In order to feel grief, one must also feel love. Most likely, you just read that sentence and thought it so uncontroversial as to be absurd. But now imagine that the “one” under discussion is a… goat? How about a chicken, or a cat? Now, what do you think about that statement?
In her book, How Animals Grieve, anthropologist and author Barbara J. King explores a multitude of anecdotes about animals that appear, to human eyes, to experience what we know as grief. Cats who keen for recently deceased siblings. Goats who search frantically for missing goat-friends. Horses who encircle the exact patch of land where their herd mate was buried in a pasture. An emotionally insecure elephant who leaves her beloved security object, a tire, on the body of her beloved dog companion. These intriguing stories, and many more, form the core of King’s exploration of how individual animals grieve over lost relatives and companions.
It’s deeply telling that King, who is a practicing anthropologist at the College of William and Mary, titled her book How Animals Grieve (emphasis mine), rather than asking: Do Animals Grieve? From the beginning, it’s clear she believes some animals experience grief, in ways that are different from how we understand grief to be, though still recognizably within the realm of sadness, depression, and a deep awareness of the loss of something or someone near and dear.
Scientists typically caution against interpreting animal behaviors within the suite of our human behaviors and emotions. Anthropomorphism, as it’s called, is viewed as a big no-no. Biologists and experimental animal behaviorists tend to view anthropomorphism as folksy, unprofessional and even flat-out wrong. But recently, a case is being made that the scientific community has gone too far in disallowing themselves to interpret animal emotions in relation to our own. (After all, if you go back far enough, we evolved from a common animal ancestor.) King writes, “The skpetics have a point: rather than accept uncritically the existence of animal grief, or animal love, or any other complex emotion in non-human animals, we should first weigh other, simpler explanations.” This is exactly what King does throughout the book as she recounts anecdotes of how surviving animals behaved after losing a sibling or close companion; she carefully weighs known details about their personalities and their relationship to the deceased animal before she concludes whether they are grieving, reacting to a change in their routine, or perhaps acting out some sort of “programmed” animal behavior.
King explores stories of cats who had lived closely together for years until one of them died and left the other alone. The surviving cat “keened” for her sister, moped around the home for weeks, and lost interest in food and activities until a new, younger cat companion was brought into the house. She also writes of dolphin mothers who frantically attempt to keep their dead calves afloat, repeatedly lifting and nosing them toward the surface, sometimes even for several days after the calf’s death. Then there is the case of wild monkey and chimpanzee mothers who carry their dead infants for days to months after their babies died. The mothers seemed “unable to stop the corpse-carrying, even though the baby is rotting in their hands,” King wrote. Is this grief, or an inherited behavior response pattern?
One of the more interesting insights for me personally was King’s discussion of how allowing animals to see the body of their family member or companion helps them adjust to their loss. Animals who were denied this opportunity often grieved deeper and longer than those who were allowed to view, touch, and smell their loved one’s corpse.
It makes sense to wonder if animals that are social by nature—such as herding animals like elephants and goats, or pack animals like dogs and wolves—are more apt to be emotionally “intelligent” and therefore more likely to feel “higher emotions” such as love and grief. King addresses her own preconcieved notions in this regard, writing in the prologue: “Like most people, I create an implicit, mental hierarchy of animals when it comes to cognition and emotion. My working, if subconscious, assumption was that chimpanzees and elephants, on this scale, tower over animals like goats and chickens, who are just there in the background—or on our dinner plates.” In subsequent chapters she explores stories of goats and chickens that clearly felt something when their close companion animals died. And here is where one of King’s theses is well argued, that although animals who have loved other animals feel grief when they lose their relatives and friends, their grief may be expressed in a variety of ways, just as the expression of human grief is as variable as the stars in the sky.
The strengths of this book are King’s sensitivity and insight when writing of animals and recounting anecdotes of love, joy, attachment, insecurity, loss, violence, and grief. She weaves findings from research studies into her assessment of whether an anecdote reveals animal grief, but she always carefully points out the strengths and weakenesses of the studies, and the particular contextual factors that may have influened the researcher’s conclusions.
King crafted her book specifically for laypeople and animal lovers. (Although a warning should be given to extremely sensitive animal lovers that some sections discuss studies where experiments were done on rodents to test whether they felt pain and loss, and these continued even when it seemed painfully obvious that the subjects were in pain or grieving.) How Animals Grieve is immensely readable, brimming with warmth, humor and wit. But it’s also infused with a strong sense of underyling authority. Whether sifting through anecdotes or science papers, King brings her academic, analytical eye to the issues at hand while maintaining a highly readable, conversational and empathetic tone. After turning the last page, I felt like I’d just had a long and deep conversation with her—and her many cats.
Who should buy: Anyone who has ever owned a pet or loved an animal; students and professors interested in the science of animal emotions; those who work with rehabilitated, orphaned, or captive animals of any kind.