The Loneliest of Species

Can bridging the divide between animals and humans bring about lasting happiness?

By Jay Griffiths

Gunung Leuser National Park, 2017. Photograph by Dennis Keller. Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

Gunung Leuser National Park, 2017. Photograph by Dennis Keller. Flickr (CC BY 2.0).


Audio brought to you by Curio, a Lapham’s Quarterly partner

The long-tailed macaques leap like embodied jokes, making the very trees laugh with their sense of swing. A baby monkey jumps from liana to liana, curls its fingers around a branch, and dives into a stream: aerial then aquatic acrobatics. A gecko runs up a buttress flank of mahogany and freezes, alert, silently glued to the trunk, its tiny tongue licking up termites. High in the trees, a Thomas’ leaf monkey, with its long white tail, whiskers, and mohawk, blinks and gazes, blinks and gazes.

The Sumatran rain forest, filled with the jungle music of crickets and frogs, is home to all the creatures of The Jungle Book. I’d been invited to join an ecotourist trek to see orangutans, a critically endangered animal. The hope of seeing one was only a part of my delight: to put it simply, forests make me happy.

Academia demonstrates what the heart already knows: nature-connectedness is correlated with emotional and psychological well-being, from the Japanese shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) to the joy inherent in Norwegian friluftsliv (free-air life) or the rush of oxytocin in dog owners when gazing into their dogs’ eyes. It is easier, of course, to love one’s cat than to care about the chestnut clearwing moth or the rufous-fronted laughing thrush, but pets can be the ambassadors of the natural world, leading us by the paw into a world richer than we could ever know by ourselves.

When a wild landscape is lit with birds and ribboned with animal presence, it tells us that all manner of living things are well, and it draws us inextricably into a shared happiness, whether in a savanna or rain forest or the woodland humming with joy evoked by Tennyson’s lines of “doves in immemorial elms / And murmuring of innumerable bees.” Thus the giraffes who caress one another with low hums, a gentle evening song of the envoiced world. Thus puffins, clowns of the air, possibly the most visually cheering of all birds. Thus rats, who if tickled chirp like children laughing, while bonobos, if tickled, laugh until they fart. Laughter is a signal, a form of communication that tells others that the laugher is not only happy but wishes to spend more time with the laughee, welcoming the exchange as reciprocal. When we respect the fact that all species are necessary to the well-being of an ecosystem, this sense of shared happiness can potentially include everything, from baby elephants at play to the leeches that crawl up our legs as we walk through the forests of Sumatra.

Boys playing in a garden, detail of a Chinese silk tapestry, late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fletcher Fund, 1936.

Orangutan means “person of the forest” in Malay and Indonesian. These great apes are highly intelligent tool users, making a bed for themselves every night, using leaves to amplify their “kiss squeak” sound of annoyance, while some orangutan individuals have been taught sign language. Orangutans are the first animal species (apart from humans) known to use “calculated reciprocity,” keeping track of gifts given and received, and weighing the costs and benefits of gift exchanges. Though orangutans usually travel through the forests alone and lead more solitary lives than most great apes, the mother-child bond is very strong. The sight of a baby orangutan, a little person of the forest, cannot but make a human happy. I dearly wanted to see one.

In Gunung Leuser National Park, a World Heritage site, I was assured I was part of a reciprocal exchange. Ecotourism here, say both UNESCO officials and local people, is a way to protect these forests for the orangutan, to provide a livelihood for locals and so lessen the drive toward deforestation for palm-oil plantations. It was also, I learned, a vital way to take care of abused and mistreated orangutans, the most terrible case of which was a female orangutan who had been captured, kept in a brothel in Kalimantan, shaved, and chained for sexual purposes. The national parks sought to protect both animals and the forests themselves.

The parks, I soon learned, did not always live up to their promises. The guides constantly called out to the orangutans, who don’t like being disturbed. Stressed by the shouts, they move away and the guides can catch sight of them. “We do it because they don’t like it,” one of the guides said candidly. The guides want to make the tourists “happy” by making the orangutans unhappy; it is not a good exchange.

