Visitor:

By Ross Robertson, EnlightenNext magazine



One day when yoga instructor Kari Harendorf was practicing backbends, her dog Charlie padded over and started stretching out beneath her on the hardwood floor. In a flash of insight that may or may not recall some ancient yogic pioneer's moment of inspiration for Downward and Upward Dog, the modern-day discipline of doga was born. Doga, or doggy yoga--"the path to enlightenment for humans and their pets"--is the subject of Animal Planet's new show "K9 Karma," cohosted by Kari and Charlie; it's also the topic of recent books like Bow Wow Yoga and Doga: Yoga for Dogs. "My relationship with Charlie is definitely special," Harendorf says. "It's intangible, and it goes beyond language, beyond a species barrier. He's just � he holds my heart, and I hold his."

From man's best friend to man's soul mate and partner on the path of spiritual liberation? If the picture of a New York City yoga studio full of people chanting "Om" to their pit bulls and Pomeranians seems both comical and slightly strange, consider for a moment that popular curiosity about animals' spiritual status has never been higher. Nowadays, twice as many American households include pets as include children, and even mainstream religion is embracing questions like "Do animals have souls?" Animal souls? Actually, Americans are split down the middle on this one--of the 90-some percent who believe in heaven, roughly half think their pets will join them there. Theologians are grappling with the question, too, rethinking whether or not Benji or Fido is going to make it through the Pearly Gates when he dies. And priests and ministers are doing their part to breathe new life into the phrase "pets are people too" by performing official blessings, burials, and even marriages for animals.

Wait a minute. Heaven in the next life and marriages in this one? What's going on here? I've never been much of a pet person myself--too many dogs ran me down and bit me when I was a kid--but in spite of that, I can certainly appreciate the impulse to find meaning in animal relationships. My brother and I used to love chasing after sandpipers on the beach, and I searched endlessly for crayfish in the streams near my house with my friends. As I got older, I spent more and more time in the mountains, trailing deer through the trees and keeping my eyes peeled for elusive black bears. But what has opened my eyes more than ever before to the mystery and beauty of our animal kin has been the enlightening onrush of stories that began, interestingly enough, with my research for this piece.

They came across my desk one after another, too fast to process, about all manner of animals and their relations--relations with their own kin, with individuals of different species, and, of course, with people too. There were cutting-edge studies of animal cognition and moving descriptions of compassion in elephants and morality in coyotes. There were unbelievable tales of wolves who practiced aikido with a human master, stories of great apes instant-messaging each other on AOL, even astonishing reports of a telepathic parrot. Some stretched my mind in directions it had never been stretched before; some pulled unfamiliar strings in my heart; more than a few seemed completely outlandish. But through it all, there was the ever-deepening realization that I knew a lot less than I thought I did about the puzzle of life and evolution, about the soul's elusive temperament, and, most of all, about the boundary lines between animal and man.

The impulse to make contact

When world-famous primatologist Jane Goodall was only 18 months old, she gathered up a handful of earthworms from her parents' London garden, brought them inside, and made a little nest for them in her bed. After her mother patiently informed her that the worms could never survive in this dirtless environment, she hurried to get them back home again among the flowers and weeds. But the little girl who would one day travel farther than anyone before her across the borders of the nonhuman world had taken her first steps toward her destiny. What was it that gave birth to this impulse in one so young, the impulse to make contact with another species? What deeply felt curiosity or connectedness did she experience that drew her to want to be closer to them?

Oftentimes during her lectures and travels, Goodall tells the story of a man named Rick Swope who risked his life to save a chimpanzee named Jo-Jo from drowning in the newly constructed moat surrounding his enclosure at the Detroit Zoo. Among this particular posse of Michigan chimps, Jo-Jo was the head honcho, but when a younger and stronger alpha-wannabe threw down the gauntlet one day and attacked him, Jo-Jo ran, wisely or not so wisely, over the safety barrier and into the water. Chimps can't swim, which is why zoos build moats around them in the first place; chimps are also very dangerous, which is why the zookeeper on duty that day made no attempt to rescue Jo-Jo when he panicked and sank like a stone. Against the keeper's dire warnings, and much to the distress of his wife and kids, Swope jumped in and lifted the 130-pound ape as well as he could up the embankment. "I looked into his eyes," he said later. "It was like looking into the eyes of a man. And the message was: Won't anybody help me?"

