Parting Glances: Let’s not rattle their cages

By |2018-01-15T21:58:48-05:00October 31st, 2017|Uncategorized|

When I was a kid my folks took me to see Gargantua the Great, the gorilla star of the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. Gargantua was billed as,”The World’s Most Terrifying Living Creature,” and at 500 pounds he was truly impressive — a living, breathing Godzilla of his day.
Gargantua was kept in his own air-conditioned cage, and his toys were rubber tires he bounced about energetically to relieve boredom and frustration, having nothing better to do in his glass-enclosed purgatorium.
I stuck my cotton-candy tongue out at him — holding on to my dad’s hand tightly — which the mighty Gargantua the Great didn’t like one bit. He shook his cage bars, pounded his hairy fists on the glass, and gave me a ferocious eyeballing. [Note: Sticking out the tongue at alpha male gorillas is a territorial challenge. It doesn’t sit well with truck drivers either.]
Story is that Gargantua was raised by a New York eccentric. During a thunderstorm he got frightened and crawled into bed next to her. She decided it was time to find him a new home. The circus exploited him for over 50 years.
Recently I watched a fascinating encounter with Koko, the world-famous gorilla. I caught 50 minutes of her story — “Conversations with Koko” — on PBS Channel 56, as part of the ongoing Nature series. The program was enlightening, touching, and unnerving.
Koko, an enchanting 33, was raised from infancy by animal behaviorist Dr. Penny Patterson, who patiently taught her American Sign Language. Koko has a repertoire of 1,000 communication gestures and understands 2,000 words of English. Her IQ is between 75 and 95. (Mine on a bad hair day is about 98.)
Koko’s been joined by an equally ASL-articulate younger male named Michael. Dr. Patterson says that gorillas in their natural environment communicate with elaborate gestures of their own — one reason Koko and Michael are so facile at picking up signing from humans.
Koko wants to have a baby, but that’s not likely to happen. The presence of other females as a supporting family aggregate is necessary for mating to occur. However, Koko has had kittens for pets. Sadly, Koko’s first was killed by a car, and Koko grieved her loss for weeks.
Watching Koko sign is something else. You’d swear this gentle creature’s human. The subtle nuances of her facial expression, the intelligence reflected in her dark questioning eyes, the brief pauses to reflect before signing her answer, indicate a special being imbued with gifts of reasoning and abstract thought of a high order.
Has Koko a soul?
Surely a gorilla sharing so many of the finer human attributes — joy, nurturing, exuberance, love, a healthy vegetarian appetite — must also be given an immortal spark by her Creator. Are we humans so crass to think otherwise? Are we the only inheritors of the divine essence?
But I suppose it’s not too wise to think about such theological concerns. Koko and Michael — by sharing non-spoken human language articulation — have become a doubly endangered specie. And, if they think, feel, and reason like us, they need to be lovingly cared for and protected. Are we humans up to this Herculean task?
And if they have a soul, don’t they need to be saved from sin? Couldn’t they benefit from using the missionary position, keeping the sabbath, tithing a tenth of their overly ripe banana allocation — maybe even learning to fear and loathe gays and same-sex marriage? I’m sure the Southern Baptists would like answers. God knows, I have none.
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About the Author:

Charles Alexander