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Dorothy’s Funeral (Paul Bellew)

October 30, 2009

Dorothy the Chimpanzee

National Geographic

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…

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 30, 2009 6:15 pm

    Paul,

    The two issues you raise––the emotional lives of animals (to cite a recent popular book) and the “viral” circulation of animal images like this one––seem entwined. In some sense, the global interest in this image of Dorothy’s funeral presumes certain emotions on the part of the other chimpanzees––grief, anxiety, mourning, etc. J.M. Coetzee’s Tanner lectures from the late 90s (published as The Lives of Animals) investigate precisely the questions you raise about which animals we attribute emotional intelligence to and how those assumptions––whether informed by biological science or not––determines the boundary between animals we protect and animals we consume or dispense with in any other way.

  2. October 30, 2009 8:50 pm

    Hi Paul,
    That image circulating reminded me of Brent Stirton’s 2007 photographs of the funerals for murdered congo mountain gorillas. Another instance, I think, of politicized art, though before the time of twitter. You suggest that the picture might exploit human empathy for various political ends, but doesn’t it also exploit the construct of human/animals? Why would it be more dishonoring to photograph a dead human’s body (particularly at a funeral) than a dead chimpanzee’s body?

    I’m curious how you foresee the photo being exploited.

  3. kmckimps permalink
    October 31, 2009 1:07 am

    I wonder how we are to measure and assign emotions onto animals? I know that studies have assumed emotions, especially in apes, but what is the certainty? How exactly does one measure something as subjective as an emotion?

  4. November 8, 2009 7:44 pm

    I have been considering your question “is capability of higher emotion a standard that we should respect in determining how we should ethically treat animals?” The answer is, in my opinion, surely no, yet to feel the animals’ emotion, even if it might just be a projection of our own emotion, would help draw closer the distance between human and animal. A picture I encountered years ago on an in-flight magazine is still haunting me. The picture is a panda in cage getting ready for his air travel. A present sent by the central government of China to Hong Kong, the panda looked frightened and hopeless. Sorry it’s beyond my ability to describe expressions in his eyes and on his face which have deeply touched me. Having no scientific research to back me up, I believe that his emotion at the moment can be, possibly, translated by “being scared.” From then on, the way I looked at panda has changed from treating them as some cute animal to a creature always calling on my feeling of sympathy. (Yuqing)

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