BOOKS: How Animals Grieve

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  April 2013:

How Animals Grieve   by Barbara J. King University of Chicago Press (1427 E. 60th St.,  Chicago,  IL  60637),  2013.  179 pages,  paperback.  $25.00

How Animals Grieve author Barbara J. King asks,  “Is it outlandish to write of animal love?”  No,  of course not.  Some animals love and grieve differently from humans,  but their expressions are real,  and many animals grieve exactly as humans do. King,  a College of William & Mary anthropologost and National Public Radio science and culture blogger, in her first chapter introduces the Siamese cats Carson and Willa.  King’s friends Karen and Ron acquired them as kittens.  The pair bonded right away,  enjoying years of close feline friendship. Eventually Carson died. “Willa started acting bizarrely,”  recounts Karen.  “She began emitting sounds that I’ve never heard from any animal.”  Willa stopped eating and lost weight.  Karen and Ron tried to comfort Willa,  but the wailing and yowling persisted. Was Willa expressing grief or just reacting to a change in her routine?  Stanley Coren,  a Psychology Today blogger noted for studies of dog intelligence,  says the jury is still out on whether animals mourn the loss of a loved one,  but Karen believes that Willa’s strange behavior relates to Carson’s death. When Karen and Ron adopted another cat named Amy,  Willa initially growled and wailed, wanting nothing to do with Amy.  Then she settled down and simply ignored Amy. Finally,  about six months later, she begrudgingly accepted Amy,  regained some of her lost weight,  and began to groom herself more often,  having passed through what in humans would be recognized as mourning. Many of the incidents that King recounts are verifiable,  but at least one appears to be apocryphal. Supposedly a worker at a Chinese bear bile farm prepared to intubate a bear cub for the first time by pushing a metal shunt into his abdomen.  The cub cried out.  Somehow the mother bear broke free of the tiny cage in which she had long been imprisoned,  killed the cub,  and then killed herself by running head first into a wall. The alleged incident was widely reported,  always from second-hand sources,  but neither the Animals Asia Foundation nor ANIMAL PEOPLE has found any first-hand confirmation that it happened. ANIMAL PEOPLE has,  however,  found  similar accounts involving other caged animals,  some more than 100 years old,  also unsubstantiated.  The closest verifiable parallels involve highly stressed animals at zoos and fur farms who kill their own offspring,  usually soon after birth,  and do not commit suicide afterward. A touching story about Tara,  the first elephant at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee,  was reported on November 4,  2011 by Steve Hartman of CBS News.  Circa 2001 Tara befriended a stray dog named Bella.  The pair were inseparable until October 24,  2011.  The next morning,  after searching for Bella,  including in the elephant barn,  a staff member found Bella’s body––in the barn.  Bella appeared to have been attacked by coyotes.  But there was no sign that the attack had happened in the barn.  Blood was found on the underside of Tara’s trunk. Either Tara carried Bella back to the barn,  or she saw Bella in distress and tried to comfort her.  Tara did not participate in a memorial ceremony for Bella’s memorial, but made an overnight visit to Bella’s grave,  leaving behind fresh dung and footprints. Animal grief is often linked to human cruelty,  making How Animals Grieve at times a painful read, but valuable to those who recognize the importance of understanding animal behavior in seeking to mitigate animal suffering.     ––Debra J. White

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