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Gana the gorilla: grieving mother?

It was a poignant scene which reduced many onlookers to tears. Gana, an 11-year-old gorilla at Germany’s Munster zoo, cradled her dead three-month-old son, unable to accept that he had died in her arms, writes Richard Bath. Yet no matter how tenderly she nudged, caressed and cuddled the lifeless form, there was no movement from Claudio.

She carried his corpse everywhere, guarding the little figure so zealously that wardens at the zoo were unable to retrieve the dead baby gorilla for four days. But it wasn’t her anger that left a lasting impression; it was the rawness of a mother’s pain. So clearly inconsolable, bewildered and shattered, her face displayed a range of emotions that we once thought of as uniquely human. This week she was a grieving mother first, an ape second.

The DNA of gorillas and humans is 99.9% identical, yet it is one thing to accept in theory the extent to which we are related to the great apes, quite another to witness it.

Religions differ profoundly in their approach to their relationship with animals: the Hindus believe all animals have the capacity to be reincarnated as a human; while India’s Jains go further, believing that all living beings possess a soul so all life is considered worthy of respect, even the life of a fly, which is considered sacred.

Traditionally, Christianity is diametrically opposed to that view: humans are the only beings to enjoy free will, the only beings to possess a soul (even though the Latin for “soul” is “anima”, the derivation of animal). “Thomas Aquinas and the scholastic tradition said very clearly that animals have not got souls and this has been used in the past to justify the exploitation of animals on the basis that they are just things,” says John Austin Baker, the former Bishop of Salisbury and a prominent animal rights activist. It remains the prevailing view in the West. In one survey, just 19% of British vets agreed that animals have souls.

Yet there has recently been a profound sea change in Christian attitudes to animals. In 2000, Pope John Paul II created uproar in the Catholic church by decreeing that “also the animals possess a soul and men must love and feel solidarity for our smaller brethren.”

Instinctively, we know that Greyfriars Bobby possessed sentiments such as loyalty, devotion and the pain of loss, but more quantifiable animal emotions are also being revealed. Just last week came evidence that chimpanzees who have spent time in vivisection laboratories suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder exactly as humans would.

Full absorbing story at Scotland on Sunday.

Pictures of Gana which prompted this story can be seen at the Daily Mail.

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