Barbara King: Do Animals Grieve?

Aug 16, 2019
Originally published on August 19, 2019 4:45 pm

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Anthropomorphic.

About Barbara King's TED Talk

In 2018, an orca made headlines when she carried her dead calf on her back for weeks. Barbara King says this was a display of animal grief and explains how this changes our relationship with animals.

About Barbara King

Barbara King is an emerita professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary and a freelance writer.

She is a biological anthropologist and her primary focus is how the science of animal thinking and feeling can be used to understand and advocate for wild, companion, and farmed animals.

She is the author of several books including How Animals Grieve and Personalities On The Plate: The Lives And Minds Of Animals We Eat.

Her work has appeared in Scientific American, NPR's Cosmos and Culture blog, Aeon, and Undark.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So about a year ago, something really remarkable happened, and you might remember hearing about this. It was a story about a pod of orcas and one whale in particular. Is it Tahluquah (ph)?

BARBARA KING: Tahlequah.

RAZ: Tahlequah, right.

KING: Tahlequah, yeah.

RAZ: This is Barbara King. Barbara's a biological anthropologist.

KING: For 28 years, I taught at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.

RAZ: And a year ago, Barbara was paying close attention to Tahlequah.

KING: Yeah, so Tahlequah was with her pod, which is the J pod in the Salish Sea, and that's off of British Columbia and Washington state. And we do know that this pod is suffering.

RAZ: Actually, orcas in the entire region are endangered.

KING: There's a lot of problems with pollution in the area, and there'd been no baby that had survived in three whole years.

RAZ: So it was a big deal that Tahlequah was about to give birth.

KING: And so everybody cheered when this daughter was born.

RAZ: But pretty soon after that birth...

KING: I'm not sure anybody knows why, but within hours, the baby died. And then Tahlequah has the body of her baby on her back. And, you know, in the beginning, it was sort of expected. Oh, you know, the mom will carry the baby for a day or two. This is common. And what became profoundly different about this was the length and the extremity of what she did.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: That is the sound of a female orca carrying her dead calf in the water, keeping it afloat since her baby died a week ago.

KING: She carried that baby for a thousand miles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Tahlequah has carried her calf, and the world has been captivated by this vigil.

KING: If the baby slipped off into the water, she would retrieve the baby. If she needed to be away from her pod because they were going faster than she could go, she would stay by herself.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: A mother orca whose calf died after birth is still carrying her baby 17 days later.

KING: So the question, of course, became, what is she doing? And why is she doing it?

RAZ: So what do you think?

KING: As I think of it, this fits a pattern in a certain way or a mother or some other animal simply doesn't walk away - or swim away, in this case - from the body. And some people just want to say it's because they're stressed, and I would really want to go a different way and say I think we're seeing grief here.

RAZ: So you look at this, and you say, to me, this is an expression of grief. This is a parent mourning the loss of its child.

KING: Yes, I would say that because we're never going to know to 100% certainty in any given case what an animal is feeling. But I am looking at the visible cues that animals give us, and I think Tahlequah gave us lots of cues that she was very distressed, that this connection was the important thing for her with this individual animal who was no longer breathing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KING: So today, Tahlequah swims on with the J pod, but her grief still moves me.

RAZ: Barbara King picks up the idea from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KING: And I do believe that grief is the right word to use. I believe that grief is the right word to use for numerous animals who mourn the dead. They may be friends or mates or relatives. Now, for the last seven years, I've been working to document examples of animal grief in birds, in mammals, in domesticated animals and in wild animals. And I believe in the reality of animal grief. Now, I say it this way because I need to acknowledge to you right up front that not all scientists agree with me. And part of the reason, I think, is because of what I call the A word. The A word is anthropomorphism. And historically, it's been a big deterrent to recognizing animal emotions.

So anthropomorphism is when we project onto other animals our capacities or our emotions, and we can all probably think of examples of this. Let's say we have a friend who tells us, my cat understands everything I say, or, my dog, he's so sweet. He ran right across the yard this morning towards a squirrel, and I know he just wants to play. Well, maybe or maybe not. I'm skeptical about claims like those.

But animal grief is different because we're not trying to read an animal's mind. We're looking at visible cues of behavior and trying to interpret them with some meaning. Now, it's true. Scientists often push back at me. And they'll say, ah, look. The animal might be stressed or maybe the animal is just confused because his or her routine has been disrupted. But I think that this over-worry about anthropomorphism misses a fundamental point because these visible cues, these behavioral cues, tell us something about an animal's emotional state.

