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How Animals Grieve
 

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How Animals Grieve


  BARBARA J. KING is professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary. She is the author or editor of many books, including Being with Animals. She writes regularly for National Public Radio’s 13.7: Cosmos & Culture blog and reviews for the Times Literary Supplement.

  The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637

  The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London

  © 2013 by Barbara J. King

  All rights reserved. Published 2013.

  Printed in the United States of America

  22 21 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 1 2 3 4 5

  ISBN-13: 978-0-226-43694-4 (cloth)

  ISBN-13: 978-0-226-04372-2 (e-book)

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  King, Barbara J., 1956–

  How animals grieve / Barbara J. King.

  pages ; cm

  Includes index.

  ISBN 978-0-226-43694-4 (cloth : alk. paper)

  ISBN 978-0-226-04372-2 (e-book)

  1. Grief in animals. 1. Title.

  QL785.27.K56 2013

  591.5—dc232012045012

  This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 (Permanence of Paper).

  How Animals Grieve

  BARBARA J. KING

  THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS

  CHICAGO AND LONDON

  FOR CHARLIE, SARAH, AND BETTY

  AND FOR CATS MICKEY AND HORUS,

  GRAY & WHITE AND MICHAEL,

  RABBITS CARAMEL AND OREO,

  AND EVERY OTHER ANIMAL WE HAVE

  LOVED AND LOST

  EVERYTHING IS EVERYTHING

  BUT YOU’RE MISSING.

  BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN

  CONTENTS

  PROLOGUE: ON GRIEF AND LOVE

  1. KEENING FOR CARSON THE CAT

  2. A DOG’S BEST FRIEND

  3. MOURNING ON THE FARM

  4. WHY BUNNIES GET DEPRESSED

  5. ELEPHANT BONES

  6. DO MONKEYS MOURN?

  7. CHIMPANZEES: CRUEL TO BE KIND

  8. BIRD LOVE

  9. SEA OF EMOTION: DOLPHINS, WHALES, AND TURTLES

  10. NO BOUNDARIES: CROSS-SPECIES GRIEF

  11. ANIMAL SUICIDE?

  12. APE GRIEF

  13. ON BISON DEATH IN YELLOWSTONE AND OBITUARIES OF ANIMALS

  14. WRITING GRIEF

  15. THE PREHISTORY OF GRIEF

  AFTERWORD

  Acknowledgments

  Readings and Visual Resources

  Index

  PROLOGUE

  ON GRIEF AND LOVE

  One individual lies immobile, apart from the group. Everyone else rushes about, doing her work and keeping the high-functioning community running at top pitch. But the lone one lies dead—and ignored.

  After about two days, a smell begins to waft from the body, a strong chemical odor. Soon, another individual comes by and carries the corpse to a nearby graveyard, where it joins many others—an efficient process of disposal. No one mourns.

  Is this a scene from a zombie thriller, that often revived standby of Hollywood, Burbank, and, recently, the publishing industry? What real-life culture could treat its dead in this cold, mechanical way? Humans everywhere engage in elaborate rituals: preparing the body, comforting the bereaved, ushering the newly dead into an afterlife (or at least the cold, hard ground).

  No, this graveyard scenario comes not from humans but from ants. Biologist E. O. Wilson observed the pattern in the 1950s: an ant dies, it lies ignored for some days, and then another ant comes and carries the body to the ant equivalent of a cemetery. The release of oleic acid from the ant’s body, about two days after death, triggers the carrying response in other ants, Wilson told Robert Krulwich on National Public Radio in 2009.

  Should a curious scientist borrow an ant, dab oleic acid onto its body, and return it to an ant trail, that ant—very much alive—will also be carried off to a graveyard, struggling all the while. 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.

  Within the animal kingdom, ants are an extreme example. No one would expect a chimpanzee or an elephant to respond so mechanically to a whiff of chemicals. Chimpanzees and elephants are veritable “poster species” for animal cognition and emotion. Intelligent planners and problem-solvers, these big-brained mammals are emotionally attached to others in their communities. Finicky about with whom they spend their time, they may shriek or trumpet their joy when reuniting with preferred companions after a separation.

