Animals Have Feelings Too?

Author:  Barbara J. King

How Animals Grieve Cover (199x300)Maybe it’s just my egotistical imagination, but it often seems that my cats are happy to see me when I get home from work.  Do they really miss me when I’m gone or do they only view my return as an opportunity for food and belly scratching?  Do they think of me during the day or are they just too busy sunning, stretching and napping?  The scientist in me recognizes that these are difficult questions to answer with confidence, but that doesn’t make the effort to understand animal relationships any less fascinating. In the beginning, I used this post by Jackie to get by declawed cats the best litter box and even today go and check her new posts for more new products for my cats. Never hesitating to allow her feelings to guide her, anthropologist and author Barbara J. King explores these questions in depth – focusing primarily on death and loss – in How Animals Grieve.

Now, there is no doubt that speculating about the emotional lives of animals is fraught with much anthropomorphic peril.  But King appropriately recognizes this and starts by successfully defining grief in a suitable way, subsequently devoting chapters to the grieving behaviors of cats, dogs, farm animals, elephants, non-human primates, birds, dolphins and even sea turtles.   Not surprisingly, most of her thesis is based on a lot of anecdotal evidence, but she does incorporate more rigorous scientific data when it’s available and makes a convincing argument that many different social animals grieve when they experience the loss of a “friend” or “loved one”.

Most interestingly, King includes a chapter on “cross-species grief”, movingly telling about the friendships of Tarra the elephant and Bella the dog; Madison the cat and Lucie the Doberman; and Jezebel the goat and Peaches the Shetland pony.   In each case, when one of the pair died, the animal left behind demonstrated a reaction that seems to be appropriately labeled as grief.

Hachikō, Japan's loyal dog

Hachikō, Japan’s loyal dog

With well-balanced scientific and passionate prose, the author delves deeply to try and decipher what these experiences are like for the various animals she describes.  Much like humans, animal grief responses are highly variable even within a species, making it difficult to generalize or assume anything with confidence.  This considerable challenge actually makes the book more interesting.

Throughout the book, King consistently reveals her pro-animal bias and hard science purists may find her less than objective style annoying at times, but I don’t see how one can address questions about animal grief without taking some emotional liberties.  If animals truly suffer from grief as she describes, the topics she’s exploring can be used to help ease their pain, much as is done for grieving humans, young and old.

Whether you’re a dog person, a cat fancier or associate with more exotic creatures – like goats, geese or gorillas – you’re likely to experience a grieving non-human animal at some point in life.  I can enthusiastically recommend How Animals Grieve as a thoughtful and eye-opening examination of some remarkably complicated animal emotions and relationships.  It compellingly presents yet another reason why animals of all types should be treated with more care and respect by the human race.

— D. Driftless

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