Animal Spirituality

Do animals have spiritual experiences? Yes they do! We’re not the only spiritual beings by Marc Bekoff, Ph.D. in Animal Emotions

In conjunction with Psychology Today blogger, Steven Kotler, I’ve been pondering whether nonhuman animals (“animals”) have spiritual experiences and are they religious. Here, Steven and I want to offer some ideas and hope readers will weigh in. As I’ve discussed in many of my PT blogs ample evidence shows that animals are extremely smart and that they demonstrate emotional and moral intelligences ( see also).

But what about their spiritual lives? Do animals marvel at their surroundings, have a sense of awe when they see a rainbow, find themselves by a waterfall, or ponder their environs? Do they ask where does lightning come from? Do they go into a “zone” when they play with others, forgetting about everything else save for the joy of playing? What are they feeling when they perform funeral rituals?

We can also ask if animals experience the joy of simply being alive? And if so, how would they express it so that we would know they do? Wild animals spend upwards of 90 percent of their time resting: What are they thinking and feeling as they gaze about? It would be nice to know. Again, science may never be able to measure such emotions with any precision, but anecdotal evidence and careful observation indicate such feelings may exist.

So too does evolutionary theory. Recall Charles Darwin’s ideas about evolutionary continuity in which differences among species are differences in degree rather than differences in kind. The bottom line is that if we have something, they (other animals) do too, and it would behoove us to study the questions at hand rather than dismiss them because animal can’t possibly do or experience something that we think is uniquely human. For years it was thought that only humans were rational, self-conscious, linguistic, or moral beings, but we now know this isn’t so (see also). Darwin also commented that we really can’t be sure that animals don’t reflect on past pleasures and pains, for they have “excellent memories and some power of imagination.”

So, what can we say about animal spirituality? Of course much turns on how the word “spiritual” is defined, but for the moment let’s simply consider nonmaterial, intangible, and introspective experiences as spiritual, of the sort that humans have.

Consider waterfall dances, which are a delight to witness. Sometimes a chimpanzee, usually an adult male, will dance at a waterfall with total abandon. Why? The actions are deliberate but obscure. Could it be they are a joyous response to being alive, or even an expression of the chimp’s awe of nature? Where, after all, might human spiritual impulses originate?

Jane Goodall (2005. Primate spirituality. In The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. edited by B. Taylor. Thoemmes Continuum, New York. Pp. 1303-1306) wonders whether these dances are indicative of religious behavior, precursors of religious ritual. She describes a chimpanzee approaching one of these falls with slightly bristled hair, a sign of heightened arousal. “As he gets closer, and the roar of the falling water gets louder, his pace quickens, his hair becomes fully erect, and upon reaching the stream he may perform a magnificent display close to the foot of the falls. Standing upright, he sways rhythmically from foot to foot, stamping in the shallow, rushing water, picking up and hurling great rocks. Sometimes he climbs up the slender vines that hang down from the trees high above and swings out into the spray of the falling water. This ‘waterfall dance’ may last ten or fifteen minutes.” Chimpanzees also dance at the onset of heavy rains and during violent gusts of wind. Goodall asks, “Is it not possible that these performances are stimulated by feelings akin to wonder and awe? After a waterfall display the performer may sit on a rock, his eyes following the falling water. What is it, this water?”

Goodall wonders, “If the chimpanzee could share his feelings and questions with others, might these wild elemental displays become ritualized into some form of animistic religion? Would they worship the falls, the deluge from the sky, the thunder and lightning – the gods of the elements? So all-powerful; so incomprehensible.”

Goodall admits that she’d love to get into their minds even for a few moments. It would be worth years of research to discover what animals see and feel when they look at the stars. In June 2006, Jane and I visited the Mona Foundation’s chimpanzee sanctuary near Girona, Spain. We were told that Marco, one of the rescued chimpanzees, does a dance during thunderstorms during which he looks like he is in a trance. Perhaps numerous animals engage in these rituals but we haven’t been lucky enough to see them. Even if they are rare, they are important to note and to study.

Like Jane, I too would love to get into the mind and heart of a dog or a wolf even if I couldn’t tell anyone about it afterwards – what an amazing experience it would be.

We can also ask if animals are religious (see for example ; see also) and we will consider this question at a later date.

For now, let’s keep the door open to the idea that animals can be spiritual beings and let’s consider the evidence for such a claim. Meager as it is, available evidence says “Yes, animals can have spiritual experiences” and we need to conduct further research and engage in interdisciplinary discussions before we say that animals cannot and do not experience spirituality.

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He has won many awards for his scientific research including the Exemplar Award from the Animal Behavior Society and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Marc has published more than 1000 essays (popular, scientific, and book chapters), 30 books, and has edited three encyclopedias. 


