The Story of Caring
Actually no one absolutely knows if we are even distantly related to the gorilla or, for that matter, even the chimp or not. No matter how confident science is that Darwin’s theory is correct it remains a…theory.
Frankly, I am not a Darwinist but also I am not a scientist so my opinion is strictly a theoretical offering. However, the fossil record clearly does not support evolution in any conclusive way. Nevertheless, science assures us that that the most updated genetic research, combined with those fossil records that humans, chimps and gorillas evolved from a common ancestor some 10 million years ago. As the data goes humans and chimpsthen broke the chain again around 6 million years ago. Yet, there is a small arena of other scientists who tell us we are the most related to the orangutans
Many years ago I was privileged to work with all the great apes when I was employed by Cheyenne Mountain Zoo—still one of the most beautiful and impressive zoos in the world. Anyway, through my own observations I would join the group who vote for Orangutans as being our next of kin. Not because they look most like us, the chimp wins hands down in that department, but because working with them, orangutans were far more pensive and, if you will, mindful than what I observed from chimps or gorillas; while chimps seemed eager to mimic the orangutans seemed eager to learn. (Incidentally, the name orangutan arrives from Bahasa Indonesia where “orang” means “man” and “hutan” means “forest.” In English this translates to “man of the forest” and I always liked that).
Regardless of my opinion about orangutans having the closest lineage with us, at least in the Darwinian sense, most scientists and geneticists remain convinced that we are closest related to chimps followed by the gorilla. Some studies show that we share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees and 98% with gorillas. None of this is to be taken as written in stone however. A report from the National Academy of Sciences argues that our DNA and the chimps DNA is only around 95% in common. In any case, what today’s science seems positive of is that out of the four great ape species—humans, gorillas, orangutans and chimps—that there is convincing evidence that humans and chimpanzees are the closest related.
With the above aside, there are too groups of gorillas living in Africa as the map seen here indicates. There are the Western lowland gorillas and mountain gorillas. They are both endangered but the lowland gorillas are more plentiful than the mountain gorillas are. We’ll talk about this aspect of gorilla life a little later, however.
While gorillas live in groups
they are, as a species, isolationists living on a home range of up to 18 square miles. Their diets consist of mostly vegetation, roots and shoots, fruit and tree bark with a few insects thrown in every now and then. Their groups are headed by one dominant male and consist of this leader, five to seven adult females, children and adolescents and often a few non-dominant males.
One natural reason their numbers remain comparably low is because gorillas reproduce slowly. Females cannot be impregnated until they are around ten years old and then they only produce one offspring Credit: www.npr.orgaround every four to five years. In a jungle-world, unpopulated by human beings and land development, this was probably a perfected wisdom of nature but in modern times this birthrate serves to keep the populations down and thus dwindling. This is another reason that their habitats need to be protected. After all, each adult gorilla can consume up to 40 pounds of vegetation a day.
In the wild it is primarily up to the dominant male to protect the group. Danger are dominant males from other groups intruding and another are the big cats, like leopards, who will sometimes stock especially the youngsters of the clan. There are also human poachers and other hunters but the worst of the lot are those who kill for no apparent reason. These gorillas were found in the Congo’s Virunga National park, murderedCredit: www.yesnet.yk.ca for no apparent reason beyond the sake of killing. Sad but true.
The mountain gorillas are even more endangered than the lowland gorillas. The fossil records are particularly unclear when it comes to mountain gorillas but it is thought that they came into being around 9 million years ago when they split off from a common ancestor with chimps and humans.
Before talking directly about the mountain gorillas, however, let’s discuss a view of animals, in general, and their place under the sun.
As said, I have been privileged to work with all kind of animals during my life. I not only worked at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs. I also worked with Ralph Helper the animal behaviorist in California and studied elephants in Asia. And, I have had many animals of my own including an African lion, a Llama and lot of domestic pets including horses. My point of sharing this with the reader is to qualify myself for what I am about to write.
I will begin by saying that whenever I talk about protecting animal rights or bandstand saving some species of some birdfish Credit: www.4photoes.netor insect Credit: www.flickr.comI have both friends and associates calling me a “bleeding heart” and making all kinds of other belittling comments, said in serious humor; in other words a little fun-poking. But to most of those people animals are much more akin to machines that have no real feelings or thoughts but only respond to instincts. I disagree wholeheartedly. I am sure that most people who have owned a faithful, old mutt also disagree.
When I was actually involved with wild animals I gave witness to actions and responses that could only be interpreted as empathetic. This incidentally has even been observed in rats. Jeffrey Masson for example says: Young mammals are safest in their own nests. In a series of classic experiences on rats, researchers put baby rats on cage floors. Mother rats, and in some cases females who were not mothers, proved zealous at retrieving the babies and bringing them in their nest. They would cross an electrified grid to get to their babies and retrieve unrelated babies as quickly as their own. Curious to see how long this would last, the experimenters offered one rat no fewer than fifty-eight babies, every one of whom she picked up and crammed into her nest.
