One of my dearest friends recently gave me a book called The Souls of Animals, by Gary Kowalski.
My guess is that we all define “soul” a little differently. To me, it is one’s essence; it is what makes someone who he/she is (whether that someone is human or animal). Mr. Kowalski states, in discussing what “soul” means to him, that “[he is] concerned less with raw brain power, memory, and learning ability than [he is] with more subtle facets of intelligence such as empathy, artistry, and imagination.”
I consider myself fortunate that I have never questioned whether animals have souls; I have always known that they do. When I have looked into the eyes of the animals that I have been fortunate to share my life with, I can see their souls. Is it intelligence? Yes, but also a kindness, an understanding, a gentleness, and love.
Within the past year, I have used my strong belief in the souls of animals to help me in a situation that has always caused me great distress. I have an extremely hard time seeing animals dead in the road. I have a tendency to wonder what their last hours were like – if they were in pain, if they were afraid, if their family misses them, etc. Unfortunately, the road that I take to yoga every morning (at 5:30 a.m.) often contains an animal that has been hit and killed the previous night.
One such day, a number of months ago, I arrived at yoga fighting off tears and carrying with me the scene from the road. As we began our practice that day, our yoga instructor asked us to dedicate our practice to someone or something of significance to us. Without a thought, I dedicated my practice to the soul of the deceased cat that I had just seen. It was one of the most amazing practices that I have had to date – one in which I was completely present and on my mat. When I see a struck animal on the way to yoga now, I begin my practice with a dedication to their soul. It brings a genuine feeling of peace to me.
In The Souls of Animals, Mr. Kowalski shows the readers the capacity of animals to show emotion and empathy, reasoning, artistry, spirituality and other emotions or skills that many have assumed are uniquely human qualities. I loved reading every page of this book.
Koko, the gorilla who communicates using sign language, is an incredible example of all of the above qualities and more.
Apparently a number of years ago, Koko was asked what she wanted for her birthday, and she answered, in sign language, that she wanted a kitten. Koko was presented with a litter of rescued kittens, whom she handled very gently. Koko chose a grey kitten and named her “All Ball.” Koko tenderly carried All Ball around and even tried to nurse her as if she were a baby gorilla. When All Ball playfully bit Koko, Koko’s reactions were to sign “dirty” and “toilet”, which were apparently her way to express disapproval.
Koko was always kind and gentle to All Ball and would repeatedly sign to her trainer, “soft/good/cat.”
One evening All Ball got out of the protected area and was killed by a car. Koko was told about the accident and erupted into high-pitched sobs. For some time after the loss, Koko cried whenever cats were mentioned. (As an aside, Koko is now in her forties and has several kittens as companions. You can read about her at Koko’s World.)
Elephants are also very expressive in mourning the death of loved ones. For one of the most moving videos that I have seen on this subject, see my post entitled My Love Affair with Elephants and English Bulldogs.
I have seen my pets mourn when we have lost one of our own. It is very discernible. Are they reading our emotions and reacting to those? I am sure in part that this is true, but their behavior goes further and leaves in me no doubt as to their grief.
Mr. Kowalski introduces us to Siri, the fourteen-year old, 8,400 pound Asian elephant, who was observed drawing lines using sticks and stones in the dust of her cage at the Syracuse Zoo. Her keeper gave her pads of paper and charcoal, and Siri drew pictures. Her drawings were sent to an art history professor at Syracuse University, who analyzed the drawings without knowing who the artist was. He remarked, “[t]hese drawings are very lyrical, very, very beautiful. … They are so positive and affirmative and tense, the energy is so compact and controlled, it’s just incredible.”
While The Souls of Animals is a wonderful reminder of how incredible the animals are with whom we share our planet, there is also a bittersweet note. We do not always treat them properly and we often operate from an assumption of superiority. As entire species near extinction, we must make changes.
On a personal note, I have struggled with how I can help. More and more, I recognize that my passion for animals is one of the strongest forces in my life. While animal rescue organizations have always been my choice for financial contributions, I have hesitated in becoming an active participant. I have hidden behind fears such as “I don’t want to know the cruelty that exists” and “I can’t take them all home.”
The Souls of Animals just may have been the breaking point for me. The day after finishing this book, I stopped by the humane society on the way into work and completed a volunteer application. A small step, but a step….