What was it in Jo-Jo's eyes that made Swope keep himself in jeopardy (three angry males were charging down the bank toward him) in order to support the stunned and waterlogged chimpanzee until he could finally grab a tuft of grass and pull himself to safety? Are the eyes, as the saying goes, really windows to the soul? I can still remember the day when, after an embarrassingly great many years of unsuccessful fishing trips with the Boy Scouts, I finally caught my first fish. As I tried, also unsuccessfully, to extract the hook from its mouth and throw it back, I gazed into its eyes and saw something I thought was sadness. It was hard not to flinch away from that dying look, in which I could see my own carelessness nakedly reflected, but somehow I felt honor-bound not to disturb this intimate channel that, for a brief moment at least, had been opened up between us.

I made other efforts at "interspecies communication" when I was a kid, walking through the woods with my Audubon bird call and mimicking the chirps and trills I heard up above. And though I have no evidence of any definitive success, my crude attempts at avian language were nevertheless a kind of animal soul music, at least in my own mind--a curious call to the nonhuman world in search of the echo of consciousness returning back to me. Who, or what, I wanted to know, was out there listening?

Guitarist Jim Nollman must have been wondering something similar when he anchored his boat off the coast of Vancouver Island, dropped a submersible speaker overboard, plugged in, and tried to get the dolphins and killer whales to jam with him. From recordings he's made using underwater microphones to capture their hornlike whistles and songs (Nollman compares one particularly responsive whale to Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis), he appears to have succeeded. Other Western musicians whom Nollman has invited aboard to try out his gear have tended to elicit either clear responses from the whales or no interest at all. A Tibetan lama chanting religious prayers, on the other hand, brought forth a palpable hush. As he intoned his Himalayan melody, the whales approached the speaker quietly and just huddled there, listening.

When pods of killer whales fall strangely silent to eavesdrop on a chanting Buddhist monk, what exactly are they responding to? Is it to the vibrations themselves, sounds and sensations either pleasing or baffling to their ears? Or are they hearing the resonance of something more intangible, some transcendent echo reflected back from deep within them? What is it in us, for that matter, that responds to these things? Is it the soul?


Whatever else the soul might be, it seems safe to say that it is part of that dimension of consciousness that makes us most fully human--part of that which makes us thinking, feeling, caring beings. Could the same be true of the animal soul? Not so long ago, noble qualities like reason, emotion, and morality were all thought to be exclusively human traits. But the steady march of science is chipping away at old ideas. In 1960, Goodall observed chimpanzees at Tanzania's Gombe Stream Reserve stripping leaves off twigs and using the sticks to fish termites out of their nests, thereby poking holes in the long-held belief that human beings were the only species to make tools.

"Now we must redefine tool," said her mentor Louis Leakey, "redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as humans." Since then, nearly all major arguments for human uniqueness "claims that we alone possess rationality, self-consciousness, culture, empathy, language, morality, "have been increasingly called into question. So if you still find yourself attached to the belief that animals are hopelessly undeveloped--dull of mind, poor of heart, and devoid of soul--breaking news from the scientific arena is here to recommend otherwise.

Let's take reason, to start. According to Descartes, animals were mere machines, while men were machines with minds. Indeed, the bulk of Western thought, from Plato and Aristotle to Aquinas on up, puts great stock in rationality as the basic factor setting human beings apart from the rest of animalkind. And since you can't just walk up to a guinea pig or an anteater and ask it to describe its experience of cognition, it hasn't exactly been easy to test this claim. One way scientists have tried to get at the problem is by searching for evidence of animal deception, a cognitive skill that depends on the ability to recognize that others have thoughts and intentions different from one's own. They've shown that monkeys and baboons can distract each other in order to steal food, sneak around rocks to do things behind each others' backs, and wait until others are distracted (like during fights) to put the moves on receptive females. Just recently, a raven named Hugin passed the deception test as well, fooling a dominant bird into hunting for food where Hugin knew there was none in order to buy himself some time alone where the food really was.