  These animals do not just “exhibit social bonds,” as the stilted language of animal-behavior science often suggests. The emotions that chimpanzees and elephants feel for others are closely bound up with their complex cognitive responses to the world. Chimpanzees are cultural beings who learn their tool-use patterns—fishing for termites, cracking hard nuts, or spearing bush babies in tree holes, depending on where they live—in ways specific to their group. And just like the old cliché, elephants never forget. They remember events vividly, to the point that they may suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder, as when their sleep is disrupted by nightmares after witnessing the killing of relatives or friends by ivory poachers.

  Chimpanzees and elephants feel grief. Pioneering women field scientists Jane Goodall, observing chimpanzees in Tanzania, and Cynthia Moss, studying elephants in Kenya, reported years ago firsthand observations of the sorrow these animals felt at the death of loved ones. It’s only natural, then, that chimpanzees and elephants appear in this book. The newest science adds fascinating new depth and details to Goodall’s and Moss’s original reports on grief in these species.

  Animal grief is expressed and observed far beyond the African forests and savannahs, however. In this book, we will visit a variety of ecosystems to discover what is known about how wild birds, dolphins, whales, monkeys, buffalo, and bears—even turtles—mourn their losses. We will also peek into homes, and venture onto farms, in order to discover how our companion animals—cats, dogs, rabbits, goats, and horses—experience grief.

  Historically, science has badly underestimated animal thinking and feeling. But now, scientists, often armed with videotaped evidence, are showing us that more animal species think and feel more deeply than we’d ever suspected.

  Take goats and chickens, two animals whose potential for thinking and feeling I had, for years, barely given a second thought. How many times had I seen goats clustered in farms or yards, near my home in Virginia or on my travels in Africa, and yet not really seen them—and the same for chickens? Like most people, I create an implicit, mental hierarchy of animals when it comes to cognition and emotion. My working, if subconscious, assumption was that chimpanzees and elephants, on this scale, tower over animals like goats or chickens, who are just there in the background—or on our dinner plates.

  Goat is the most widely consumed meat in the world and a dietary staple in Mexico, Greece, India, and Italy. It has also, over the last several years, been edging its way onto upscale plates in the United States. I have not eaten goat; I’ve been a near-vegetarian for a while now. Only recently, after hanging out with some nearby goats, corresponding with friends who have raised goats, and reading Brad Kessler’s memoir Goat Song, have I begun to see goats as the complicated creatures they are.

  I met Bea and Abby, mother and daughter goats of unknown breed, one sunny afternoon last year. They reside at the 4BarW Ranch, the home of Lynda and Rich Ulrich, near my home in Gloucester County, Virginia. When I met Lynda and Rich, I felt instantly that I was in the presence of like-minded souls. Rescued goats, horses, dogs, a
nd a cat roam the ranch, and my hosts were full of the good stories that animal-rescue people love to exchange.

  Bea is a pretty off-white shade, with a wispy beard and a calm manner; her daughter, Abby, is the same color but beardless. Lynda and Rich acquired Bea first, and only six weeks or so later did Abby join the other goats at the ranch, where they roam together through a large enclosure. When Bea and Abby reunited, they expressed what can only be called goat joy. They coo-vocalized, rubbed their faces together, and cuddled together in an explosion of mutual affection that brought tears to Lynda’s eyes.

  BEA AND ABBY. PHOTO BY DAVID L. JUSTIS, MD.

  In his book, Kessler put it this way:

  The longer I spent with our goats, the more complex and wonderful their emotional life seemed: their moods, desires, sensitivity, intelligence, attachments to place and one another, and us. But also the way they communicated messages with their bodies, voices, and eyes in ways I can’t try to translate: their goat song.

