When Animals Mourn: Seeing That Grief Is Not Uniquely Human
October 30, 2019 9:13 AM   Subscribe

I define grief as some visible response to death that goes beyond curiosity or exploration to include altered daily routines plus signs of emotional distress. Horses who merely nudge or sniff at the body of a dead companion, for example, can't be said to be grieving. Horses who stand vigil (Independent) in a hushed circle, for many hours, at the fresh grave of a lost friend may well be grieving. A horse who refuses food and companionship, becomes listless and won't follow normal routines for days when her friend dies? Why wouldn't we see this as grief? [...]As I've mentioned, it's not only the big-brained "usual suspects" — the apes (NPR), elephants (NatGeo) and dolphins (ScienceMag) — who grieve. Barbara J. King, writing for NPR

Do birds grieve? -- What seems like an obvious display of maternal mourning may really just be confusion. (Becca Cudmore for Audobon, July 28, 2015)
It’s hard to imagine what a mourning bird would look like. But forced to guess, I would say the footage of two female Emperor Penguins huddled around a lifeless chick in BBC’s series “Penguins-Spy in the Huddle” comes uncomfortably close:

The accompanying narration supports this conclusion: “The mother invested everything in her chick.” the BBC reporter intones. “To lose it is a tragedy.” Even the clip’s producers call this “the most emotional clip we’ve ever filmed.” (YouTube) But does the bird actually feel the same great sadness that the image evokes in us? It’s hard to tell—even for scientists.

“I don’t think this is evidence of mourning,” says John Marzluff, a professor of avian social ecology and wildlife science at the University of Washington. “I see a response to a chick that is not responding, so the mother keeps trying the typical things,” such as sliding her chick toward the brood patch—the bare belly skin that transfers a mother’s body heat to her baby—and vocalizing to wake the unresponsive infant.

But Barbara J. King, an anthropologist at the College of William and Mary and author of the 2013 book How Animals Grieve (Amazon; Goodreads), sees things differently—to her, the mother’s nudging of the tiny body with her bill, the vocalizing, and the camaraderie of her female companion all hint at something akin to grief. But to be scientifically sure, she argues, it would need to last longer. In clear cases of grief, she says, “we should observe prolonged signs of altered behavior in the survivor.” But for Marzluff, proving grief would need to be measured through the vista of a brain scan: If the mother’s hippocampus—the region in bird brains that is comparable to the emotional hub in mammal brains—lights up, “that might indicate grief,” Marzluff says. It’s this kind of deep evidence, he argues, “that we need to make a rock solid interpretation.”
What the grieving mother orca tells us about how animals experience death (Jessica Pierce, Professor of Bioethics, University of Colorado Denver, writing for The Conversation, August 24, 2018)

Grief and love in the animal kingdom, King presenting at the 2019 TED conference in Vancouver.
posted by filthy light thief (12 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting post. I remain surprised by the huge gap between people who assume other animals experience the world in exactly the way that we do and people who assume animals have no internal experiences in common with us. The later is perhaps sillier, because it's so often said with confidence by professional scientists who provide no evidence to support their claims. But, I'm skeptical either is actually plausible.

I don't really know how a cat sees the world. But, I don't really know how you see the world. (I'm not convinced an fMRI experiment will help, in either case.)
posted by eotvos at 10:12 AM on October 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

"I think of the chimp, the one with the talking hands.

In the course of the experiment, that chimp had a baby. Imagine how her trainers must have thrilled when the mother, without prompting, began to sign to her newborn.

Baby, drink milk.
Baby, play ball.

And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief."

--Amy Hempel, The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel
One morning, looking out the window at the fog that lay like a ribbon over the meadow, I saw another horse, a brown one, at the other end of Blue's field. Blue appeared to be afraid of it, and for several days made no attempt to go near. We went away for a week. When we returned, Blue had decided to make friends and the two horses ambled or galloped along together, and Blue did not come nearly as often to the fence underneath the apple tree. When he did, bringing his new friend with him, there was a different look in his eyes. A look of independence, of self-possession, of inalienable horseness. His friend eventually became pregnant. For months and months there was, it seemed to me, a mutual feeling between me and the horses of justice, of peace. I fed apples to them both. The look in Blue's eyes was one of unabashed "this is itness."

It did not, however, last forever. One day, after a visit to the city, I went out to give Blue some apples. He stood waiting, or so I thought, though not beneath the tree. When I shook the tree and jumped back from the shower of apples, he made no move. I carried some over to him. He managed to half-crunch one. The rest he let fall to the ground. I dreaded looking into his eyes — because I had of course noticed that Brown, his partner, had gone — but I did look. If I had been born into slavery, and my partner had been sold or killed, my eyes would have looked like that. The children next door explained that Blue's partner had been "put with him" (the same expression that old people used, I had noticed, when speaking of an ancestor during slavery who had been impregnated by her owner) so that they could mate and she conceive. Since that was accomplished, she had been taken back by her owner, who lived somewhere else.

Will she be back? I asked. They didn't know.

