show if it didn't experience expressions of sorrow and respect. We know chimps are capable of showing respect in how they stratify their family groups. Respect is shown to the experienced and strong male as well as the alpha female.

So they may not know how to liberate themselves from suffering but in my opinion they deserve respect, dignity and a chance at life that we expect for our own offspring. It's not my place to say that someone should be a vegetarian--that's an ego boosting exercise nor it is skillful means. Besides, Buddha didn't set a strict rule about it nor can all people follow a vegetarian diet due to climate and health considerations. I don't eat meat and abstaining from it is for me personally apart of keeping the first precept to avoid violence. However, I struggle with other precepts so I don't have any right to condemn anyone for eating meat -- nor would I do so. I may not eat meat or kill animals but I do still struggle sometimes with verbal violence so I keep working and practicing. There is no point to judging others or guilting people into doing something or not doing something. In addition, people can be very compassionate, loving and caring toward animals regardless of diet. Although for some, vegetarianism might be helpful, rewarding and beneficial to understanding compassion as a universal right.

~Peace to all beings~

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Adam said...

I get the magazine and was stunned by this picture. It speaks volumes by itself.

I don't know if you subscribe as well, but there was also a picture of a hairless chimp in a tree in that issue. At first I thought it was an aboriginal hiding it's face. Very jarring.

Animal Fact Finder said...

Great commentary. I love this story. It also makes me so sad that we are capable of such terrible cruelty to chimps (hunting them for bushmeat, using them for medical experiments, etc.) especially when the exhibit so many emotions. We have been responsible for so much suffering in chimps.

Jayarava said...

A long time ago Jane Goodall recorded the case of a young (but not dependent) chimp who became depressed and eventually just wasted away and died when his mother died. The youngun was able to be independent, but just couldn't adjust.

T. James said...

Wow, I had not seen this story. I have always felt a deep sense of relatedness with chimps and other primates. This story and commentary makes the connection seem even more vivid.

Moon Over Martinborough said...

It makes complete and total sense to me that chimps would feel compassion. If we're so closely related to them, that explains why we feel it too.

Recently I felt horrible when I found a starling trapped inside my woodburner after I'd lit the fire. It was gutwrenching. It's the same kind of thing.

dhammaboy said...

Their feelings go beyond compassion. One of the most dramatic things I've ever seen was a female Chimp who carried around her dead baby after it died shortly after birth.

A little bit insane, like maybe you would become if you lost a young child.

The other Chimps in the tribe seemed to try and get her to give it up but it just ended up pushing her away. She'd hide at the outskirts of the tribe.

This went on until she was finally able to let go. it's gut wrenching.

Please however don't let this lull you into the common misconception that Chimpanzees are cute cuddly little animals. They are not. The are aggressive _wild_ animals. They are unpredictable, by human standards. They are extremely territorial and very, very aggressive. They wage war on other neighboring tribes, with weapons and all.

I love Chimps, I love all beings and yes they are very obviously capable of great emotion I'm just tired of reading these stories that have been in the news recently of these people who have been mauled by 'pet' chimpanzees.

Jane Goodall spent a long, long time learning the rules of primate society and then dealt with them on their turf by their rules. Putting stupid hats and diapers on them and expecting them to be OK in our environment isn't good for either of us.

Stop the violence, stop the cruelty but let chimps be chimps and learn to be people.

Marco said...

I was really stunned by this pic.

Marco @ rankpay

Penegra Online said...

The youngun was able to be independent, but just couldn't adjust.

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