Koko’s Death Begs The Question If Animals Have Religion
Koko, the sign language gorilla that captivated the world, died at 46-years-old. There has been an outpouring of sadness about the beloved creature. What made Koko special was her ability to use sign language and painting to communicate with humans.
— Nat Geo Channel (@NatGeoChannel) June 21, 2018
But did Koko share an understanding of religion and the afterlife?
Primates have demonstrated two indications they may understand spiritualism. Gorillas use rituals to cope with the death of their own. It is so similar to a wake that many zoos have included a formalized version of the ritual for the animals that reside there.
The second ritual involves chimpanzees dancing and throwing rocks at trees when a rainstorm arrives. The feeling of awe and wonder is seen as the first stage of developing a sense of the spiritual and metaphysical for early human beings. Some anthropologists disagree with this interpretation, believing it is just ritualized behavior and cannot be thought of in any religious context.
How humans view animals in the afterlife is also murky. Christians believe only humans will go to heaven because they are made in God’s image. With no specific reference to the admission of animals in heaven, this has made it more a matter of circumstantial proof. Biblical scholars point to the depiction of heaven in Isaiah 11:6 “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat. The calf and the young lion and the fatling together and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young ones shall lie down together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” Rather than a metaphor about the peace found in heaven, these scholars state heaven is where all animals, including gorillas, will live after death. Unless the animal was a sinner. Which means there might not be many raccoons in heaven. Hard to say.
Koko never expressed an understanding of mortality. Most of her messages showed a connection with everyone she interacted with and deep compassion for living creatures. Many have written about how she touched the world by teaching humans the responsibility we have to care for other species and how the idea of mutual love was not our exclusive trait. If any animal gets to go to heaven, it would be Koko.