Sunday, February 20, 2011

To A Fallen Hero

"To A Fallen Hero -

(On the Severed Head of a Gorilla, Slain for 'Bush Meat')"

Jordan S. Bassior
(c) 2006

Hello, cousin.

You're not doing so well.

Head and body torn in twain, blood drained, your brain
Which held thoughts near as rich as our own
Has become meat.

Such our common fate, gorilla and man.
We all die in the end
The question is
How did we live?

You loved your family.
Wives, sons, daughters, a primal clan
Found food in the forest, by your wisdom
Kept safe from harm, by your strength
Warmed in the night, by your heart.

You roared at the leopard
And she backed off snarling
Afraid to face your power
Afraid to dare your anger
Rage fed by love.

Day came when a greater Predator
The greatest of all
Came to your woods
And found your clan

You had great fangs, mighty fists
Arms rippling with muscles
Courage of your great heart
He had a gun.

You knew this!

You'd seen your father fight
Standing between you and Man
You'd heard the rifle roar
You'd seen your father die

No dumb beast, no mindless thing
You chose --- chose to fight
Standing between those you loved and Man

You heard the rifle roar
You felt the hammerblow
Mightier far than gorilla fang or fist
You died.

Long ago Three Hundred stood
Between the Persian and the home
The Few took to the skies in frail fighters
Threw themselves at the foe
They died.

You are their brother
I salute you.

The day will come when all of us understand
Your kind, and mine
And we will all be brothers
Apes of the same heart.


I wrote this poem a few years ago, posted it some other places, and e-mailed it to The Gorilla Project and some associated agencies. I got some nice feedback on it from them; heard that Dr. Patterson herself read and liked it. That made me happy.

I think that we are far too quick to assume that the other apes are "mere animals" incapable of thinking ahead or understanding the consequences of their actions; that they are simply running on instinct like a more sophisticated version of Descartean automatons. Experiments with acculturated gorillas and other apes clearly shows that they are capable of understanding the concepts of past, present and future and of reasonably anticipating and planning for future events.

When we hear that a silverback ambushes a hunting party, an act which is very likely to result in his own death, and also quite likely to result in the other gorillas in his band -- who are, of course, his own beloved family -- escaping the hunters, many scientists are quick to assert that this is merely "instinct," deserving of no particular praise. I believe this to be a wrong interpretation of such an action, and one which violates Occam's principle of parsimony in the ascribed causation of events.

Poaching has reached such levels that the typical gorilla has probably either seen _or heard of by rumor_ (I do think that wild gorilla communication is advanced enough to assign overall danger levels to specific threats) the incredible lethality of humans as predators. A silverback who stands up to (*) a hunting party almost certainly knows that there is a good chance that this will be the last thing he ever does.

He often does so anyway. I would argue that the simplest explanation is that he loves his family and would gladly risk his life to protect them, just as human fathers love their families and would gladly risk their lives to protect them. I would argue that the ability which makes it possible for him to make this choice is no mere instinct, but rather courage -- a similar kind of courage to that which makes humans risk their lives to defend their homes.

In short, I argue that the dead silverback should be seen not merely as "victim" (which of course he is: he lost the fight with the poachers) but also as hero.

He deserves that dignity. He earned it at the price of his life, after all.

Maybe when we, as a species, really understand this, they won't have to die this way as often.

(*) - Literally. A silverback's dominance / intimidation display consists, in part, of standing bipedally, the better both to impress the foe with his size and to grab and bite him if the foe fails to be suitably impressed and back off.

NOTE:  I confirm that I have explicitly given the Gorilla Foundation the nonexclusive rights to use and reproduce this poem.

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