Koko the gorilla is the, now famous,230 pound ape that was taught how to communicate using American Sign Language. With a vocabulary of over 1000 words Koko drew two fingers across her cheek like whiskers, signaling to her teacher that she wanted a cat for her birthday. The teacher had been reading, The Three Little Kittens, to Koko for years. And, now Koko wanted her own kitten. So Koko was given her pick of a kitten from a litter of abandoned kittens. She chose one so small that she could have crushed it, with barely a squeeze of her hand. Instead she cuddled the tailless gray male like a baby and named the kitten, “All Ball.” Koko carried Ball like other gorillas carry their babies, she tended to him, tickled and scratched him, and knowing her own strength handled him gently. When asked by her teacher if she loved All Ball, Koko signed, “Soft, good cat.” Sadly, one day the kitten escaped from the sanctuary and was hit by a car. Koko grieved the loss of her kitten, her sadness was clear – revealed in hand gestures, her silent language of grief, and in her crying calls. When asked if she wanted to talk about her loss Koko gestured, “Cry”.
“What happened to your kitty,” her trainer asked.
“Sleep cat.” Pointing to a photo of a cat that resembled Ball, Koko’s big hands spoke again, “Cry, sad, frown.”
In time Koko soon had the opportunity to bond with a pair of new kittens , once again impressing her human care givers with her gentle affection.
This story, well known to many people, appeared in National Geographic Magazine and then again in the book, “Unlikely Friendships” by Jennifer Holland.
Holland writes in the book:
”Less common than a human-pet connection, and at first glance more surprising, is a bond between members of two different nonhuman species: a dog and a donkey, a cat and a bird, a sheep and an elephant. The phenomenon is most often reported in captive animals, in part because we simply catch them in the act more often. But it’s also because, notes biologist and primate specialist Barbara King of the College of William & Mary, that’s where constraints are relaxed, where animals aren’t fighting for their basic needs – which allows their emotional energy to flow elsewhere. Of course, there are cases of cross species bonds in the wild, as well. “Most important,” says King, “we know animals, under whatever circumstances, have that capacity.” Calling these inter-species relationships might be a stretch, by human standards of friendship. But regardless it is evident that animals are capable of emotions similar to ours, capable of forming companionships that improve the condition of life for each animal. Barbara King says, “I believe people crave examples not just of cuteness, and not just of tolerance – but of true compassion and sharing. These stories help us get in touch with the best in ourselves. “ (from the introduction to Unlikely Friendships, Jennifer S. Holland).
Today, on the third Sunday of our Season of Creation, we celebrate the Feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. Traditionally celebrated on the fourth of October, this feast days is often transferred to another convenient day in order that we can we celebrate and bless our pets. While St. Francis was a lover of animals, he was actually someone who cared deeply for all creation: for animals, the land, and human beings. St. Francis believed that nature was the mirror of God. A man of deep faith, he lived a simple life, giving up his inheritance and family wealth, and devoting his life to tend to those most in need. His work led to the creation of the order of Franciscans, a monastic order committed to caring for the poor. Living in the age of the Crusades, St. Francis encountered humanity during one of our most violent ages of intolerance. Francis of Assisi maintained close relationships with Muslims, and the order of the Franciscans was the only order allowed to remain in the Holy Land after the fall of Crusades – for his day, a clear example of an unlikely friendship between human beings.
For us, this day is a reminder that we are called to follow the example of St. Francis, to care for all of God’s creation in wild and exorbitant ways – out of gratitude, with generosity, gladness, and with hospitality. Expressing these to land, water, and air, to animals of all kinds, and to all human beings regardless of the many ways we may differ one from another. We humans are uniquely able to recognize and address the imbalances in the world, whether human made imbalances or otherwise. To create circumstances in which, as Holland observes, “the constraints are relaxed, and (no one) has to fight to have basic needs met.” In such circumstances our emotional energy can flow elsewhere – and as the animals show us – this means we have a greater capacity for compassion, for bringing out the best in ourselves, and others.
We have the opportunity, in fact we have the God given command, to care for this world as God cares for the world. Because, according to St. Francis, we, like all creation, are a mirror of God – made good to do good – in the most unlikely of ways.