Animal Book Club: How Animals GrievePosted by Jennifer Molidor, ALDF's Staff Writer on June 19, 2013
This month, the Animal Book Club is exploring How Animals Grieve by Barbara J. King. Dr. King is a professor of Anthropology at the College of William & Mary, and writes for NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog. How Animals Grieve has been regaled in TIME magazine and Psychology Today, and now the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s Book Club travels through this tremendous book about animal sentience. Barbara sat down with us recently to give 5 incredible answers to our questions about animals and emotions. Leave a comment below to enter our giveaway!
5. What is the connection between love and grief?
Sadly but also, I think, beautifully, for many animals, grief emerges from love. Loving a relative or friend puts animals from elephants and dolphins to dogs and ducks at great emotional risk, just as it does for us—this is a reality we know from our own lives. Love brings joy, but it means that we build an emotional life around another, and when we are left alone, the grief can be shattering. It’s still not well-accepted in scientific circles to say, full stop, that some mammals and birds may love their companions. Scientists like Bernd Heinrich and Marc Bekoff have led the charge to change this, and I join them – I use the L word when it becomes apparent that two mated geese, two cat sisters, a baboon mother-daughter pair, and so on, are so viscerally connected that they are fundamental to each other’s emotional well-being.
4. What was one of the most memorable or profound experiences of animal emotion you’ve witnessed personally?
Around 13 years ago, I began to film a family group of gorillas at the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park in Washington as part of my learning about how great apes communicate naturally- not what they do when asked to learn our language, but what they do spontaneously in their everyday lives. One day while I was filming an infant named Kwame, a loud and intense altercation broke out between Kwame’s Dad, the silverback male Kuja, and his adoptive brother, a younger but status-striving male Baraka. Baraka was screaming in fear as the much larger group leader pursued him around the cage. Yet Baraka chose not to make the submitting signals and Kuja chose not to use his full strength in responding, and so the conflict went on.
What struck me very powerfully that morning was how Baraka’s entire family became involved. Kwame, being so young, ran directly to his mother Mandara and clung to her for protection. But Mandara ran toward the fight: she had adopted Baraka as a youngster and was plainly concerned for his welfare. The amazing animal that day though was Kojo: Kwame’s older brother age 3– so also Mandara and Kuja’s son and Baraka’s adoptive brother. Kojo launched himself again and again at the comparatively huge Kuja in trying to come to the aid of the visibly frightened Baraka. Kuja lifted an arm and simply swatted him aside as a small nuisance, but this didn’t deter Kojo. This example may not be as dramatic as some of the stories I tell about animal grief, but the bravery and loyalty of that little gorilla really moved me.
3. Some animals are capable of grief, but don’t grieve – what does this tell us about animals and individuality, that we can relate to our own experiences as humans?
You’re right. When elephants approach the body of another elephant, some will grieve openly with evident distress, and others may just poke or prod the body with curiosity. There’s similar variation in every species for which mourning has been seen. Whether an animal grieves depends on so many factors, some related to the cognitive and emotional make-up of the species, others to individual personality and the nature of the survivor’s relationship with the deceased.
2. What would you like people to take away from your book?
People who love and care for animals as many ALDF Animal Book Club readers do, already know a lot about animal emotion from experience, and already think deeply about humans’ responsibilities towards other animals. I hope these readers will discover in my book’s love and grief stories a resonance for animal emotion, and inspiration and hope from the animals who freely express their love for others. I would dare to hope that for other readers less familiar with animal emotion, some might come away from the book with new things to think about. The animals we invite into our homes aren’t just concerned with being loyal companions or furry friends for us—they’re concerned too with their own thoughts and feelings. It’s very rewarding to think hard about how to honor that emotion—and not only in our own homes or on our own farms. We can work to end all invasive biomedical testing on captive chimpanzees, adding their incredible emotional awareness to a long list of reasons to carry on that fight—chimpanzees may feel the suffering and death that goes on all around them. Mother cows may grieve when their babies are, time and again in factory farms, taken away from them for slaughter.
1. What animal-focused books have you read lately?
When a friend told me about the little-known books of Judy Van der Veer (1912-1982), I was a revelation because she offers genuine insight into nature and animals. I first read her novel November Grass, then the memoir A Few Happy Ones, and I am working my way through her children’s books too. I’ve just finished an advance copy of a novel that absolutely gripped me, Colin McAdam’s A Beautiful Truth due out in September. I read novels constantly, and good fiction about animals teaches me as much as does good non-fiction.
For more about Barbara J. King you can visit her website and follow her on twitter. And, of course, all comments below qualify for our giveaway – 3 lucky winners will be chosen at random to receive a free copy of this book! Don’t forget to join the Animal Book Club! Next week we explore How Animals Grieve in more detail. We hope you will read along with us!
What are your experiences with animals, witnessing love and grief? Tell us below!