Animal Book Club: How Animals Grieve

Posted by Jennifer Molidor, ALDF's Staff Writer on June 19, 2013

Barbara King
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!

31 thoughts on “Animal Book Club: How Animals Grieve

  1. ALDF says:

    Can’t wait to read this!

  2. Anita McDermott says:

    Lost an old dog in Dec. and just had to put one of my horses down a couple weeks ago. Sounds like a great book and would love to read it.

    1. ALDF says:

      So sorry for your loss!

    2. Pam Lambert says:

      I am so sorry for your loss. It is one of the most difficult things in life.

  3. Mogadishu says:

    This book is incredible. Anyone who doesn’t believe that animals grieve hasn’t spent any time with animals. We are all animals, and we share with many species, even varying amongst individuals, great capacity for compassion. These are stories we can all relate to, as we all, no doubt, have had our hearts broken.

    We cannot grieve without love, or love without grief.

  4. JPP says:

    Great selection and illuminating interview. Question: how does Jennifer Molidor have time to read all these books on top of her many other duties? She must read a lot more quickly than I do; I’ve only barely started thinking about Susan Orlean’s book on Rin Tin Tin.

  5. Megan says:

    I find Dr. King’s answer to Jennifer’s question regarding how some animals are capable of grieving but do not very interesting. I was aware that animals expressed sadness and grief over the loss of a fellow companion, but I never really thought about the fact that their level of expression would depend on the depth of their relationship, and even their individual personality. Truly enlightening.

  6. catherine says:

    it would be such a privalage to be able to read this book with my daughter who is 10,i can actually feel our bond strengthen as we experienced these grieving stories.i am raising an animal lover who is an amazing lifelong vegetarian in an environment where she is the only one who feels this way,my hope is that through knowledge she will make people aware of animal cruelty

  7. Brenda says:

    One of my earliest experiences of recognizing that other animals aren’t so different than humans, and that we have the same emotions, was when I was about 8, and also with gorillas in a zoo. I saw a male and female gorilla with a young gorilla, who I assume was their child. The young gorilla was trying everything to get the dad to play with him, and the dad tolerated it for a while, but then eventually had had enough and took a swipe at the youngster. The young gorilla then ran and jumped into his mother’s lap for a comforting hug. That struck me then and I’ve never forgot it–I am positive that it helped inform my views today.

    Thanks to both ALDF and Barbara King for such important work!

  8. Anne says:

    Rabbits grieve when a bonded friend dies. If they have the opportunity, they will sniff at the body of their beloved. Some rabbits will see that they are dead and simply hop away, some will mount the dead rabbit to assert their new dominance, some will angrily chew and dig and tear up their habitats, and some will sink into depression. The biggest fear with rabbits is that the rabbit left behind will stop eating, due to their depression, and in essence commit suicide. For the first couple of days after the death of a rabbit’s companion, it’s important for people to hand-feed and encourage the surviving rabbit to eat, so their gut systems keep moving, and so they don’t give up.

  9. Sharon Greene says:

    I have seen dogs grieve. I always have 2 snd when one dies, the other is lost snd uoset, looking for his lifetime friend. I would love to rea d this book!

  10. Ellen says:

    We need more books like this to convince non-animal people of the range and depth of animal emotions and by doing so hopefully help all living creatures to have better quality of life.

  11. Cansu says:

    I always been fascinated by the fact that when people raise a young lion cub and release it to the wild or in a reservation when there to big, that the lions still remember who they’re owners/friends were. And when those people come to visit, they recognice them and still love them. It’s amazing and I would love to learn more about it.

  12. Lynn says:

    On many occassions I have witnessed an animal grieve over the death of another. Its good that someone has now put it in a book for all of us to read and better understand.

  13. Jeanne O'boyle says:

    Growing up, my true, loving family were my cats and dogs. I have witnessed animals grieve many times-both for humans they loved as well as for other dogs and cats they loved.

  14. Jennifer says:

    This is so exciting for the field of animal law! One of the (many) hurdles animal rights attorneys face is that it is all too easy for people to focus on how animals are different from us, and therefore less worthy of protection. I believe research like this will help usher in a new era of legislation protective of animal rights.

  15. Amanda Becker says:

    I had two parakeets growing up and after one recently passed the other became so unusually quite and truly seemed to be upset about the loss of her companion. I look for ward to reading this book.

  16. Dee says:

    Another wonderful book to add to my public library’s collection. I believe animals have a deep capacity of emotions, feelings and empathy. I remember how my cat Cheeseburger would know when I was feeling down and just having him close to me made me feel better. It’s as if he could absorb the sadness from me. Animals are beautiful sentient beings and books such as this demonstrate why we need to respect them and do all we can to protect their well-being.

  17. Deanne O'Donnell says:

    Every time I look into an animals eyes I am aware of their soul. It pains me deeply that others do not see it. Animals have feelings, strong sensitivities and emotions, that make them happy, and sad, and depressed and hurt, and be aware of loss and suffer grief and sorrow. I would love to receive this book. I long for books such as this that just may open human eyes to the reality and glory in all animals; that show that we are not so superior to them, and that all animals deserve love, care and protection.