Impressive as Hugin's trick may be, it must look like kids' stuff to one of the most accomplished birds known to science: Alex the parrot. Only last summer, Alex raised the bar on avian intelligence to new heights by demonstrating a rough understanding of the number zero, a conceptual abstraction never fathomed by even the most learned mathematicians of ancient Greece. How did he do it? Trainer Dr. Irene Pepperberg laid out a tray with four groups of blocks on it "two blue, three green, four yellow, and six orange" and then called out a number of blocks, asking Alex to identify the color of the corresponding group. But for some reason, he refused to cooperate, insisting instead on repeating the word "five" over and over again. When she finally replied "OK, smarty, what color five?" Alex quickly answered "None!" A bird with a brain the size of a walnut had understood the "absence of quantity," something human children don't typically grasp until age three or four.

How did Alex feel about his accomplishment? As recently as 10 years ago, researchers would have argued over whether it was possible for him to have felt anything at all. But scientists no longer dispute the presence of emotion in birds--or in many other species, for that matter. African elephants, for instance, "share with us a strong sense of family and death and they feel many of the same emotions," Kenyan conservationist Daphne Sheldrick says. "Each one is � a unique individual with its own unique personality. They can be happy or sad, volatile or placid. They display envy, jealousy, throw tantrums and are fiercely competitive, and they can develop hang-ups which are reflected in behavior. � They grieve deeply for lost loved ones, even shedding tears and suffering depression. They have a sense of compassion that projects beyond their own kind and sometimes extends to others in distress."

Animal behavior expert Marc Bekoff adds that elephants are known to stand silent guard over stillborn babies for days with their heads and ears sunk low; orphans who witness their mothers' deaths "often wake up screaming." Sea lion mothers howl and cry while killer whales dine on their babies, he says. Dolphins struggle painfully to resuscitate dead infants. Once, he even saw a grieving red fox bury the body of another who had been killed by a mountain lion: "She would kick up dirt, stop, look at the carcass, and intentionally kick again. I observed this �ritual' for about 20 seconds. A few hours later I went to see the carcass, and it was totally buried."

Now that most biologists have accepted that animals have richly varied emotional lives, a far more radical proposition is taking center stage in current research. Beyond simple raw emotion, some say, animals are displaying the subtler, more complex signs of moral sensibility. "There is good evidence that chimpanzees keep track of favors and repay them," writes primatologist Frans de Waal. And it goes both ways, Bekoff tells me: "If you're labeled as a cheater in a pack of wolves or a pack of coyotes or a group of chimpanzees, you're going to have a lot of trouble getting other individuals to interact with you." He calls this "wild justice," and it's not just for primates and canines. Cows hold grudges and nurture friendships too. North African meerkats forfeit their own safety to stay beside wounded family members who would otherwise have to face death alone. Stronger rats sometimes even let the weaker ones win when they play at wrestling. And "remarkable as it sounds" morality in animals also crosses species boundaries.

"You see animals help each other all the time," Bekoff says. "Dogs and monkeys hug one another, console one another, travel with one another. During the tsunami last year, a baby hippopotamus was separated from his family and taken to an animal rescue shelter in Kenya. When he got there, he was adopted by a 130-year-old tortoise, and they've been inseparable ever since." Not long ago, de Waal watched a bonobo named Kuni pick up an injured starling, take it outside, and place it on its feet. When it didn't fly, she helped unfold its wings and then carefully tossed it into the air.

Then there are the stories of animal heroics that involve human beings, some of which have achieved the status of legend. Eleven-year-old Anthony Melton's pet pig, Priscilla, made headlines in 1984 when she dove into a Houston lake to save his life. Swimming out to the boy, who was in over his head and starting to panic, she towed him to shore with her leash. In 1975, a woman shipwrecked off the Philippines was saved by a giant sea turtle that surfaced underneath her and carried her on its back for two full days until rescuers finally arrived. Once, an elderly Tennessee woman was even rescued by her pet canary. Upon seeing her trip and fall unconscious, the bird proceeded to find its way out of her house, which it had never left before. It then traveled the length of several football fields to her niece's nearby home and banged hysterically against the windowpane until she finally got the message and went running to check up on her aunt. The canary promptly collapsed and died from the effort, but the old woman's life was saved.

