Dorothy’s Funeral (Paul Bellew)
While Twittering today I came across a link to this photo from National Geographic. The photo is of Dorothy, a deceased female chimpanzee, being transported to her burial site at a primate rescue center in Cameroon while the surviving members of her “family” watch. According to a National Geographic blog article “The Story Behind Our Photo of Grieving Chimps” Dorothy had lived in this community of chimps for eight years. The photo is featured in the November issue of the magazine but per the later blog article the photo “went viral” and has appeared in many web sites, TV shows and newspapers.
I have a lot of questions when I look at this photo.
Of course, it brings up the issue of animal emotion. On looking at this photo and reading the article do you think that the other chimps were saddened or grieving at this loss? The magazine is clearly making that assumption. That said, is it a political statement to claim that animals have emotional responses in this way? Bear in mind, what we’re looking at here are primates and we as humans generally have a feeling of connectedness with our closest genetic relatives. I mean, they sort of look like people. So maybe it goes without saying that we expect primates to have emotions. And maybe we generally we try not to kill them because they are most like us. But if we accept that these chimps have feelings would we have to reexamine this idea in other animals? Do dogs have feelings? Given their role in human society we would be more likely to say yes, right? What about cats? That’s trickier, even if you are a cat person. What about pigs? Should I expect a no? Pigs are pretty intelligent, I’m told (don’t expect a citation for that). What about rats? They’re the nicest of the rodents.
Clearly, this discussion gets a little slippery. But beyond this species-based discussion, is capability of higher emotion a standard that we should respect in determining how we should ethically treat animals? We could probably argue that what these chimps are exhibiting is not exactly on par with human emotion. Maybe we could find a biological explanation for the behavior of these chimps. But couldn’t there also be a biological explanation for our human emotions which we feel define us?
Outside of these questions, what is the role of technology in this discourse? It blows my mind that this photo can circulate pretty ubiquitously with only a caption and no story to back up such an easily politicized issue. What does this photo represent in terms of ideology and how is it being used or abused or exploited? I wonder if blogs and web-based forms of communication like Twitter are enabling a kind of real activism or if it’s just another image to be consumed and forgotten. So please, f you have comments, keep them to 140 characters or less…