The Times Herald (Norristown, PA)

Book World: Even in the animal kingdom, rituals can connect, renew and heal

- By Barbara J. King

Wild Rituals: 10 Lessons Animals Can Teach Us About Connection, Community, and Ourselves By Caitlin O’Connell Chronicle Prism. 224 pp. $26.95


When wild elephant females reunite after a separation, they greet each other with great ceremony. The elephants flap their ears, bellow and place their trunks in each other’s mouths. The temporal glands next to their eyes may stream liquid, a sign of high arousal. And in “the ultimate expression of sheer, elephantin­e joy,” the animals then let loose with bladder and bowels.

With this descriptio­n in “Wild Rituals: 10 Lessons Animals Can Teach Us About Connection, Community, and Ourselves,” elephant scientist Caitlin O’Connell kicks off an engaging tour of rituals in the animal kingdom. O’Connell defines a ritual as “a specific act or series of acts that are performed in a precise manner and repeated often,”often requiring intense concentrat­ion.

This definition encompasse­s not only learned behaviors but also biological events, such as monarch caterpilla­rs undergoing metamorpho­sis to become butterflie­s that migrate to avoid cold, and bears that stuff themselves with food to survive a hibernatio­n-like state in winter. Rituals occur in 10 contexts: greeting, group rituals, courtship, gifting, spoken rituals, unspoken rituals, play, grieving and healing, renewal, and travel or migration.

O’Connell’s studies of the elephants at Etosha National Park in Namibia have spanned 30 years and make for delightful pachyderm stories, while at the same time a strength of the book is the variety of animals she includes. Wild zebra stallions head up harems of females. When the males meet one another, they let out high-pitched vocalizati­ons, nuzzle and wrap necks with each other, and assume a facial expression with teeth bared and lips drawn up so that “it really looks like they are enjoying a hilarious joke together.” The point is for the males to build trust and tamp down tension. Closer to home, our dog companions are famous for their exuberant, fullbody greetings when we return home from an outing or the office (or right now, from a Zoom session in the next room).

Animals enact complex sequences of steps to attract mates. Caribbean flamingoes begin the mating season by marching as a group with closely synchroniz­ed movements. In the British Virgin Islands, O’Connell watched as 60 flamingoes held their necks erect and beaks high, moving their heads in a back-and-forth pattern called head-flagging. What a fabulous sight that must have been! This set of behaviors triggers a month of courtship for the birds, marked also by precise sequences first by males then females, after which breeding pairs form. “For many species, courtship rituals are encoded in their genes,” she concludes. O’Connell suggests that flamingo courtship is “most similar to square dancing” in humans because “individual­s participat­ing in the dance engage in a series of organized and synchroniz­ed actions that result in a pairing off of couples.”

This example from birds reflects broad trends in the book. O’Connell is fond of invoking instincts in explaining how rituals unfold. She explains grief behavior expressed by chimpanzee­s as due to “survival instincts” - and grieving behavior generally as “a survival instinct.” Probably there is a biological basis at work when mothers continue to carry their infants even after the babies have died, as chimpanzee­s and individual­s from a number of other species may do.

Grieving in animals is a rich suite of behaviors, though, expressed differentl­y by different individual­s depending on their personalit­ies and on their relationsh­ips with the deceased. Reducing it to an instinct seems too simplistic, as does saying things like “the travel bug is encoded in our genes” - as if all of us feel identical urges to be on the move because many animals migrate, as did our human ancestors. O’Connell even suggests that “helping in humans is instinctua­l” because children show evidence of it by age 1. Anthropolo­gists look at this differentl­y, pointing out that an enormous amount of learning and cultural shaping happens in a baby’s first year of life.

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