    I’ve had many beloved animals in my life. More than once, I’ve witnessed animals grieve over the loss of a animal friend or human companion. I’ve seen animals hover over the body of their dead young, with immense sorrow. I’ve seen animals call for their mate or young, for long periods, that has been taken from them, sometimes for days, over and over again. It is heart wrenching. My own cat, Kitty, never seemed to care so much about my Rottweiler Kaiser, he tolerated him but seemed to pay him no mind. They lived together for years. When Kaiser developed brain cancer and the choice finally had to be made to put him out of his pain, I was devastated. When I came home from an emergency vets office, Kitty was going upstairs and downstairs from room to room caterwauling loudly. It went on for days. Finally he stopped. Within a week his hair was falling out. I rushed him to his vet. Nothing was physically wrong with him. His vet started asking me some questions Some of those questions were “Has his environment changed any lately? Have you moved recently? Has there been a loss in the home or an addition?” I told him that I had recently had to put Kaiser to sleep. Kitty’s vet told me that Kitty was grieving and missing his companion.

    It broke my heart that poor Kitty was as grieve stricken as I was. No one can tell me that animals don’t grieve. No one. I wish I could receive this book. I need it for my heart. Thank you for listening and sorry the note is so long.

  18. Staci says:

    I’d love to get more insight. We all have our own ideas but I’d like to hear a professional’s perspective.

  19. Britta says:

    Definitely putting this book on my list! Glad topics like animal grieve are getting discussed more and more and that our understanding of animals is slowly starting to evolve and we are on the right path!

  20. steph spencer says:

    “If you live to be 100, I hope I live to be 100 minus 1 day, so I never have to live without you.” Dr. Seuss

    I think my dog & I both feel the same way.

    1. I know exactly how you feel Steph! See my blog on my sweet little buddy, Symba!

  21. Debbie says:

    First of all, as an Animal Activist, I wish to say that with all the Animal cruelty going on around us, that EVERYONE should read this book and each person who is or will be convicted of such a crime should be MADE to read it…
    I have seen grieving of animals So many times in my life, but the one that remains in my mind the most happened about 10 yrs. ago when my son bought 8 Sugar Gliders and asked me to keep them at my home. I must admit, at first I was a bit fearful of them, but as time went on I got attached and enjoyed having them there. They were quite amusing! One Day I came in from work and noticed that the Oldest Female was acting sickly, so while I was fumbling through the Phone book to find a vet who Specialized in Sugar Gliders, she died. When I opened the cage to remove her, The older male laid over her and would not let me take her…later that night he also died laying on her. This was such a Sad but Beautiful Display of Love and Loyalty! Needless to say, I cried for Days! I definitely plan to purchase your Book! Thank you!

  22. Tom Krepitch says:

    This is a great selection. I borrowed my library’s copy of this book and have read the first couple of chapters. It’s a sad topic, of course, but fascinating and enlightening at the same time.

    Also, thanks for asking her Question #1. I love to find out what authors like to read and the books Ms King mentioned sound very interesting (and are now on my wish list). :)

    1. Thanks for the feedback Tom! I love finding out what people are reading too – if only we had more time to read everything! :)

  23. Dawn O'Neill says:

    Animals have feelings, the same as we do. It is ridicous to Think otherwise.

  24. Jonathon Culver says:

    I have two dogs that are different types, but close in age and that came into our home a few weeks apart. They are devoted to each other and cry if separated for any amount of time. Each one will cry and wait at the door if the other one has been taken out, for some reason, alone. If one gets sick, or acts strangely, the other will run to ‘help’ or comfort the sick one. And they both turn to aid and comfort me if I am not at my best. The evidence of feelings, of all kinds, is an endless treasury of events and behavior.

  25. Jewel says:

    Sounds amazing! Can’t wait to read it!!

  26. Nancy says:

    I have seen compassion as well as grief expressed not only with our companion animals but also in sylvan ones as well. We humans are not the only ones that show compassion, it is all around us if we only open our selves to it.

  27. Lois Baldridge-Roseberry says:

    I was aware of the love of cats for each other and for me when I had a momma kitty with 4 kittens. I made friends with a cockatiel once while working in a nursing home. I was amazed at the ability to love this dear bird demonstrated. I was hooked and brought home a male and female set who laid eggs that hatched. I hand fed them and they were delightful! The female sickened and died suddenly, the male grieved until he also died…he called repeatedly, stopped eating, he was so depressed. I was horrified and grief stricken.

    I now keep two female cockatiels who call for me constantly and love to sit on my shoulders and nibble my hair or eyeglasses, who adore being petted and talked to.

    My 2 male cats had to be left at an outdoor, no kill shelter when I became too ill to care for them. The orange one took off into the woods and was missing for a couple of months, meanwhile the black one kept hitching rides when he could get into vehicles because he was attempting to find me. I had a vivid dream they were trying to get home. I called out to the shelter to discover my black kitty had just died in his sleep, and the orange kitty was finally coaxed out of the woods and had lost all his weight, skin and bones. I was hysterical. I went out to the woman’s home next to the shelter who was feeding my orange kitty to retrieve him….and I managed to get him to the vet for an exam that turned out well. The black kitty just grieved himself to death because the orange kitty was gone, I was gone, and he was alone with strangers and other cats he didn’t know. I will ensure my beloved pets will have homes should I suddenly pass away or become unable to care for them….I’d moved into public housing that restricts me to one, small animal. I chose to keep my third male kitty who was declawed on 4 feet, and desperately afraid of everyone and everything….he was a rescue kitten I nurtured to health and just couldn’t abandon him. The other 2 were so friendly and well socialized they would go with anyone. I didn’t realize the orange one ran off like that or I would have searched for him right away…. It is truly amazing how loving animals are. God gave Adam the responsibility to care lovingly for them and so we should.

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