As children, the world around us is very clear on one thing: animals have feelings much like our own. Nearly every children’s book, film, cartoon or toy that features animals—features anthropomorphized animals—who love, laugh, cry, sing, have epic adventures on their tiny toy motorcycles, and so on. Bambi is devastated after hunters kill his mother. When Dumbo’s mom is unfairly incarcerated, we are treated to a punch-in-the-heart montage of their love and loss.
At some point—I suppose around the same time we are handed a scalpel and a formaldehyde-soaked fetal pig—the message changes. We go from freely ascribing human feelings to animals, to stripping them entirely of sentiment. We’re told that to be properly scientific (and adult), one needs to believe that animals don’t experience emotions or have feelings. But renewed scientific interest in animal emotion may be changing that ideology.
In her article, “When Animals Mourn,” in this month’s Scientific American, anthropologist Barbara J. King discusses her own experience in studying animal emotion, as well as developments in the scientific community’s perception of it.
Though science has traditionally shunned the anthropomorphizing of animal behavior, pioneers like Jane Goodall and Cynthia Moss helped revive the scientific study of animal emotion. King admits to sharing the traditional school-of-thought regarding emotion in animals, but after spending two years researching her book, How Animals Grieve, her views have dramatically changed.
The first problem scientists encounter when studying animal grief is defining it. Some animal grief behavior is similar to that in humans, but of course, animals could also be expressing grief in ways unrecognizable to us. Since a puppy can’t tell us he’s sad any more than a depressed panda could tweet #somanyfeels, scientists are tasked with defining a set of parameters that constitute “grief” in animals. For now, they’ve settled on a (admittedly imperfect) two-part definition: First, the animals in question should “choose to spend time together beyond survival-oriented behaviors;” and second, “when one animal dies, the survivor alters his or her normal behavioral routine.”
Many animals do indeed exhibit grief as defined above. As King cites in her article, examples are found in a multitude of species: elephants gathering around the body of a deceased matriarch, returning to caress the bones years later; a herd of giraffes protecting the body of a recently deceased infant from scavengers with the mourning mother; a duck laying its head on the body of his dead companion. From house cats to dolphins to gorillas, grief is evident throughout the animal kingdom. King surmises, “Our ways of mourning may be unique, but the human capacity to grieve is something we share with other animals.”
But what is the biological benefit of grief—how could it help us and other animals survive and thrive? What could the evolutionary benefit of grief be, when, as seen in many of King’s examples, the mourning behavior of the grieving animals (separation from the pack, cessation of eating, etc.) puts them at greater risk of illness, injury, and/or death? King says that the adaptive element may not be grief itself, but “instead, the strong positive emotions experienced before grief comes into the picture, shared by two or more living animals whose level of cooperation in nurturing or resource-acquisition is enhanced by these feelings.” In other words, the grief is a symptom of the real evolutionary benefit at work: love. King cites behaviorist Marc Bekoff, who proposes in his book, Animals Matter, that animals experience love as well as grief. That animal grief "results from love lost,” much in the same way it does for human grief.
In fact, the study of animal emotion doesn’t just give us insight to the myriad of other creatures with which we (often poorly) share this planet; it also deepens our understanding of human grief and emotion, and that of our prehistoric ancestors. Furthermore, the impact of animal emotion research could change the way we live.
Temple Grandin has already used research in animal emotion to revolutionize the slaughter process in 90% of the beef industry. As the scientific study of animal emotion advances, how will it transform the ways we interact with them? Will knowing that animals experience love and grief alter how we treat pets or livestock, or the ways in which we produce and consume animal products? Will it modify the handling and care of lab animals, service animals, and those that live in zoos, circuses, or on nature preserves?
Though much of animal emotion is still a mystery, with the work of researchers like King, soon we could know much more about what and how animals feel. Whether or not we’re ready to know is another story.
Nancy Lambert still sobs when Charlotte dies, but is doubtful spiders in her apartment would fare any better if they could read and write. When she doesn’t have her nose buried in a book, Nancy is busy writing, cutting down restless draugrs in Skyrim, or putzing around online.