Of all such tales of interspecies love and bravado, perhaps the most enigmatic and the most miraculous involve dolphins, renowned the world over for keeping unconscious people afloat, shielding swimmers from sharks and sea lions from orcas, guarding pregnant whales while they give birth, and herding beached whales back to open sea. Most incredible of these might be the story of Pelorus Jack, a dolphin famous for guiding steamships through a notoriously treacherous channel off the coast of New Zealand around the turn of the last century. French Pass was known among sailors for claiming vessel after vessel in its swift jaws--that is, until Pelorus Jack came along. For over 20 years, every time a ship approached the mouth of the hazardous strait, he would unfailingly appear, bobbing along the surface to lead it safely through the rocks. On his watch, none ever foundered. Then in 1904, a drunkard on board a ship known as the Penguin took a potshot at him and Jack swam away trailing blood. Although he healed a few weeks later and diligently returned to his chosen task, nobody on the Penguin ever saw him again; it later ran aground in French Pass, and crew and passengers drowned.

While stories like these may provide the most direct and compelling evidence of soul and soulfulness among our animal kin, the meaning of the word "soul" itself is usually the domain of religion. It's been hotly debated by philosophers and theologians alike down through the centuries, yet the true nature of the soul remains an alluring riddle�hard enough to fathom in human beings, let alone in the rest of the animal kingdom. Still, the question "Do animals have souls?" depends in no small measure on what you think


In times of tribal animism, the boundaries between animal and man were relatively indistinct. All of nature was suffused with the essence of the supernatural, and everything had souls, including rocks, trees, horses, and jackrabbits. Later, as increasingly sophisticated cultures evolved across the ancient world, the lines between us and other species tended to remain fluid. The Aztecs and the Egyptians thought some human souls became bees when they died; the Greeks and the Japanese said some became butterflies.

But with the rise of the world's great religious traditions came the first ideas of a transcendent God or absolute higher power, and the first sense of a dimension within the human self--the soul--that was specially connected to it. Generally speaking, religions both East and West thought animals had souls, too, but they were souls of a lower order, bound up in physical passions and trapped by mortal existence. The human soul, on the other hand, was privileged with immortality. According to Western theology, that was because humans alone had reason and free will; in Eastern thought, it was due to the fact that our unique capacity for self-awareness gave us the all-important potential for attaining enlightenment. But in either case, it was only the human soul that could escape the bonds of this earthly plane to share eternal life at its maker's feet.

From the perspective of religious salvation, therefore, animals are clearly out of luck. Yet history's canvas is filled with images of yogis and saints who loved their animal brethren and honored them as moral and spiritual beings. Twentieth-century Indian sage Ramana Maharshi taught that animals could reach enlightenment directly without needing to advance first through human birth. He was famous for having close spiritual relationships with dogs, cats, cows, peacocks, squirrels, birds, and monkeys; his favorite cow, Lakshmi, is said to have achieved final liberation when she died. Back in the day, fish supposedly poked their heads above water to hear St. Anthony preach. St. Martin de Porres trained animals in ethics and virtue, and St. Francis gave sermons to flocks of birds from around the world. Once, Francis even tamed the terrible wolf of Gubbio, walking straight into its lair and demanding that it stop eating the local livestock--and the local townspeople. To everyone's surprise, this tactic actually worked: the wolf bowed its head, placed its paw meekly in the saint's hand, and followed him into town, where the people agreed to keep it well fed in exchange for its pact of peace.

With the advent of science, the religious belief in sharp distinctions between humans and animals has taken somewhat of a beating. As Bekoff explains, it is consistent with evolutionary biology that everything humans have (including souls), animals have, too--if perhaps in less developed form. "Variations among different species," the argument goes, "are differences in degree rather than differences in kind." Charles Darwin called this idea evolutionary continuity, and it has become a fundamental axiom in the study of animal behavior. Yet while some scientists such as Bekoff probably take Darwin's insight too far by saying that the only major difference between us is that animals don't cook their food, there are others who recognize far more significant distinctions.

