Spirituality in Nonhuman Animals: A Perplexing Question

Spirituality in Nonhuman Animals: A Perplexing Question

Contributed by Marielle Grenade-Willis

Senses, Imagination, and Thought is the fourth capability outlined in Martha Nussbaum’s Central Capabilities Approach. This capability allows for freedom of expression in its sensory, creative, and mental forms, including the freedom to practice religion. A great question that has come up recently in the study of nonhuman animals is whether or not they experience spirituality. And if so, are ritualistic behaviors  necessarily linked to the experience of spirituality, and therefore dubbed “religious”?

On multiple occasions, Jane Goodall, renowned primatologist and ethologist, has spotted chimpanzees performing what appears to be a ritualistic type of swaying movement at a waterfall in Africa. This behavior, according to Goodall, could be a response to a sense of awe and wonder at the animal’s natural environs. According to Barbara J. King however, “[feeling] awe and wonder at nature is one thing—I’m really not about to disagree with Jane Goodall on this particular point—but linking those feelings necessarily with spirituality is another.” The discrepancies between definitions of ritual, spirituality, and religion has led to conflicting views over animal behavior, specifically in the case of chimpanzees. In Inside Animal Hearts and Minds, Belinda Recio refers to a study done in 2016 where “a team of eighty scientists published a paper on chimpanzees behaving strangely toward hollowed-out trees at four field sites in West Africa. The chimps at each of these locations stacked stones inside the hollowed trunks of trees in a way that superficially similar to ancient cairns discovered at human archeological sites. The chimps would later return to the tree, remove a stone from the pile, and hurl it at the tree.” This behavior was characterized as being potential evidence of nonhuman animals designating a specific site as “sacred” although differing opinions have led to no concrete consensus.

William Crain, the founder of Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary in New York, notes the “spiritual emotions” of female turkeys on his farm that came to sit and listen attentively to visiting Girl Scouts “reading pledges to respect all animals. They vowed to always cherish animals and to protect their right to a natural death.” Whether or not you identify as being personally connected to the “divine”, it is promising that more awareness on issues of spirituality and religion is being offered to the study of nonhuman animals.