Breaking one park regulation after another, the guides gave food to the orangutans and then brought a large group of tourists not only far too close to a mother orangutan and her child but between them. One of the guides then began provoking the mother, leaping at her, goading her, and laughing. Another stood over her with a stick, waving it in her face. She was distressed. I was angry and walked away, telling the other tourists that none of us should be there. I’d never knowingly been complicit in an act of gang cruelty, and I was upset.

It was only when I got home, though, that I found out worse aspects of tourism in Bukit Lawang, the town most tourists stay in before beginning a trek of a few hours or, in our case, two days. Cannibalism is incredibly rare among orangutans, or indeed among any great apes, but there are two documented cases, both in the vicinity of Bukit Lawang. While it is not possible to state the reason with certainty, the most probable cause is the stress of uncontrolled tourism. The cases of cannibalism were both of mothers eating their infants.


When the relationship is at its best, animals can draw us humans into their worlds: they are the filaments of our tenderness, the reach beyond our grasp, the extension of our empathy, the wings of our minds. To be happy, the senses need to be stimulated, and through animals our senses grow: we can extend ourselves out through their senses into worlds of unquenchable richness. Each creature lives paws outward, reaching into the world with arms, tendrils, tentacles, antennae, and fingers.

Being welcomed by one’s pets triggers happiness: the sight of a dog spinning with delight delights us in turn, but we humans yearn for a wider and wilder welcome as well, to be greeted across the species divide. Hence the joy people feel, even via a screen, at the sight of lions giving their human companions a rapturous hug. Trained behavior, of course, means animals may sometimes be seeking food rewards, but still the delight in us arises when animal-mind seems to include humans. We seek an invitation into the realm of fur and feathers and unfathomable eyes that see an infinity of worlds within this one, because the true, deep sense of life is formed of intermindedness.

How sad a sight is human happiness to those whose thoughts can pierce beyond an hour!

—Edward Young, 1741

Animals find unexpected ways to let us in: the honeyguide bird knows where the bees’ nest is, but it cannot actually get the honey out on its own. It needs human hands to break open the hive, while humans need the bird to guide them to the right tree. Hence the honeyguide rule: a happy human-animal relationship depends on reciprocal exchange. The honeyguide is an emblem of the best kind of relationship between humans and the more-than-human world, leading the psyche to sweetness.

If humans deliberately call for help from honeyguides, the birds will directly respond. Such communication between animals of different species is rare, but other examples include the relationship of the orphaned baby hippopotamus looked after by an Aldabra giant tortoise 130 years old. The two vocalize together in neither typical hippo nor typical tortoise ways.

From childhood onward we have a poignant desire for animals to communicate with us. The Jungle Book stories are so appealing because Mowgli can talk with the animals and they with him. Child-mind leaps at such characters as Dr. Dolittle and adores Aslan and is enchanted by the beguiling tales of orphaned humans brought up by animals. We hardly dare to believe they could be possible because we so want them to be true. It seems a visceral and innate wish, as if it confers an interspecies grace. Child-mind is devoted to animals, as children’s authors and marketing departments know: children dream of animals, talk to them, are fascinated by them.

Communication between creatures and humans is a fixation of science and has led to curious discoveries: dolphins communicating with humans will modulate the pitch of their calls to stay within the realm of human hearing; orangutans will modify their gestural signals according to the comprehension of their human audience.

Such communication is unbuyable and uncommandable, an unfeigned delight as if they were in that moment inviting us to step across, right through the curtains into the dreamtime of Australian aboriginal belief. “Everything has and tells a story. Everything communicates, through its own language and its own law,” say the Yolngu from Bawaka in northeast Arnhem Land. Indigenous cultures have kept faith with the animals as part of what it means to belong, and the world is larger and more vivid when animals and birds and insects are imbued with spirit and significance, when there is Mind of unknowable diversity, elastic and ecstatic, until the air is electric with message and there are more stories than stars.

When other creatures speak to us, a breach feels healed into wholeness, wellness. Worldwide, shamanic lore has included the art of shape-shifting. Such animal transformations are often treated as a fact without analysis, but the revelation to me is that healing, whether individual or social, is thought to come about through animal mind. Animals can be the healers if we would but let them. This is physically true, as we know that, for example, dogs can detect certain cancers through their sense of smell. Emotionally, animals are the first responders for the human heart, and eschewing the natural world is a life-denying refusal of their most potent medicine: vitality.