In her studies of the chimpanzees at Gombe, for instance, Goodall concluded that their lack of a spoken language has been a fundamental evolutionary ceiling, making it impossible for them to develop higher capacities like shared moral codes. "Chimpanzees show behaviors that seem likely precursors to human morality--as when a high-ranking individual breaks up a fight to save a weaker companion," she writes, "but for the most part, in their society, �might' is �right,' and the subordinates have to be submissive whether or not they are in the wrong."

Where all this leaves us is ambiguous at best. As philosopher Daniel Dennett says, "Current thinking about animal consciousness is a mess." Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori even goes so far as to say that robots possess the unquenchable spark of awakening known as Buddha-nature. Robot souls? I guess anything's possible, but it's hard enough to come up with definitive answers about animals, let alone artificially intelligent machines. There is one more realm of evidence we have yet to examine, however. And there, things operate by a different set of rules entirely.


Biologist Rupert Sheldrake has spent upwards of 15 years researching psychic phenomena in animals�things like the impossible synergy of bird flocks wheeling together in unison or the uncanny knack some dogs and cats seem to have for knowing when their owners are coming home. "Unexplained abilities like telepathy," he says, "are widespread in the animal kingdom." Indeed, one of his most intriguing studies involves a famous Manhattan parrot named N'kisi who not only shares a telepathic bond with his owner Aim�e Morgana but, by virtue of his advanced language ability, also has the tools to prove it. Schooled from a young age as though he were a human child, N'kisi knows roughly a thousand words; he conjugates his own verbs, cracks jokes, initiates conversation, and invents novel word combinations with delight. He also has the unnerving ability to read your thoughts and repeat them back to you out loud.

In a series of double-blind tests, Sheldrake placed Morgana and N'kisi in different rooms on different floors of a building and simultaneously videotaped them as Morgana flipped through a series of pictures she'd never seen before and N'kisi chattered away happily on his perch. Three times more often than chance would allow, N'kisi was talking about the image Morgana happened to be browsing at that very same instant. "Can I give you a hug?" he chirped as she viewed a photograph of a couple embracing. "What'cha doin' on the phone?" he said when she saw one of a man talking on his cell phone. Sometimes, N'kisi even eavesdrops on Morgana's dreams: "I was dreaming that I was working with the audio tape deck," she remembers. "N'kisi, sleeping by my head, said out loud, �You gotta push the button,' as I was doing exactly that in my dream. His speech woke me up."

I was surprised to find that interspecies telepathy was not only more common historically than one might think but that it seems to be turning into the foundation for a whole new occupation: Professional animal communicator. Considered by many to be the field's chief pioneer, Penelope Smith has made psychic contact with everything from horses to horseflies over the past 30 years�not to mention training several hundred others in the subtle spiritual arts of animal mind-reading and even animal therapy. This small brigade of clairvoyant counselors means business. They're there to listen to your pet's point of view and help you sort through whatever issues may have come between you, even over the phone. If you're lucky, they might even help you wake up to what animals have to offer you.

"Animals have tremendous understanding of our problems," Smith says. "They're always trying to help de-stress us, to help us play and meditate and all the rest, you know?" As bizarre as that might sound, she's not the only one who thinks so. Epona Farm in Sonoita, Arizona, is now hosting human development seminars facilitated by telepathic horses; the dolphins of Dolphin Heart World offer workshops in life skills, community-building, and alternative healing modalities via their nonlocal "Dolphin Consciousness."

Revolutionary dolphin researcher John C. Lilly talked about the wonders of dolphin consciousness, too, but he may not have been sober at the time, and he certainly wasn't capitalizing the term and using it to sell life skills workshops. Inventor of the isolation tank and psychedelic compatriot of Timothy Leary, Lilly took enormous doses of LSD and ketamine while he was with dolphins and came back raving about vast, incandescent matrices of information surging through their powerful group mind. Your guess is as good as mine on that one, but it's interesting to note that the gifted American psychic Edgar Cayce might have agreed with him�Cayce also believed that the deepest dimensions of the animal self exist not at the level of the individual but of the entire species. "Cayce would say that there is a group soul, for example, for all cats," explains scholar Kevin Todeschi. "And this overseeing energy, which is part of the divine, is really responsible for the cat world. Rather than each cat having its own individual soul like a human being, each attracts a piece of that group soul as its individual personality. And it's possible to attract that same personality more than once, so you could have a cat die and another cat come along, and you might say, �My cat came back to me.'"