Take A Walk on the Wild Side: Encounters With Animals in Nature

| by Cheryl Shainmark

Most of us have had the experience — wonderful, heart-stopping, sometimes terrifying — of unexpectedly encountering an animal in the wild. It may be the tranquil sight of deer off in the woods, or a hawk circling in the canyons of Manhattan. It can be scary, as in some of the recent bear sightings on the East Coast, or inspire reverence for the raw beauty of the creature sighted.

Read More.

Meet Anna Breytenbach, the Animal Communicator

| by Cheryl Shainmark

Anna Breytenbach has dedicated her life to what she calls interspecies communication. The South African native is an animal activist, conservationist, and public speaker – but, most incredibly, she “talks to the animals” (video). She received advanced training through the Assisi International Animal Institute in California, USA and has been practicing for 15 years in South Africa, Europe and the USA with domestic and wild animals. Her conservation experience includes working with cheetahs, lions, wolves, baboons and elephants in educational and rehabilitation programs. Anna’s goal is to raise awareness and advance the relationships among humans and other species, on both the personal and spiritual levels. Anna is also the subject of a marvelous 2013 documentary movie “The Animal Communicator.”

Read More.
Filed Under:

Merlian News Podcast Interviews Susan A. Deren

| by Merlian News

In this interview, Susan A. Deren talks with Merryn Jose about her personal experiences as an animal communicator, what its like to communicate with them, tips on how to talk to your own furry companions, and more. Susan is an animal communicator with over thirty years of experience working with animals. She utilizes a technique she developed, Behavioral Intuitive Assessment to assess the problem and recommend a solution. Her clients span this country and abroad. Susan’s work with animals is an extension of the intuitive work she does with humans as a psychic and medium.

Read More.

Recognizing the Rights of Animals

Animal lovers have known for years that the creatures we interact with, both at home and in the wild, are sentient, fully aware beings deserving of the same respect and rights we accord to our human brethren. Study after study has confirmed that animals are intelligent, aware, and able to communicate with humans in their own special way. For some, communicating with animals is second nature, such as seen in this moving video of an “Animal Whisperer” calming a panther.

Read More.
Filed Under:

What do Lions Represent? From “Whispers from the Wild” by Amelia Kinkade

A sense of belonging. They belong to this earth and they know it. They came to reign supreme, and they do so with an uncompromising sense of clarity. What if you could be the king or queen of your own life and rule with absolute authority? Wouldn’t you, as the alpha lion or lioness, bring a sense of being alpha — calm, confident, and in charge — not only to yourself but to the world around you? Excerpt from the book Whispers from the Wild: Listening to Voices from the Animal Kingdom.

Read More.
Filed Under: · ·

Cat Tales for Mariette by Michael Brown

| review by Cheryl Shainmark

Cat Tales for Mariette: An Unexpected Friendship on the Camdeboo Plains of South Africa Cat Tales for Mariette: An Unexpected Friendship on the Camdeboo Plains of South Africa is a remarkable story of love and friendship: for people, for pets, for the wild and nature. Michael Brown, author of The Presence Process and Alchemy of the Heart has written a charming tale (or many tales) of love and loss, joy and death, and the foibles of humans and animals. He narrates the story of how he is coerced by a well-meaning local to visit one of the town’s residents who is dying of cancer in the local hospital. Michael reluctantly agrees to a one-time visit, which becomes daily.

Read More.
Filed Under: · ·

Qigong Master Entrances Animals, Puts them to Sleep

| by Cheryl Shainmark

Japanese Qigong Master Kanzawa Sensei manipulates qi (or chi), the subtle energy that animates all living things. Long associated with healing, meditation, feats of strength and the martial arts, Kanzawa Sensei uses his mind and talent in a different way. First televised on Stan Lee’s series, “Superhumans,” viewers watched as he put several animals to sleep, including alpaca and buffalo, using just his mind and qi energy. When asked how he was doing this, Kanzawa replied, “I exchange energy with the animals, and then they go to sleep.”

Read More.
Filed Under: ·

Meet the “Elephant Whisperer” Helping the Asian Elephant

| by Cheryl Shainmark

Elephant Nature Park is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center in the Chiang Mae province of Northern Thailand. They host a number of vibrant programs: you can visit, tour, volunteer, feed, and even sleep with the elephants! Founded by Lek Chailert, known as “The Elephant Whisperer,” ten years ago on just 250 acres, the Park now encompasses over a 1,000 acres and her humane approach has spread to nearby privately owned elephant “rides.”

Read More.

New Research Indicates Fish May Be Conscious and Feel Emotions

| by Staff

Earlier this week scientists reported new findings indicating that fish may have consciousness and feel emotions like mammals. From www.eurekalert.org we read: Researchers… have for the first time observed an increase in body temperature of between two and four degrees in zebra fish, when these are subjected to stressful situations. This phenomenon is known as emotional fever, as it is related to the emotions that animals feel in the face of an external stimulus and it has even been linked, not without some controversy, with their consciousness.

Read More.
Filed Under: ·