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Scientists Ask What Chimpanzees Can Teach Humans About Death
June 30, 2013
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The eyes of a chimpanzee at the Villa Lorena Animal Refuge Centre (Photo: Reuters)

Chimpanzees are the closest living relatives to humans - they are members of the Hominidae family, as we are, and they share about 98.6 per cent of our DNA makeup.

Scientists have studied various aspects of chimp behaviour to get insight into the human condition.

One area where chimpanzees may have a lot to teach us, according to an article from The New York Times, is death.

The piece starts out with the story of Pansy, a chimp who was probably in her 50s when she passed away at the Blair Drummond Safari and Adventure Park near Stirling, Scotland.

She died with her adult daughter Rosie and her best friend Blossom by her side, Maggie Koerth-Baker writes.

As Pansy struggled to breathe, Blossom sat beside her, stroking her hand.

Scientists at the park filmed the chimpanzee's final hours, capturing intimate shots of Pansy with her daughter and friend Blossom, as well as Blossom's son Chippy, grooming her and comforting her.

After Pansy died, Blossom spent all night sitting by her friend's body. And for five days after her death, none of the other chimps would sleep on the platform where she passed away.

chimp-death-orange.jpgThe Times piece points out that many studies have captured similar behaviour among chimpanzees surrounding the death of a fellow chimp: "watching over the dying, cleaning and protecting bodies and displaying outward signs of anxiety."

Despite those observations, though, there are questions about just how much we're like our chimpanzee cousins.

Science demands objectively gathered, definitive data, and our observations of chimpanzee deaths may be coloured by our desire to see humanity in them, as well as the conditions in which they occur.

Still, some researchers say their personal experience convinces them that chimps and other primates experience death in ways that are similar to humans.

Chimpanzees munching on leeks at Tokyo's Tama Zoo, February 9, 2013 (Photo: Getty)

Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University, watched the death of a bonobo named Lipopo, and says the behaviour he saw afterwards was wrenching and powerful.

Even though Lipopo, who died of pneumonia, hadn't spent much time with the other apes at the orphanage where he passed away, they all stayed with her body and groomed it.

When human caretakers came to move the body, Mimi, the group's alpha female, stood guard over Lipopo's corpse, and fought viciously to protect it. Eventually, she was shot with a tranquillizer dart, still fighting.

Hare said that watching a bonobo protect the dead body of an animal who was essentially a stranger really got to him.

"That's when I started to cry," he told the Times. "I don't know why she did it."

The question of whether chimpanzees experience the world in similar ways to humans remains open, but a couple of our guests have offered some fascinating insights on the topic.

A Powerful Story Of Human-Like Behaviour

Andrew Westoll told an incredible story when he was in the red chair a couple of seasons back that supports the "chimps are just like us" theory.

It's an unbelievable tale - check it out if you've got a couple of minutes:

A group of chimpanzees got out of their cages at Fauna Sanctuary. They could have wandered away from the area, since they were unsupervised by any humans, but they didn't.

Instead, they moved in together, sitcom style.

And then they started doing chores: sweeping snow off the roof, mopping the floor, and pouring soapy water into the sink where they stacked the dishes.

As Westoll puts it, "when these guys were presented with the closest thing to freedom they'd ever been given, all they wanted to do was act like human beings."

Jane Goodall Talks About The Relationship Between Chimps And Humans

And earlier this season, Jane Goodall, famous primatologist and defender of chimpanzees, was in the red chair (watch the full interview above).

In the interview, she talks about the dangers that chimpanzees face, and expresses her opinion that using them in entertainment is cruel.

Goodall also discusses an interesting aspect of the connection between human and chimpanzee populations.

She says we need to help people living in poverty, so that they can then assist in conserving chimp habitats.

And she highlights the one major difference between us and chimps, and asks a big follow-up question: "I'd say the big difference between them and us is the explosion of the human intellect.

"So then the question: how come the most intellectual being to ever walk the planet is destroying its only home?"

Via New York Times


Socially Responsible Coffee From The Jane Goodall Institute

Happy Anniversary, Dr. Goodall

New Report Says 25 Of The World's Primate Species Are On The Brink Of Extinction


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