Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
I'm on research leave from my college this year in order to write a book that explores one central question: Do non-human animals grieve?
My answer is yes, they do.
It's refreshing to answer a scholarly question without equivocation. Most often, I can't do that. When anthropologists reconstruct how prehistoric peoples lived based on their material artifacts, or theorize about how monkeys and apes think about the world based on their behavior, disclaimers of what we can't know often crowd out solid answers.
But from a combination of observation, evolutionary logic, reading the peer-reviewed science literature, and talking to insightful animal people, I'm convinced that animals may feel deep grief when another animal dies. Not all species, to be sure; if spiders and snails are ever found to grieve, I'd be the first to express astonishment. But I do mean more than only the usual suspects, more than the apes, elephants and cetaceans.
Right now, for example, I'm under way with a critical assessment of grief in domestic cats. I've concluded that yes, they do grieve. (Not every cat, and not every death; I mean to speak of capacities rather than inevitabilities.)
And here my professional and personal lives collide, because my husband and I rescue, care for and spay/neuter homeless cats.
The two of us pretty much live and breathe cats: 7 cats indoors, 12 in a spacious sanctuary pen on our property, 3 in our yard, 6 more in a feral colony nearby. Given this feline-saturation, when I evaluate information on cat grief for my book, can I balance properly a natural pull toward cats with a necessary scientific scrutiny of the evidence?
Such self-reflection leads me back to a pledge I made earlier, to consider the issue of anthropomorphism in regards not only to the cleverest big-brained mammals but also to the animals many of us live with daily. As I wrote then, anthropomorphism is the attribution of human emotions or motivations to nonhuman animals. Could my thinking that cats grieve be an example of inappropriate anthropomorphizing?
I'll attack this problem via a story that's going into the book (with more details there). For sharing it, I thank my friends Karen and Ron Flowe of Gloucester, Va.
Two cats, Siamese sisters named Willa and Carson, lived for 14 years with my friends. The sisters' bond was visibly close; they ate, slept and relaxed together, sun-basking or dozing in favored spots in the house. As she aged, Carson developed some health problems. One day, she urgently needed the vet, who decided to keep her overnight in an incubator for warmth. Carson died in her sleep that night.
At first, Willa acted mildly upset, as she had before when separated for brief periods when one of the pair had visited the vet. Within two or three days, however, matters changed. Willa began to emit sounds that are, my friends say, best compared to Irish keening for the dead. These were outright, otherworldly wails, accompanied by constant searching behavior for the lost Carson.
First learning of Willa's behavior, I kept the specter of anthropomorphism firmly in mind. The attribution of grief to animals (especially non-apes, non-elephants and non-cetaceans) is controversial because to feel grief requires a memory of the individual who's missed. Some evolutionary theorists insist that a capacity for sustained remembering is a uniquely human trait. So I asked myself: Could Willa's mood have been not true grief but instead a sort of felt contagion, picked up from her human caretakers' own sadness at losing their cat? Or could Willa's upset primarily have been caused by the change in her own daily routine?
Willa herself, though, pulled me back to grief as the most satisfactory explanation. She repeatedly searched specific spots in the house that she had shared with her sister: the ottoman in front of the fireplace, a warm space behind the master bed's pillows. Willa looked there, and not finding the sister that she held firm in her memory, she wailed.
Here is what I conclude: That it's entirely appropriate to attribute love to Willa and Carson, and grief to Willa. Here is what I wonder: Could anyone who has lived with and loved animals doubt that conclusion?
Barbara J. King is a biological anthropologist at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, the writer of non-fiction science books, most recently Being With Animals, a contributor to 13.7 and a Twitter addict.