I wanted to telegraph what we now understand: a wide variety of animals mourn when a loved one dies. Scientists have known for years about elephants who stroke the bones of the dead, and chimpanzees who become greatly distressed at the body of a loved one. And very recently, we’ve learned from up-close observations new details about how these big-brained mammals and others, like dolphins, grieve in the wild.
But animal grief goes well beyond that. Farm animals like cows and ducks grieve when they survive a close relative or friend, and certainly so may the animals we share our lives with, ranging from horses and rabbits to cats and dogs. I deploy somewhat conservative criteria for grief, so that an animal has to show an altered behavioral routine from the normal, plus some kind of evident distress in his or her body language or actions, for me to claim that grief is occurring. Even so, I have found an abundance of examples.
A few readers have remarked that the book should come bundled with a box of tissues. Is it really a tearjerker?
Some passages are sad, yes. When we learn about dolphin mothers who tirelessly push the small bodies of their infants before them in the water, unwilling to let them go, or about a rescued sanctuary duck who pines for his best duck friend of four years by sitting at their favorite hang-out pond alone, it’s natural for empathy to well up.
At the same time, there’s a strong current of love running through the book, a current that I find incredibly uplifting. Animals grieve because they love, and the stories in my book are as much about shared love as about solitary grief.
There has to be a limit, though, right? Some of the more cognitively simple organisms aren’t likely to be capable of mourning others. Take for example fish, or insects like bees. You’re not saying they grieve, are you?
Right, I’m not. But funny you should mention those particular organisms, because I’ve been thinking about just those two lately. New data from a science journal show that some fish are more complicated behaviorally than we’ve ever thought: grouper and coral trout not only hunt cooperatively with other fish of their kind, they may also gesture with their heads to indicate to their hunting partners where prey is located. Okay, that’s not showing emotion, but doesn’t it make you wonder?
As for bees, I witnessed an interaction outside my window at home a few weeks ago that impressed me. I saw that one of the plump stingless carpenter bees that frequents our front yard had been caught in a thin spider web. This bee struggled to free itself but could not. Just as I was thinking I should help release it, up flew another bee, hovering closely in the air near the first. It seemed to be observing (or at least somehow sensing) the situation. Then it flew off. Before long, this bee or another tangled its body with the first, apparently attempting to physically pull the trapped one free from the web. This didn’t work, but it was clear to me that I was watching a rescue attempt. (I then intervened to gently free the bee using a rake handle.)
Please don’t revoke my status as a card-carrying scientist. Scientists need to be skeptical, to test well-crafted hypotheses. I’m not suggesting that we’ll definitely find grouper grief or bee grief if we look. Still, I think we should look!
How are people responding so far, to these messages in your book?
The book launch has been excellent fun, including some surprises. Talking with journalists from Brazil, Croatia, and Ireland has pleased my anthropological, cross-cultural sensibilities. And certainly I never expected to be invited on the Howard Stern radio show. I’m doing a lot of radio right now and the call-in shows are particularly fun.
Probably the coolest thing of all is that some readers feel moved to write me letters about their pets’ grief or their observations of animal emotion in the natural world. That means more to a writer than people may know and I answer each person, though slowly at times. It’s like Bruce Springsteen always says at his live concerts – he and the E Street Band can only take things so far, the rest is up to the audience. Being in concert is his true goal: to be in sync with the people who come to the show. I’m a Jersey Shore native and huge Bruce fan, and his words resonate for writers too. We want to connect with readers, and when we have tangible evidence that that’s happened, it’s so gratifying.
Dolphins and ducks, fish and bees: you’re an anthropologist! Humans are animals, yes, but isn’t our ability to think and feel completely unprecedented in the animal kingdom?
I walk a fine line in the book. I don’t want to set humans apart as somehow more evolved (a concept that makes no scientific sense), as superior (an old idea that I hope is falling away) or as conflated with other species (Anthropology has taught me a thing or two).
But every species is unique. Elephants don’t mourn like we do, because they don’t engage in the same linguistic, symbolic rituals around death that we do. We can flip that statement, though: We don’t mourn like elephants do, because we don’t use sensitive trunks and feet to investigate the body of a loved one, nor do we tenderly stroke the bones of our loved ones after their death. Does it make sense to say that one method of mourning is more evolved or superior to the other? No.
Wait a minute. Humans don’t do anything that’s meaningfully different when they mourn, compared with other animals?
Well, that I didn’t say. Other animals mourn for their kin and friends, in a kind of tight circle of grief immediate to the individual. Wild elephants in Kenya have been seen to mourn matriarchs from other families, leading scientists to posit a more “generalized” grief response in elephants than in most species.
But as far as we know, we’re the only animals to mourn for those of our own kind we’ve never met, or to grieve on a mass scale. I think, with sorrow, of the children and adults who died last year in the Newtown, Connecticut shootings, and remember that every single person I came in contact with that week was grieving in some way for those people we do not and will not know. This grief is not contained within national borders but spans the globe.
You’ve also pointed out that humans dance through our grief, paint through our grief, and write through our grief. We turn sorrow into art. Do you read books in the grief genre?
In preparing to write my book, the first such memoir I read was C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed from 1961. Lewis describes what he misses most about his wife: “exactly the thing I can never get,” as he puts it—“the old life… the tiny, heartbreaking commonplace.” He laments the awful but inevitable dimming of his real, living wife, into a sort of phantasm of his memory, a part-imaginary being.
Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave is the most recent grief book I’ve read. It’s a stunner. I’ve longed to write a letter to Deraniyagala, but it’s terrifying to think that I might be misunderstood, coming as I do from a perspective steeped in grief of apes and dolphins, cats and dogs. From her home in London, Deraniyagala flew for a beach holiday to her native Sri Lanka with her husband, two young boys, and parents; there, in the Christmas 2004 tsunami, she lost all of them. Now, nine years later, she writes her love for them, for Steve, for Vik, for Malli, for her mother, for her father. I have no words for her loss, or her bravery.
Next on my to-be-read memoir pile is Shannon Polson’s North of Hope. About the aftermath of losing her parents to a grizzly bear attack in Alaska’s wilderness, it looks to be very moving, and like Lewis’s and Deraniyagala’s books, echoes something I noted earlier about my own book—these grief stories are steeped in love.
As we conclude this interview, let’s return to animals. What do your findings about animal grief mean for the way we treat other species?
They mean a great deal, I think. I just still myself sometimes, and soak in what it means that animals mourn their loved ones, and feel their lives so deeply. I think of the chimpanzee confined to a biomedical laboratory whose friends suffer and sometimes die around him. I remember the dolphins killed in a Japanese cove, or confined to an American theme park tank for our amusement, leaving their own survivors behind. I sit down to eat with my family, and we don’t consume cows, who sorrow when their babies are taken away (again and again) to the slaughterhouse. We don’t eat pigs, lambs, goats, chickens, or turkeys either.
Another thing I do is seek out one or more of the many rescued cats my husband and I share our lives with— and hold their purry wonderful selves closer to me. Animals give us so much.
BARBARA J. KING has taught Anthropology at the College of William and Mary since 1988. Originally focused on primate studies through her observations of wild monkeys in Kenya and captive apes, she now takes up intelligence and emotion in a wide variety of animals. She writes for NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog and the TLS. In Gloucester County, Virginia, she lives with her husband and many cats. Besides cat rescue, she enjoys attending her daughter’s college choral concerts and reading as much fiction as possible. Her website is www.barbarajking.com
Her book How Animals Grieve is available from University of Chicago Press.