x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Book review: Grief of animals can be quite moving

In How Animals Grieve, Barbara J King explores the complex relationships between creatures and how they cope with bereavement.

How Animals Grieve

Barbara J King

University of Chicago Press

How do animals and birds love and react to the death of a loved one?

This question is explored in Barbara J King's How Animals Grieve, a thought-provoking and heartbreaking collection of studies supported by real-life examples.

To shatter the feline stereotype of aloofness, King began her book with a chapter on cat mourning.

Readers meet memorable characters that share people's homes, such as the feline sisters Willa and Carson. King chronicles Willa's bereavement when she loses Carson.

Willa, a Siamese cat, lets out a loud wail when she visits places her deceased sister had frequented, such as a sleeping cushion on the floor.

"Individual cats, depending on their personalities, may bond with other cats and with people just as deeply as dogs bond with other dogs and with people," she wrote. "And when death comes for one cat, that bonding may lead to mourning for the survivor."

King then examines farm animals, which are generally not thought to experience deep emotions. Readers are introduced to two goats, Myrtle and Blondie, who are inseparable until Blondie dies and Myrtle runs around the pasture letting out a "panic-stricken scream that made your hair stand on end".

Loss of appetite, lethargy, illness, agitated behavior and vocal expressions are some of the ways animal express grief, all of which are familiar to humans.

The story of two ducks who are best friends, Kohl and Harper, illustrates that even feathered creatures feel love and pain. When Kohl was euthanised, his body was left on some straw on the floor, and Harper came over and prodded Kohl with his head.

"After more inspection and prodding, Harper lay down next to Khol and put his head and neck over Kohl's neck. He stayed in that position for some hours."

Intimate stories of love and loss between dogs, rabbits, elephants, monkeys, birds, and creatures of the sea, such as dolphins and turtles, give rare insights into a range of complex emotions.

Even cross-species grief is tackled with poignant stories, such as that of Tarra the elephant and her canine friend Bella, who became an internet sensation. Readers witness Tarra's reaction to missing Bella after the dog was killed by a pack of wild animals.

Perhaps the most tragic story is in a chapter titled Animal Suicide, where King looks at bear farming in Asia. Farmers engage in the painful practice of extracting bile from a bear as it lies tied down and drugged with a rusting metal catheter stuck through its abdomen into its gall bladder.

"As a worker at the farm prepared to harvest his bile, the cub cried out in distress. Somehow, the mother broke free, grabbed her cub, and hugged him with such power that he died of strangulation. Then she ran headfirst into a wall and died."

King directly addresses what critics might say, and provides scientific evidence to support her assertions. She also offers her own personal experiences.

Whatever your views on the interpretion of animal behaviour, one can't help but appreciate the complexity and depth of animal love.

* Rym Ghazal