  Greek tragedies were once known as “goat-songs,” perhaps because goats were given to winners of Athenian drama competitions—and then sacrificed. When that happened, people offered a ritual song, but as we will see later on, goat voices too may lament a death.

  Goats do not make tools like chimpanzees do, and it’s probable that they don’t recall past events or experience traumatic memories to the degree that elephants do. Their self-awareness is not as developed, and they wouldn’t, for example, recognize their own images in a mirror. But should chimpanzees and elephants be the gold standard for animal thinking and feeling? Good animal-behavior science has forced us to rethink the tradition of judging apes’ and elephants’ ways of thinking and feeling by the nature of our own. It’s no better a practice to judge all other animals by what chimpanzees and elephants do. Goat thinking and feeling is thinking and feeling.

  Chickens, though? From childhood on into my fifties, I consumed hundreds of chickens. Poultry dishes were my favorites when dining out. The terms “chicken intelligence” and “chicken personality” struck me as oxymoronic, not reasonable description of chicken reality. All of this—the diet and the thinking both—have shifted as a result of stories from those who know better.

  It started with Jeane Kraines, a friend who keeps chickens at her home in suburban New Jersey. She’s had as many as fourteen at a time and has fallen into the habit of letting them roam the neighborhood to visit the neighbors. “Once I found them at a bridal shower,” she told me, “all the lady guests in a circle around them. In the evening they would come back and I would close the door before nightfall.”

  The story I loved best from Jeane I call “the swimming pool rescue.” One day, in her kitchen, she heard alarmed calls from the backyard, and the chickens rushed up onto her deck. “They were knocking furiously on the sliding door with their beaks,” she remembers. “I ran outside immediately and they rushed off with me behind, trying to keep up. Straight to the pool we dashed. There I saw Cloudy, everyone’s favorite hen, flailing her wings in the swimming pool. I reached in and lifted her out.” Jeane is certain Cloudy’s life was saved only by the resourceful action of her flock.

  The sequence of steps taken by these chickens is remarkable. They recognized that a companion was in trouble; they knew where to seek help from the human world and how to get a human’s attention; and in an embodied way, they directed that human immediately to the source of the trouble.

  In its recounting of the smarts and social graces of “chickenkind,” the book Chicken by Annie Potts rocked my world. Potts describes how chickens can do a lot of things we humans prize—they can recognize up to a hundred distinct faces, and a whole object when shown only a part. She is best when focusing on individual chickens, such as the charismatic Mr. Henry Joy who, by force of his personality, became a beloved therapy animal in nursing homes.

  Potts touches on grief by way of a story borrowed from the zoologist Maurice Burton. One hen, old and nearly blind, was assisted by a second who was young and in fine shape. The younger hen collected food for her companion and helped the older one settle into a nest at night. Then the old hen died. The younger one stopped eating and weakened. Within two weeks, she too had died. Chickens think and feel. They grieve.

  But the statement I’ve just made—that chickens grieve—is written in shorthand. It’s more accurate to phrase it this way: Chickens, like chimpanzees, elephants, and goats, have a capacity for grief. Depending on their personalities and on the context, this capacity for grief may be expressed—just as is true for humans. It’s possible to live with chickens or goats or cats and not witness any dramatic expression of grief when a member of the flock or herd or household dies.

  Is it any different for humans? In its Metropolitan Diary column for January 16, 2012, the New York Times published an account by Wendy Thaxter about a day she and her sister were tending a community garden in Manhattan. A woman, known to neither sister, approached with a paper bag containing the ashes of her father. The woman asked if the ashes could be scattered in the garden, handed them the bag, and left, saying, “Here, please take this. His name was Abe, and I’ve had more than enough of him.” We may laugh or gasp at her remark, but the point is, it’s no use trying to predict how an individual will react to losing a relative or some other person who has played a role in her life. People may not grieve when someone close to them dies. Or they may grieve in an interior way, invisible to others, or only when alone.