In this regard, I loved the story of the Chicago cat that went into a burning building five times to save her kittens. Certainly that act of love reveals intent and not just some brain-wired reaction.
I once saw an American mountain lion grieve itself to death after losing his mate but I have seen many animals not only show emotions like sorrow but also remorse. Most scientists who work in the animal sciences scoff at such notions saying animals are mere “survival machines” but this only shows lack of empathy in the scientists that hold this view and not the creatures they work with.
Can animals actually think?
Both chimpanzees and gorillas have been taught sign language and the world-renowned Roger Fouts point out that a chimp named Washoe not only knew sign but could think abstractly. The example is this. Fouts says: Washoe knew that TREE referred not only to her favorite willow tree but to all trees. He also tells us that Washoe was not only thinking abstractly like a human child, but she was communicating like a human child. “She wasn’t just learning symbols; she was using them to share her feelings…” Our own little pooch, Tonto, would often listen to my wife share her worries, not only showing empathy but actually groaning to communicate his feelings…and understanding. When our son, his most constant companion died, he jumped out of a two story house to the payment below.
The point here is that we need to stop thinking about other living creatures in an “us” and “them” way and start acknowledging that we are in being-ness with them. This is not a call that condemns fishing or hunting as long as those activities are for food but it is a call to stop inhumane treatment of animals especially in places such as slaughter houses where chickens are killed at the approximate rate of 287 per-second, pigs are killed at the rate of 3.68 per-second and cows are killed at a rate of 1.12 per-second. No one here is moralizing eating meat but how they are treated before execution is often out and out torture. This pictureCredit: www.serbiananimalsvoice.com is by far the least terrifying I could show. We need not even mention industry grown animals, a heartbreaking take in and of itself. Then of course there is the unnecessary murder of animals all over the world. Recall the shootings of the gorillas and here’s the result of an Ivory poacherCredit: www.ens-newswire.com I have witnessed a driver chase down a dog in his truck and hit it just for the sport of it.
We simply need to work harder to protect the lives of the other creatures that we share our planet with…we need to have our slaughter houses more regularly scrutinized and we need stricter laws concerning pet neglect. The way that our world has turned out is that all living creatures are either actually or virtually at the mercy of us humans beings. It is only we that can be merciful.
The dominant silverback gorilla as seen in the above photo is named this because of the silver patch of hair on his back. He takes charge in the group’s daily search for food. His job doesn’t stop there of course. As all dominant leaders he mediates all conflicts that occur amidst his followers and should trouble arise from outside his group the other silverbacks support him. As is it with the lowland gorillas dominant gorillas from other groups may give challenge or sometimes there can be threats from predators such as the big cats or…man.
The magnificent animals eatCredit: www.traversseeearth.com around the same amount as the lowland gorillas—40 pounds a day from over one hundred different plant types. What makes the mountain gorillas distinguishable from the lowlanders, however, is their thick coatCredit: www.tooursinuganda.com which serves to insulate them from the mountain cold.
In regard to these handsome herbicides whose roots, according to geneticists, trace back some ten million years ago from a common ancestor shared by all three of the great apes humans, chimps and gorillas. What is both shocking and disheartening is that the last statistic I read there were only around 700 known individual mountain gorillas left. If they should disappear altogether from the earth, would we miss them as we drive to our jobs, eat our lunches and go on with our lives as usual? No. What do we care about animal life in places like Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo?
It is first of all important to realize that nature seems to plan extinctions with incredible foresight but unnatural extinctions are not healthy for anything, including the planet itself. For one example, not too long ago there was a big hullabaloo about America’s wolves. Thus we began shooting and trapping them to reduce their numbers. A major job the wolf has, however, is to keep other animal populations, such as elk, moose and deer, from growing too big. And so, once the wolves were reduced in numbers the elk in the western states, ate so many willows and plants that the songbirds were left without sufficient food and shelter to protect those areas from the insects that they are meant to control like…mosquitos.
Everything, including humans and the mountain gorillas are in relationship with everything else; we are in a web of relationships that expands into the entire universe. Just think of the wolf/elk/songbird connectedness and how the biodiversity might have been affected in your own environment.
In my own country the fields I knew as a boy were live with the sounds and motion of beautiful butterflies and all sorts of other living things, are gone now mostly because of the pesticides used in agriculture today. Today there is only the sound of silence. If the gorilla we see in the picture should disappear back into the brush never to be seen again, most of we human being would not give much thought about it at all but that haunting sound of silence would permeate the Congo where he lives, never to be the same again. If we don’t care, if we really have no desire as a species to protect our own planet and all that we share it with than the final questions becomes, where are we, what are we and who are we?
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