Last January, I traveled to Tanzania with National Geographic presenter Justin Hall to shoot a segment for Explorer about the spiritual nature of chimpanzees and the blurry line between the emotional capacities of non-human animals and humans. In the pieces’ introduction, author and scientist Barbara King notes that “We see examples of empathy, imagination, and meaning making in the animal world.” I couldn’t agree more.
This segment was inspired by the early observations of chimpanzee waterfall displays and rain dances by Dr. Jane Goodall, who wrote of these behaviors over 40 years ago. Some of my earliest recordings (and most fascinating footage) were of Freud, Fifi’s eldest son, exhibiting these ritualistic and rhythmic dances. My first reaction in the early 1990’s was of course, ‘This is phenomenal! What is he doing, and why…?’
I can’t help feeling that this waterfall display, or dance, is perhaps triggered by (the same) feelings of awe and wonder that we feel – Dr. Jane Goodall
It is clear in watching these behaviors, either first hand or through the many examples from our video archive, that the chimpanzees are experiencing an emotional reaction to forces of nature. How similar that is to our own spirituality; who among us is not stirred by the power of a towering, roaring waterfall, or energized and emotionally charged by a close bolt of lightning followed by a clap of thunder? Chimpanzees (and in my opinion, many other species) clearly are.
Not long ago, the idea that another animal species is capable of true reverence was totally unacceptable in both scientific and theological circles. This episode of Explorer delves into the idea that we are less ‘unique’ in our emotional and spiritual capacities than most people are willing to admit. Hopefully this episode, and indeed the chimpanzee behavior you will see, will bring you closer to the animals with whom we share the planet. When we realize and admit that all of us share the ability to feel joy, experience loss, suffer pain, and are connected in very fundamental ways, we may as a species and culture re-evaluate our treatment of all life on earth.