  In writing about animal bereavement, I walk a line stretched taut between two poles. The first is this wish to recognize the emotional lives of other animals. The other is my need to honor human uniqueness. I am, after all, an anthropologist. Anthropologists have described many ways in which our own species is unique in how we grieve. Just as chimpanzees aren’t ants controlled by chemistry, we humans aren’t elaborated chimpanzees. Among animals, we alone fully anticipate the inevitability of death. We grasp that, one day, our minds will fade, our breathing stop—whether gently or with horrifying suddenness, we can’t know. We express in a thousand glorious or ragged ways our losses, losses of those we love.

  When a child dies, a child who should have outlived us by decades, we may howl in sorrow, and some may labor to shape that howl into art. “Gut me,” writes Roger Rosenblatt in a book about the sudden death of his daughter, a mother to three young children. “Slice me down the earth’s meridian, from north to south. Lay my bones outside my skin.” No other animal expresses grief like this, or attends death with ceremonies as varied as the languages of the globe. Since our ancestors first scattered red ocher on bodies many thousands of years ago, since grave goods were first offered to the dead for their use in an afterlife, since we invented tombs and cremations and sitting shiva, since we began commemorating death on Facebook and Twitter—across the millennia, we’ve come together to ritualize our mourning. We act in ways no other animal acts in the face of death.

  Goat grief, then, is not chicken grief. And chicken grief is not chimpanzee grief or elephant grief or human grief. The differences matter. But differences between species may be rivaled by differences among individuals of the same species. The great lesson of twentieth-century animal-behavior research was that there is no one way to be chimpanzee or goat or chicken, just as there is no one way to be human.

  We are alike, humans and other animals, and we are different. Balanced between these poles, I find the commonalities more compelling. I think this is because, like us, animals grieve when they have loved. We may even construe animal grief as a strong indicator of animal love.

  Is it outlandish to write of animal love? How could we ever recognize what love is to an ape, much less to a goat? To describe fully what it means for people to love requires more than measuring the hormonal spikes in a besotted person’s blood or charting the words, gestures, and glances shared by a new couple. Science can help measure love, but it can’t tell the full story. Surely this challenge to science deepens when dealing with creatures who think and feel without langu
age, or at best, with languages that lack words and sentences as we know them?

  Noted animal behaviorist and animal-welfare activist Marc Bekoff acknowledges that the topic of animal love may provoke skepticism—which he counters in an exciting way. We have always, Bekoff observes, since we became people, grappled with the difficulty of defining or understanding love. “And yet,” he writes, “though we don’t truly understand love, we do not deny its existence, nor do we deny its power. We experience or witness love every day, in a hundred different forms; indeed, grief is but the price of love. Since animals grieve, surely they must feel love too.”

  Based on the science of animal emotion as explored by Bekoff, Goodall, Moss, and other scientists, I feel comfortable working from a platform of expectations about animal love that may also be seen as hypotheses to be tested in the future. Here’s the central idea: When an animal feels love for another, she will go out of her way to be near to, and positively interact with, the loved one, for reasons that may include but also go beyond such survival-based purposes as foraging, predator defense, mating, and reproduction.

  In the framework that I want to use, this active choosing by one animal to be with another is a necessary condition—a basic foundation for love. But it is only a necessary condition, not a sufficient one, to claim that we have identified animal love. Another ingredient is also needed: Should the animals no longer be able to spend time together—the death of one partner being one possible reason—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.

  For my definition to work, it has to distinguish, in most cases, between two types of situation. Consider a pair of wild chimpanzees, whom we will call Moja and Mbili, who travel together, rest together, and groom each other. They might do so because they feel some sort of robust positive emotion for each other and in each other’s company. Or there might not be much attendant emotion. Maybe Moja and Mbili just fell into the habit of associating with each other but would be equally content with another female companion if the need arose. How could scientists figure out which of these two interpretations—if either—is correct? (In either case, the alliance may be beneficial in terms of acquiring resources; remember, survival needs are not excluded by this definition of love, but they must be supplemented by something more.)

 
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