Speaking of animals "coming back," the literature of supernatural experience is positively teeming with the ghosts of pets haunting places and people they knew while they were alive. Once, for example, a veterinarian treating a sick white horse gave its owners some baffling instructions: he told them that for safety's sake, it would be best to separate the ailing animal from the other white horse in its corral. "What other horse?" they asked�and were dumbfounded as the vet went on to describe, in unmistakable detail, a second horse of theirs who had recently died. On another occasion, two young boys were close to drowning in a cold lake near the Austrian border when their father leapt into the water to rescue them. Swimming as fast as he could, he saw that the family dog Fritz had beaten him to the punch and watched as the faithful pet steered his boys back to the beach. The wrinkle: Fritz had been dead for over a year. When they all got to shore, his ghost disappeared, but not before a dozen onlookers had seen him too.

When chimps get religion

Ultimately, the precise parameters of human uniqueness may be too elusive to pin down, the character of the animal soul too loosely understood to be tied off with any authority. Even so, there's one last question on my mind: What lies in store for the future? Just last September in the rainforests of the Congo, new types of tool use were observed among wild gorillas. Then in November, researchers in St. Louis made the startling announcement that higher mammals like whales and humans aren't the only ones smart enough to be able to sing�now mice have been overheard performing complex (and catchy) ultrasonic love ballads to woo potential mates. And new findings like these seem to be cropping up by the month. Of course, science itself is always progressing, but could these discoveries also suggest that animal consciousness is evolving? If so, are their souls evolving too?

However one understands the soul's nature and function in human beings, is it possible that animals�audacious as it may seem to ask�could even have their own spiritual inklings? One of Goodall's most famous stories is of a great forest waterfall in the Kakombe valley where she occasionally observed the chimpanzees performing strange, spontaneous dances. Their behavior was inexplicable, she writes, but for the sense that they were responding to "feelings akin to awe . . . a feeling generated by the mystery of water; water that seems alive, always rushing past yet never going, always the same yet ever different." J. Allen Boone reflects on a similar incident in Kinship with All Life, marveling at a German shepherd watching the sunset from a mountaintop ledge: "His gaze was focused on a point in the sky considerably above the horizon line. He was staring off into fathomless space. Out there beyond the ability of my human senses to identify what it was, something was holding the big dog's attention like a magnet! And it was giving him great satisfaction, great contentment, great peace of mind. That fact was not only written all over him; it was permeating the atmosphere like a perfume. I had watched human pilgrims in such meditative poses on sacred mountains in the Orient. I wondered � and wondered � and wondered �"

What does this mean? Goodall speculates that it was "similar feelings of awe that gave rise to the first animistic religions, the worship of the elements and the mysteries of nature over which there was no control." Bill Wallauer, a videographer who has spent nine years with the chimps in Tanzania, adds, "We can't come to any real conclusions, but I honestly do believe that chimps have the capacity to contemplate and consider (even revere) both the animate and inanimate." Unlikely though it seems, it's fascinating to consider the notion of some sort of proto-religious impulse in animalkind. Yet evolutionary philosophers such as Teilhard de Chardin and Henri Bergson would likely have seen such a development as no longer possible. Now that the wild upward thrust of consciousness in the universe has finally burst the bonds of matter through the awakening human mind, they believed, it has no more need to push its way forward through other species.

"Everywhere but in man," writes Bergson, "consciousness has had to come to a stand; in man alone it has kept on its way." Nevertheless, the future is an open book. What unseen potentials of soul and consciousness might one day rise to the surface of the animal mind? Reflecting on my own few moments of fleeting communion with the spirit and intelligence of wild creatures, I can't say for sure. But I've heard that in the high, cold mountains above Dharamsala, India, Tibetan monks in exile recite the dharma to their dogs in hopes that someday they, too, will be able to practice it themselves.

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