Vitality is at the heart of healing traditions: acupuncture or yoga, the concepts of Chinese chi or Indian prana, the life force in flow. It is among the five “character strengths” most correlated with happiness, according to the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, the others being curiosity, optimism, gratitude, and the ability to love and be loved. Vitality means living in vividness, alert, the senses picking up everything. It is the embodiment of a quickened life, keener and more alive.

Garden of Earthly Delights (detail), by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1500. © Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY.

Garden of Earthly Delights (detail), by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1500. © Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY.

This place of flow is where animals dwell, and according to biologist Rupert Sheldrake, this is why their company is healing, because they draw us into their flow state, which is essential for creativity and, in turn, happiness. We become avid readers of multitudinous stories. Being intricately involved in the animal world increases the vividness of our experience, listening for prey, scanning for predators, smelling scents in the air.

Natural environments improve emotional functioning and attention. To notice, to attend the world, to be alive to its covitalizing is biophilia, a term used by biologist Edward O. Wilson to describe that lovely innate quality of life loving life, and the particular kind of energy it offers is that shining momentness that, in the Homeric world, surrounds the gods: energeia. It is intense presence, wildness incarnate. In this sense, wild animals are the gods still walking—swimming, tumbling, climbing, pouncing—in the world.


On the second day of the trek in Sumatra, a friend and I asked the guides if we could all walk quietly through the forest without shouting or disturbing the animals. That was when we saw them properly, undistressed, a mother and her tiny baby. The baby was peeking around her, curling its fingers to its original world and dangling from one tiny arm. All is swing on the ropes of liana. Tiny, fluffy, and tawny, it could hang on its own arm like a bungee cord, twirling 360 degrees one way and then untwirling the other way, ceaselessly elastic. The mother’s hand was the length of the baby’s whole arm, and she could scoop her little one up if she wanted to and rub its face, rolling her hand on its head. When orangutans are happy, their happiness is infectious with their huge, easy softness, dreaming, chewing, mulling. They looked at us, thoughtful, with those ancient eyes as they held hands in the slumbering afternoon.

Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index contains nine domains, equally weighted, including ecological diversity and resilience. Happiness is, and must be, ecocratic. Our happiness depends on the happiness of all life, birds, fish, and insects, fungi and trees. To each—the orangutan, termite, plankton, salamander, or swan—its equal due, and an ecocratic sensibility is the absolute opposite of the celebrity culture or social media competitiveness that makes so many people feel so miserable. Ecocratic happiness does not run a scala naturae, does not care about status and “likes,” excludes no one and nothing. Though we are continually exposed to the judgment of others, animals do not appear to judge.

Loneliness is, we know, a root cause of unhappiness, while a sense of community enlivens us and makes us happy, but there is more: interspecies community matters. Animals are crucial for our happiness because as a species we crave companionship. But this is the age of our solitude, and many humans feel estranged from the world in this species-loneliness, outcast from the intensity of the fully thriving world. The nonhuman world of plants and animals is the only other life we know of in the universe; without them, how silent and foreboding the loneliness of humanity. The philosophy of human exceptionalism, that arrogant and ultimately self-injurious idea that humans are a species both separate and superior, reaches its apogee in mass extinctions.

“Be careful what you wish for” is the fairy-tale adage. Humans are exceptional in seeking to be excepted, and it seems our wishes are coming true in a torrent of extinctions. The human voice is becoming a single monotone, as savage as it is sad, alienating itself from the healers, deaf to the singers, turning our face to the wall, a deadness at our hearts, deliberately imprisoning itself away from the vivid world, self-exiled and self-estranged by the graveside in a sump of the spirit.

In the Time of Harmony, by Paul Signac, c. 1895. © Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY.

