How Animals Grieve

We either don’t know or don’t care about the rich inner lives of the creatures we share this planet with. Yet, from people who share their homes with pets to researchers, wildlife conservationists, zoologists, and everyone who works with animals have no doubt that the range of emotions in varied species is diverse and constant.

Barbara King hones in on grief and how it it is experienced and exhibited behaviourally in pets, zoo animals, wildlife and more, over the loss of companions, friends, parents and offspring. How do we grieve? King writes of one person’s response as she hands off the ashes of her dead father – “I’ve had more than enough of him.” Grief is expressed in a multitude of ways across cultures and individuals, and King shows us that it’s the same in the animal world. At the risk of summarising the book, this review contains a number of stories included in it that are a small taste of the myriad tales she shares.

When a gorilla was euthanised at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, a wake is organised and “gorillas from different generations were present, some of whom were visibly emotional.” The gorilla’s daughter, Bana, sat, holding her hand and laid her head on her mother’s arm. Within the group, some gorillas were aloof, some were not. After another euthanization took place, that gorilla’s mate tried to revive her, placing her favourite food in her hand. When he realised she’s dead, he wailed and banged on the cage bars. The zookeepers found it hard to watch this display of grief.

A practice that is gaining popularity is laying out the body of an animal at a zoo or private home and letting the other animals interact accordingly. A goat named Myrtle paired with another called Blondie are rarely apart. When Blondie died, Myrtle vocalised all day. When she finally saw the body, she stayed with it, sniffing and gazing. She repeatedly returns through the day until slowly she is able to step away for longer periods.

Love, joy, pain and death is represented in moving stories of individuals and communities, all throughly researched with scientific methods. There’s the crow that is revived by a handful of others after being hit by golf ball, an elephant that visits the grave of dog friend, rhesus monkeys whose infants die are seen carrying their bodies around for weeks after. King examines all possibilities – is it grief or a lack of awareness that the infant is dead? She conducts step by step analyses to arrive at conclusions that paint these animals as at least having this emotion in common with us. She is always cognisant of walking a tightrope – she is writing about the emotional lives of animals while also acknowledging the uniqueness of humans. Yet, when faced with story after story like this one, it is hard not to feel overwhelmed by how we simply don’t notice the depths of the lives lived alongside us. 

King finds that scientists are very careful about the language they use when describing animal grief, and often leave out anecdotes in their peer-reviewed articles in order to stick to the clearest data at hand. When the author speaks to some of these scientists, she hears of stories that provide context and create a more complete picture, like a baboon isolating herself for a few weeks after losing her closest companion.

She is careful of anthropomorphism and explores the gaps in existing research. The author credits Jane Goodall for expanding the anthropological field’s understanding of the range and depth of animal emotion. In Goodall’s studies of chimpanzees, she sees good mothers, less-suited mothers, competent and neglectful ones. In other animal models, we see how the experiences of the animal parent influence their own parenting behaviours. Are they anxious, are they lenient, are they patient or irritable and so on.

A particularly distressing experiment from 2008 with Prairie voles, referenced in many other books, makes an appearance. This looks at how separations affect prairie voles. Prairie voles partner for life. Once separated, the males were “subjected to stress tests, including what’s called a forced-swim test, in which the vole remains for five minutes in a beaker of water; a tail-suspense test, in which the vole is hung for five minutes from a stick to which its tail is taped; and an elevated-maze test, which tests the vole’s inherent fear of exposed spaces, again for five minutes.” The voles that had been separated from their partners showed more “passive stress coping” which correlates with higher levels of depression. In the swim test, they would float rather than struggle, or hang passively. This is the first book I’ve read where the author addressed the cruelty of the experiment itself. She speaks frankly about how upsetting it is to read about these studies and the treatment of the animals involved. In order to study the hormones being released, some of these animals were decapitated. No thought given to the partners who were being in a permanent life stress (grief) by killing their partner. None of this violates institutional ethics policies. King questions the “cost to animals of our invasive probing of their emotion” compared to non-invasive techniques like studying fecal matter. One study examined the fecal material of baboons who are under threat from predators to measure a stress hormone. They found that those who had lost a close relative to a predator had a distinct chemical signature. “Bereaved females attempted to cope with their loss by extending their social network.”

Another truly heartbreaking tale comes from a bear from a bile farm. King quotes from Else Paulson’s book Smiling Bears, “Each bear lies down, permanently, in a coffin-shaped, wire mesh crate for his entire life – years – able to move only one arm so that he can reach out for food.”
“‘Without proper anaesthetic, drugged only half-unconscious, the bear is tied down by ropes, and a metal catheter, which eventually rusts, is permanently stuck through his abdomen into his gall bladder.’ Over time, some bears simply lose their wits. Unable to free themselves, they bang their hands on the bars, the relief of death comes far too slowly.” In this particular story, a farm worker tries to subject a cub to this procedure. The mother breaks free, grabs her cub and hugs him with force until he’s dead. The she runs headfirst into a wall and dies. King asks – “do animals kill themselves, and if they do, is grief ever the probable motivation?” While estimates vary, the numbers of bears on these farms seem to exceed ten thousand.

We love the animals we share our homes with. They are a part of the family. King quotes the author Jessica Pierce on her dog Ody, “one of my greatest loves and all my millstone, for fourteen long years.” The author admires her honesty, “Some of our lost animals were high-maintenance, Some were contrary and neurotic. We grieve for them all, who were our friends.” Animal obituaries now appear in print in various places. This is a flash point for perspectives on where animals stand in our comprehension of love and respect. Some people strongly object to an animal’s face beside the announcement of death of their family member. On the other hand, when a celebrity animal dies, we are okay with profiles and obituaries. These “subvert the animal-human boundary and thus to unnerve a healthy segment of the human population.” 

King beautifully sums up that “it’s the animals themselves, not their obituaries, who trample an assumed animal-human boundary.” This is what studies of animal grief do as well. 

Some recommended additional reading:
The original article that led me to this book, and human grief is explored in this book.

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