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RAZ: We evaluate human grief through language, right? Obviously, with animals, they can't do that. And you can understand why some people might be skeptical of this research.

KING: I do understand the pushback that we get, and I think that it's very important to get that pushback and to get that criticism. It's exactly what science is good at. When I get a comment from someone saying, tell me the difference between stress and grief in case X or case Y, or why do you really think that this isn't an example of anthropomorphism, I learned from that process of really going over the alternative possibilities. But behind all of these questions really lurks the concept of human exceptionalism because still, a lot of scientists would like to think that we are exceptional in our emotional abilities. And I am trying to push back against that and not start from a starting point where certain emotions are uniquely human. If that's your starting point, you're never going to see them in other animals, whether they're present or not.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Animals can act in ways that are pretty familiar to us. And for a long time, scientists resisted the urge to anthropomorphize or to look for human qualities in animals. But now some of the world's most pre-eminent biologists and researchers are asking questions like, do animals grieve in ways we can recognize? Do they have consciousness or a comprehensive language or the ability to empathize like us?

So today on the show, we're rethinking anthropomorphism and looking at ways that animals may be more like humans than we ever thought before and how those similarities might help us better understand our own place in the world.

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RAZ: And for Barbara King, her own thinking about animals and grief changed when she started researching elephants.

KING: Pretty quickly as I started reading, I was convinced that elephant grief is real. So we know that these are big-brained, highly social mammals. They live in family groups. Elephants are the touchstone species in a certain sense in that we have peer-reviewed science publications showing that elephants respond around a body with a vigil, with distressed body movement - all sorts of things that fit my definition of grief.

Cynthia Moss is a tremendous long-term elephant researcher in Kenya, and she has described elephants crossing a plain or a savannah and diverting towards bones - dried, bleached elephant bones sitting there in the sun - and a particular elephant spending more time caressing a particular skull.

RAZ: Wow.

KING: And she knows from her long-term records who had died there, and she knows that the animal caressing those bones is a relative of that dead individual. That just blows my mind.

RAZ: That's amazing.

KING: And I just kept going. I started to expand and broaden the question and say, if elephants grieve, how about our closest living relative, monkeys and apes? That was pretty clearly a yes, but I started asking about animals as wide as farmed animals and companion animals like bunnies and cats and rabbits. And I kept coming up with more and more yeses. So once I started asking and started looking, it became clear to me that there was a whole just - the elephants are the tip of the iceberg, and there's so much more to talk about here.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KING: So will science tell us someday about bereaved bees? Will we hear about frogs who mourn? I don't think so, and I think the reason is because animals really need one-to-one close relationships for that to happen. I also know that circumstance matters and personality matters. In any case, animals are not going to grieve exactly like we do. We have human creativity. We paint our grief, dance our grief, write our grief. We also can grieve for people we've never met across space and time. Animals don't grieve exactly like we do, but this doesn't mean that their grief isn't real. It is real, and it's searing. And we can see it if we choose.

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RAZ: If it's true that certain species of animals that we are very familiar with experience grief, as this - as our knowledge of these experiences becomes better and clearer, it becomes more challenging to kind of confront the decisions we make as humans.

KING: It certainly does. This has become, in recent years, the driving impetus for what I'm doing because what does this mean for animal-human relationships? What does this mean for the ethics of how we understand these fellow travelers, you know, on our planet and how we treat animals, including questions of who we eat? I wrote a whole book about who we eat, and the extension of my work to farm animals changed my thinking just revolutionarily so and changed what I eat to quite a bit as well. It's been very convenient for all of us, and I do include myself, to think of farmed animals, ranging from chickens and pigs and cows and ducks, as being not so smart and certainly not capable of profound emotion. It's convenient because we want them on our plates, so plant-based eating has become just superbly important to me.

RAZ: I mean, I think, to me, what's weird about the pushback against anthropomorphism is that if we identify with animals in the same way we identify with other humans, it's inevitably going to create more empathy for animals and other human animals.

KING: That is such a wonderful point because sometimes, I'm asked, you know, why are you agitating for animals when there's so much human suffering in the world? But you're absolutely right because empathy begets empathy. And when we raise our children to care and empathize with animals and to see their cues of how these animals are thinking and feeling in the world, I think it's only going to multiply upon itself. And isn't that what it's all about? We really want to see each other for who we are, and what I'm suggesting is that the part of empathy that's so important is to see that their lives matter to them profoundly. They spend their days thinking and feeling, and it's up to us to see that and to take some action when we realize it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: That's Barbara King. She's a professor of biological anthropology. You can see her entire talk at ted.com. On the show today, Anthropomorphic - how we relate to animals. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.