Life without the proliferation of creatures is like prose without metaphor, words without music, fact without dance, all the iridescence of a kingfisher reduced to dusty gray feathers in a dead-handed museum. All around us exuberance is suffocated as life dims, unlustrous without animals, unlit by bird flight. Tennyson’s elms immemorial are gone and all but forgotten, and his innumerable bees are facing their countdown. The extinctions now underway are the pallid slaughter by an indifference too stupid even to be appalled, and we humans, instead of being the lucky, clever ones, delighting in the myriad beauties of the living world, are the pall creeping around a funeral of life.

A butterfly stamped under a boot. A damselfly torn like turquoise silk. A match struck and a bee wing set alight. While acts of wanton cruelty—for example the shooting of a giraffe by a Texan woman who gloats of being “blessed” by this murder—may be held up to public shame, grief itself goes numb at the numbers as we collectively commit a bureaucratic slaughter beyond any genocide.

You know the figures. Humans are killing species at between one thousand and ten thousand times the normal background rate. One million species are on the edge of extinction, according to an assessment by the United Nations. Vertebrate populations have shrunk in size by an average of 60 percent since 1970. Since 1980, populations of common birds in Europe have been slashed by 421 million. Puffins are suffering a grave and mysterious population decline. Puerto Rico’s Luquillo rain forest has lost 98 percent of its ground insects. Forty percent of the world’s insect species could be extinct within a few decades. Those most at risk include butterflies, moths, bees, beetles, and aquatic insects such as dragonflies. Those least at risk include cockroaches and houseflies and horseflies. There is likely to be a consequent explosion of extinctions, because each creature is so closely tendriled into so many others and no species can live alone.


Compared to many animals, we humans are beginners in the sense of smell, newcomers to sight, inexpert in the audible realm. For our own safety, we need to listen to animals’ sensed communications as, before a tsunami, for instance, they listen to one another and, heeding warnings, can save themselves. There is a different kind of tsunami coming, but theirs are still the voices—or the silences—we need to attend.

When the metastudy that reported on the collapse of insect life, and therefore our lethal bequest to our own children, was published, it was reported sparingly. Poked about a bit with an incurious stick for a few hours in the media mind. A few days later, when Karl Lagerfeld bequeathed a portion of his $200 million estate to his celebrity cat, the media went wild for the story. One pampered pet, now poised to be the richest cat on the planet, was more important to the media than the most grievous threat to life. Human voices are drowning forest voices. We pass through the world, leaving a swath of silence because of a deadly lack of imagination. Animals, pure embodiments of vitality, are being erased from the earth, and with them an irreplaceable source of human happiness.

Seize from every moment its unique novelty, and do not prepare your joys.

—André Gide, 1897

The language we use for this is itself deadly. An “extinction event” or “species decline” because of “intensive agriculture.” These are lifeless phrases. How easily the eye bypasses them. They are words of tarmac and traffic, not the lovely, writhy ivy words of the woods. I cannot touch or taste words like habitat loss or pollution because they are unbeloved words that carry within themselves the toxicity of lifelessness. Humans, we are told, need insects for “the function and services they provide.” Cold language, cold as coins on corpse eyes, cold as the philosophy that put us here. Words of heart are needed. Because this is a crisis of deadly stupidity like no other. No war matches it. No genocide. And there is nothing greater than to be in service to this, the life on which any chance of a happy future depends.

Let me speak simply, then, and ask: What is it you love, what makes you happy? Is it a child? Is it your wife, your husband, your friend? Your dog, your home, your garden, the poetry you make or the music? And this love, then, this happiness you hold so dear, tell me how it will even exist without the tiniest of beings, the insects, against which we have been so utterly pitiless. Without the insects for the food and the flowers and the soil?

And yet there is a honeyguide in the human heart that knows its true north. Children have it, they who still dream of animals, who talk to them and for them, which is why they are speaking as the conscience of the world: a group of young people suing the U.S. government over climate change, youth-led climate strikes spreading worldwide. The knowledge of what we have done to the natural world is—at last—causing us the grief and shock and unhappiness that can be transformative and lead to change. Within each of us must be found the sense of wildness, the feeling of life loving life sufficient to rebel against its extinguishing, to say “never” to the tragedy that brought us here and, instead, seek happiness only when it is ecocratic, made of chlorophyll and birdsong and the laughter of macaques swinging through the trees.

Related Reads