We are delighted to welcome back to Our Hen House writer and vegan fashionista Ashlee Piper, who is giving us her take on a book that I suspect you’ll want on your nightstand very soon. It’s called How Animals Grieve, by Barbara J. King, and it might just change your life.
Book Review: How Animals Grieve by Barbara J. King
Review by Ashlee Piper
The belief that animals have the capacity to feel emotions and sensations is not only a primary cornerstone of animal rights, but is accepted by most people. However, outside the animal rights movement, people tend to employ their belief in animal sentience selectively. We see this often: Friends talk about how human their cat companions are while ordering a burger “so rare it’s mooing,” or a mother instructs her excited child to “be gentle when petting the doggy” while preparing for an evening of chicken nuggets and the circus.
This disconnect is further compounded by another phenomenon: We are programmed to feel more tenderly toward certain animals than others. We feel outrage when we see the ASPCA advertisements or an elephant calf mourning his poached mother on a nature program on television, but we rush home to watch Duck Dynasty and American Hoggers (where sport hunting and wrangling are glorified, by the way) and scream and swat with abandon when a spider crosses our path. Now, you and I might not do these things, but by and large, there is an extraordinary and hypocritical disconnect that is alive and well among many people.
In her most recent book, How Animals Grieve (University of Chicago Press, 2013), author, professor, and anthropologist Barbara J. King brings an extraordinary level of science and research to what many people discount as a sentimental personification of animals. And she’s no rookie at the art of elevating the discussion of animal emotion. King also wrote Being with Animals, a precursor to How Animals Grieve, which set the stage for examining animal sentience with a scientist’s rigor and an animal lover’s gentleness.
How Animals Grieve is thoughtful, poignant, and simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking. What else can be expected from a book that explores and exposes the mechanics of any creature’s grief? Moreover, this book fills a massive gap. There isn’t much out there (perhaps intentionally?) that uses science to dissect the nature of non-human animal emotion, making How Animals Grieve a timely and important work.
One look at the book’s cover and you know you’re in for an emotion-packed journey. The image of an elephant, trunk extended to touch the feet of another, automatically triggers emotions. An elephant never forgets.
The topics are as diverse as the creatures profiled: Do bunnies get depressed? Is there such a thing as animal suicide? Is cross-species grief a real thing? Do turtles, ants, and reptiles feel loyalty or sadness? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes.
The stories are interesting enough to captivate a critic, but King also uses them strategically to present the conclusions of scientists. Take, for example, the female dolphin who tried repeatedly to revive her dead calf and then carried his body for several days, reluctant to part with her child. As scientists observed the dolphin over a few days in 2007, the mother didn’t feed or socialize with other dolphins; it was “just the mother and her baby alone in the water.” Much like a mother who keeps her departed child’s room the same for years, the mother swam with her calf, tending to his body, even as pieces of skin were falling off him. While the answer may seem obvious to us, the question, however, remains: Was she grieving? Or was it simply that she didn’t know her calf was dead? Was she just an automaton, acting out of sheer instinct?
Once we’re invested in this aching mother’s experience, King posits the conclusions of the scientists who observed her: They could not bring themselves to remove the baby’s body, even after many days, out of “respect towards a highly-evolved animal, the deep suffering of whom was obvious enough.” The scientists knew that they were observing maternal grief, and they wanted to give the dolphin space to experience her feelings.
Dolphins are animals who easily garner our sympathy, you say. What about animals who are not on the general public’s emotional radar? King has got you covered. How about birds, ducks, and turtles? Mike Tyson aside, many people probably don’t think much about the emotional lives of pigeons. King gathers evidence and stories that show that birds have rich inner lives and social circles. Case in point: crows and other birds gather the bodies of their departed friends, and even, at times, avenge those deaths.
King also relates a story of two ducks who were rescued from a foie gras operation. Casualties of a brutal (and hopefully nearly extinct) industry, Harper was blind and Kohl was deformed. These two male ducks had each other, though, and when brought to a sanctuary, elected to spend all of their time together. When Kohl could no longer walk or bear the pain of his deformity, he was humanely euthanized. Despite seeing his friend pass away, Harper continued to prod his body, and sat next to him for hours. Even after Kohl’s body was removed, Harper visited his usual spot every day in search of his friend. Efforts to introduce Harper to other ducks failed, and he spiraled into what can only be described as a depression. Two months after Kohl’s passing, Harper passed away as well, illuminating the author’s point that, “where there is grief, there was love.”
(I’m going to save the turtle tale, so we can all get through this review without needing therapy.)
How Animals Grieve is magical. Like midday YouTube videos of amazing animals on a slow workday, this book plays upon our natural fascination with animals; it captivates and touches us. And then it educates with science and observations that are anything but sentimental. Gift this book to an animal lover in your life. Heck, give this book to as many people as you can because it’s just that important. How Animals Grieve will further galvanize the beliefs and fortitude of the ethical vegans you know, it will revitalize the passion of fatigued animal rescuers, and it will make everyone else possibly think twice about that spider or chicken nugget or leather handbag. It’s a book that lingers with a message so eye-opening and relatable that it will haunt you long after you finish the pages.
When you find yourself entrenched in a “why are you vegan” conversation, consider How Animals Grieve your difficult-to-refute backup. This book will strengthen your conviction that animals feel pain, sadness, and joy, and it will make you a more fluent educator on the concept. My hope is that this book not only opens people’s eyes and hearts, but also encourages them, especially scientists, to look with fresh eyes and open minds to better understand all animals.
Ashlee Piper is a governmental strategist, writer, and wellness coach living in Chicago. She owns All Is Wellness, a boutique plant-based lifestyle consultancy, and manages the Vegucated Schoolhouse Online Community, a free space that offers expert advice and support to thousands of people in transition to veganism. Her writing can be found in Ecorazzi, Reader’s Digest, and GirlieGirl Army, and on her own vegan food and style website, The Little Foxes. A former advisor to two Massachusetts governors, Ashlee holds a master of social work degree from the University of Oxford and a bachelor of arts degree from Brown University. She enjoys watching her two rescue dogs zip along the beach, whipping up vegan feasts, and falling prey to the siren songs of infomercials (no joke).