Monthly Archives: August 2013

Book review: How Animals Grieve

I am reading How Animals Grieve by Barbara J. King, and it’s quite a moving, yet scientific, read. King obviously cares very deeply about animals, and presents her research and that of others, as well as a number of moving stories, yet is very clear about studies vs anecdotes (and the proper use of them), making clear what is on solid basis and what is speculation / uncertain. I’m still part-way through the book, but wanted to get a bit of a review out there as it’s such a great book; I will update this post with any more thoughts if I have them while reading the rest. Any corrections / comments to this post are as always, most welcome.

As an academic with a science/engineering background, I couldn’t help but ponder a few of the statements:

  • The author writes “Death-related behavior in these insects is, as far as we can tell, driven purely by chemicals. While it’s possible that entomologists just don’t know how to recognize displays of insect emotion, I’m comfortable in hypothesizing that ants don’t feel grief for their dead comrades.” As that section stands, though, it’s more of a generalisation; for it to be a hypothesis it must make some sort of prediction, which we don’t get to until King then presents definitions of love and grief and how they are intertwined, a key point of this book, in particular the part “the animal who loves will suffer in some visible way. She may refuse to eat, lose weight, become ill, act out, grow listless, or exhibit body language that conveys sadness or depression.” So to link the two sections of text, and make it a hypothesis: we do not expect ants to show any behaviour that carries some detriment to the individual.
  • King writes “The key to success for at least some nonhuman animals seems not to be pure brain power, but instead a lengthy period of mutual attunement with humans. Thanks to their history of domestication, dogs have had extensive “practice” reading the movements of human companions. DNA science, together with archaeological research, tells us that dogs and humans initiated this process over ten thousand years ago, maybe even as early as fifteen thousand years ago.” Whilst perhaps our ancestors selected dog ancestors to be those who were particularly attuned, perhaps it’s more a case of simply an exaptation of existing behaviour, modified by the nurturing process of raising a dog in a household? This is a bit of a nature vs. nuture debate; I’m not denying there is some selective pressure I just think the ball may lie more firmly in the nuture side.
  • On a cat who can tell when patients in a nursing home are about to shuffle off this mortal coil, King writes “The explanation for Oscar’s death predictions lies, I believe, with the smell of molecules called ketones as they are released from a dying body.” Now I’m not an expert on the biology of dying, but as far as I understand there are some conditions, namely organ failure, where release of ketones may occur prior to death, and others that don’t, leading to this hypothesis: in those patients who suffer organ failure, Oscar the cat would be able to predict, whereas if someone dies suddenly from a myocardical infarction, then Oscar wouldn’t be able to predict that.
  • On the landing of the chimpanzee Ham in his space capsule in the ocean, King writes “Or was he terrified, both because of intense heat and because he was bobbing around untended in the ocean for three hours, not knowing what would happen next? The image is hard for the mind to take, Ham alone in the capsule, with no other being to empathize or to comfort him during what can only have been a truly frightening experience.” Yet I suspect part of the terror in that situation comes from our knowledge that the capsule had holes and was gradually sinking, and our knowledge that that may lead to death. I suspect Ham may have been a bit frightened by the whole experience, landing and water coming in, but not very frightened in the way we feel when we put ourselves in that situation through the act of reading.

Ultimately, the book builds a solid case for both love and grief in a number of different species of animals, according to King’s reasonable and grounded definitions of both. The solid use of narrative makes this a compelling read even for the lay audience it is targeted at, and it’s a deeply moving book with images that I will keep with me for a long time, and make me ponder the beautiful and diverse range of animals that I share this pale blue dot with. If this bit doesn’t tug at your heart strings, and make you realise that animals can show grief, I am not sure what will:

On the following day, before moving on to another part of the Elephant Sanctuary, Sissy made a choice that surprised the people who witnessed it. She placed her beloved tire, her security blanket, on her friend’s grave. There she left it, an elephant memorial offering, for several days.