Blue was like a crazed person. Blue was, to me, a crazed person. He galloped furiously, as if he were being ridden, around and around his five beautiful acres. He whinnied until he couldn't. He tore at the ground with his hooves. He butted himself against his single shade tree. He looked always and always toward the road down which his partner had gone. And then, occasionally, when he came up for apples, or I took apples to him, he looked at me. It was a look so piercing, so full of grief, a look so human, I almost laughed (I felt too sad to cry) to think there are people who do not know that animals suffer.
--"Am I Blue?" by Alice Walker
posted by Rhaomi at 10:25 AM on October 30, 2019 [23 favorites]

The mother orca story definitely provoked an emotional response in me while it was going on—and, it seems, in many others as well. I suppose it is anthropomorphism, but it’s hard to see that behaviour and not think she was in deep mourning for her child.

I recently saw a group of neighbourhood crows seemingly standing sentinel over the body of a dead crow. They were not poking at it or doing anything other than standing/walking very close to the body, surrounding it. I wondered if it was mourning behaviour, a crow ritual of some kind, and I see from the Audubon article it does happen frequently with corvids.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:34 AM on October 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

I am very tired of people claiming anthropomorphism as if we have any idea of the interior lives of non-humans, or the right to judge it.
posted by Automocar at 10:55 AM on October 30, 2019 [9 favorites]

"In the Cemetery Where Al Jolsen is Buried" is one of the most heartbreaking pieces of literature that I have ever read. The idea that these creatures are not mourning their dead is reductionist bullshit. Anthropomorphism itself is absurd.
posted by Token Meme at 10:57 AM on October 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

People cry anthropomorphism any time they get too close to feeling empathy for non-humans- to start to believe their emotional worlds exist and are real and are every bit as meaningful as humans regardless of whether the "same" or different. Human beings feel differently about different things and yet our emotions are still valid and "humanized".

To dehumanize is the first step in the human process of destroying and exploiting all non human life ignoring cries of pain or anguish and calling any attempt to validate those clear expressions of emotions as "anthropomorphic".

We torture non-human life so often for our gain that it isn't any wonder the level of mental gymnastics ESPECIALLY scientists who either perform or read and profit from animal torture all the time would do anything to deny the idea animals emotions are powerful and real and meaningful and ought to change the way we treat and use them.
posted by xarnop at 11:15 AM on October 30, 2019 [17 favorites]

To dehumanize is the first step in the human process of destroying and exploiting all non human life ignoring cries of pain or anguish and calling any attempt to validate those clear expressions of emotions as "anthropomorphic".

Yes, I was thinking about that as I pondered the mother orca: so much easier for humans to think she is not capable of feeling the same depth of loss as a human, when we are the ones responsible for the environmental conditions that mean orcas are having fewer live births and fewer surviving offspring.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:38 AM on October 30, 2019 [6 favorites]

One of the darkest things I ever heard was from a former British army sniper, telling me how he had grown up shooting “pests” on neighbouring farms.

He said that you shoot magpies by leaving out a golfball (it looks like an egg and they fly down to investigate).

You shoot crows by killing one crow. Other crows will fly down and stand next to a dead crow for several minutes, doing nothing, and you shoot them too.

Seemed about as ethical as shooting people at a funeral, to me.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 11:40 AM on October 30, 2019 [14 favorites]

I don't even read them all, but the occasional posts about animal cognition that have appeared on MeFi over the time I've been here have pretty much convinced me that an upsetting number of animals are as fully sapient as we are. At minimum I think that elephants, most or all great apes, most or all cetaceans, several species of parrot, and crows and ravens are all as or more sapient as the average human. This post is just more fuel for the fire.
posted by Caduceus at 3:31 PM on October 30, 2019 [5 favorites]

The cries of "anthropomorphism" seem really off base in the age of neuroscience, where the burden of proof should be on those who claim that experiences are radically different despite morphological similarities in relevant cortical and subcortical structures paired alongside convergent behavioral evidence. Those two observations in concert provide, to my eye, a prima facie strong argument that experience is more alike than not in relevantly similar beings.

I am reminded of the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness (PDF link), which states with regard to the more general notion of consciousness:
We declare the following: “The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”
I can think of no immediate general grounds for dismissing a similar argument about more specific types of experience.
posted by mister-o at 4:17 PM on October 30, 2019 [11 favorites]

I can not conceive how anyone could think animals aren't feeling a wide range of emotions; happiness, love, grief, distress etc. It must take an enormous amount of mental gymnastics to trick oneself into believing the comfortable lie
posted by WalkerWestridge at 4:42 PM on October 30, 2019 [6 favorites]

what goes on in the mind of someone who believes animals are painlessly suspending their various broken hearts for as many years as it takes a scientist to give his ponderous nod of the head and crown them Real, and then, then they can allow themselves to feel sorrow, now that some guy says it's OK. valuing, as they must do, our opinions so highly

as if all their behaviors when confronted with death and loss are some kind of anxious thesis defense to present a case for a human judge and jury they somehow agreed to perform for, and agreed to accept a passing or failing grade from

some of this terrible, horrible discourse, and the vicarious humiliation on behalf of humanity that crushes any feeling or thinking person forced to witness it, makes me desperate to find a simple psychological explanation for the crudity and clumsy monstrosity. like did all these mammal skeptics get accidentally mis-imprinted by The Velveteen Rabbit and grow up believing that the love of a small boy is the only thing that can make a rabbit, or any animal, Real? that is the impression one gets.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:53 PM on October 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

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