Graduate Theological Union

A Theology for Koko...and all creatures great and small

 Koko signs “Love”

Image copyright 2011 The Gorilla Foundation/ Photo by Ronald Cohn.

Last summer, Ph.D. Candidate Marilyn Matevia returned to the Gorilla Foundation to visit Koko, the 40-year old lowland gorilla who learned to speak American Sign Language and to understand English when she was a baby. Koko, known best for her communication skills with a vocabulary of more than 1000 signs and a good understanding of spoken English, is the chief ambassador for her critically endangered species. Matevia hadn’t seen Koko since working with her as a research associate from 1997 to 2000. When Koko caught her first glimpse of Marilyn, she signaled her old friend to lie down, get comfortable, and talk. It was a tender moment.

Matevia, who, in fifth grade, developed an interest in animal behavior from reading a Scholastic Magazine article on the signing chimpanzee, Washoe, focuses her current work on the ethics side of conservation. “Westerners in general think of justice in terms of a social contract, and non-human animal interests are largely excluded because animals don’t fit our beliefs about the kinds of beings who get to participate in the contract,” she says. “I want to encourage humans to give more weight to the interests of other animals when those interests conflict and collide with our own. My thesis, Casting the Net: Prospects Toward a Theory of Social Justice for All, poses a question: can we take animal interests more seriously, while still balancing human interests, and what might that look like?”

Marilyn Matevia

“A mass extinction event caused by human
activities is a crisis of morality, spirituality,
and ethics, as well as biodiversity.”

— Marilyn Matevia, Doctoral Candidate

Matevia began her studies looking at the great apes and the bush meat crisis — the unsustainable hunting of often endangered wildlife in West and Central Africa and the humid tropics. She is now focused on the effects of overfishing; for example, increased incidence in Africa of the chronic disease schistosomiasis has been linked to declines of fish species that eat the snails carrying the disease-causing parasites. Also, massive growth of jellyfish populations move in because fish have been emptied out by commercial fishing. Then they compete with fish for food, eat fish eggs, and poison fish, wreaking havoc on commercial fisheries. Also, there is a tie between overfishing on the west coast of Africa and increased bush meat trade, documented by Justin Braeshares at University of California at Berkeley. And fish, Matevia, maintains, are sentient beings in their own right, suffering from exploitative, cruel, and painful practices such as shark finning, where sharks fins are cut off and their bodies, not dead but unable to swim, are thrown back into the sea.

“A mass extinction event caused by human activities is a crisis of morality, spirituality, and ethics, as well as biodiversity,” says Matevia. “These are multi-layered and interconnected issues, concerning the welfare of humans and other animals, the importance of diversity to a healthy eco-system, and the impact of our choices as consumers on all these things.

“If I can help get people thinking about these issues, if I can help increase what one writer, Marc Bekoff, calls the ‘compassion foot- print’; if people find themselves more deeply sensitized to non-human animal interests, if they see that learning about one issue like overfishing can connect them to many other issues — then I’ll feel I have accomplished something.”

Matevia, whose work, she says, would not have been possible without the GTU Presidential Scholarship she received for two years, sees herself teaching or working with an NGO, perhaps teaching kids about animals and environmental and conservation issues. She says, “I see myself equipping a new generation of ethicists with the expertise, imagination, and courage to guide reflection on the moral status of animals. I want to create and work on programs where both humans and animals can win.”

For more information about Marilyn Matevia’s work, read from her blog ( And for a good introduction to these issues, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on The Moral Status of Animals (