Monthly Archives: July 2013

Animal Emotion: An Interview with Barbara King

This month,  Performing Humanity has the exciting opportunity to feature our editor’s conversation with Dr. Barbara King, author of The Dynamic Dance: Nonvocal Communication in African Great Apes (2004),  Being With Animals: Why We Are Obsessed With the Furry, Scaly, Feathered Creatures Who Populate Our World (2010) and the recently released How Animals Grieve (2013).   The topic du jour? Animals, emotions, and how sentient beings grieve.Screen Shot 2013-06-12 at 12.07.22 AM

Miranda Nesler: Your recently released book has received attention from both academic and non-specialist communities, and we’re  thrilled to be able to provide the blog readers with a  insight into its creation. Looking backward, when and where did your interest in animal emotion originate?

Barbara King:  For years, I studied communication and cognition in monkeys and apes by observing the day-to-day primate encounters that unfolded before my eyes. With the great apes especially—chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans—I couldn’t help but realize that I was seeing not only savvy strategists, but also sentient beings who very much felt their lives. Gradually, the more I read and became focused also on issues of animal welfare, the more I realized that it’s not just our closest living relatives but also many mammals and birds who feel and express emotions. I was hooked.

MN: Among the vast emotions you observed, what led you to focus ultimately on grief and mourning?

BK:  I think there are two quite different answers here. For my previous two books, my research included investigations into the evolution of human burial practices. In digesting archaeological material, I began to notice reports of humans buried right alongside animals—for example, as long ago as 8000 years, a man was interred with a lamb in Turkey. From there, because I am used to thinking in an evolutionary framework, the next question emerged naturally: How do nonhuman animals grieve and mourn? I know already about elephants’ emotional responses to death, but once I began the research, I was stunned at how much additional information I found.

There’s a more personal answer, too. Like many people around my age, I’m involved with caring for an elderly parent with physical troubles and some degree of dementia. Though by no means unusual, this tilting of the world wherein one becomes parent to the parent generates an experience ripe for a sort of anticipatory mourning. That very entangled mix of love and sadness is, I think, the core subject of my book.

MN: It’s interesting that, as scholars, we’re encouraged at times to deny the subjective emotions that lead us to our work.  And yet, as in this case, it’s what leads us to crucial ethical and existential contributions. It’s almost as though “emotion” makes us more animal—less “rational human”—something I hope we can discuss more!  On the academic side of your work, what forms of research and field-work go into a project like this one?

BK: My primary sources were the peer-reviewed scientific literature; interviews with people who are acute observers of animals, whether in the wild, sanctuaries, zoos, farms, or homes; and my own observations of animals ranging from primates to our household’s (many) rescued housecats. For several years, I concentrated on primary research and academic writing, and I have now taken a turn, a well-loved and exciting turn, towards writing about animals and anthropology for general audiences rather than academic ones. I do hope, though, there is overlap.

MN: It’s an issue so relevant to both audiences. But this approach is also potentially more overtly personal than work targeted to traditionally academic or specialized readers. When taking this approach to writing and when dealing directly in research with human and animal subjects, does it ever become difficult to maintain objectivity or avoid emotional involvement in the study? To what degree is objectivity an aim or something that actually undercuts the project?

BK: When working on the book, I kept in mind what I tell my students: If you have a favored hypothesis, or a bias toward some phenomenon you may expect to find during research, redouble your efforts to scrutinize critically how you handle and interpret the evidence you gather. For me, this meant working hard on each case as it came up and trying to think up and assess alternative explanations for animal grief and mourning. And sometimes I do embrace those alternative explanations. I wanted to use definitions and criteria that allow me to walk a line: rigorously applying standards to candidate examples of animal grief and mourning while recognizing what (some) animals themselves convey to us: that they feel their lives deeply and express their emotions accordingly. So, while I never wanted to avoid emotional involvement with the material—I love and respect animals too much for that to be either possible or desirable—I did want to be rigorous.

In today’s animal-behavior science, part of being rigorous is to understand the degree of individual variation within animal species. In the first place, I would be surprised if beetles, snakes, and frogs—they are animals too!—are capable of mourning. But in the second place, in species where animals may show significant mourning, ranging from elephants and dolphins to dogs and ducks, it’s a matter of personality, individual social history, and the relationship of the survivor to the one who has died. Some animals are only curious, or indifferent, when a companion dies.

MN: It’s interesting to consider the range of intensity or expression that can occur not only among species but within them. What significant overlaps or distinctions do you see in the way that human grief compares to domesticated and non-domesticated animals, respectively?  And could you say a bit more about what differences you observe between those animal groups?

BK:  One chapter in my book is called “Writing Grief.” In it, I explore some grief memoirs I’ve read, none of which affected me more deeply than C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed (1961). In acute anguish, Lewis describes the process by which his beloved memories of his wife gradually begin to dim after her death. As I write in that chapter, “In grief’s grasp, he relentlessly revisits the past and anticipates the future.” I know that sometimes, nonhuman animals do revisit the past and anticipate the future, but we humans do this in grief to an unparalleled extent. Our keen awareness of the fact that those we love, and we ourselves, will die, is a novel evolutionary development, I think.

Human grief is at times global. We have all found ourselves struck through with sorrow at a stranger’s death, or the loss of strangers in large numbers. We may learn of lives lost through the media or feel the impact most fully while visiting a mass memorial in Berlin, Hiroshima, or Manhattan.

Still, there are some overlaps—and many unknowns—even with these distinctions. I fiercely feel that we should not head too far in the direction of avowed human uniqueness. The study of animal grief is nascent, and we have more questions than answers. This includes our knowledge about animal memory and generalized animal mourning. Some questions may be answered in the future with keen observation, whereas others may be unanswerable within the bounds of science. Elephant babies who witnessed the death of their families at the hands of poachers suffer distressed sleep and sometimes nightmares. Are they dreaming memories of their loved ones? Wild elephants may gently manipulate and caress the bleached bones of other elephants. Sometimes the bones are of kin, but not always. Do elephants mourn strangers?

One area that interests me is that with domesticated species such as horses, dogs, and cats, there seems a heightened opportunity for cross-species mourning: animals who mourn us, just as we mourn them. While I am out in Yellowstone National Park observing the majestic bison, I don’t hold any illusion that the bison care much about me or would have any emotion for me—which is as it should be! They are wild animals concerned with their own lives.

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  MN: Do you see important social or ethical implications emerging from such comparisons?

  BK: The very point of writing this book for me is to ask all of us collectively to think hard about the choices we make when it comes to treatment of other animals. I’ve been an animal lover forever and a long-time advocate for primates such as chimpanzees who are confined in unspeakable conditions in biomedical laboratories; but to be honest, it’s only been in the last 5-10 years that I’ve educated myself fully about the effects on so many animals of our willingness to use them egregiously for our own purposes. Five or so years ago, I would’ve gone to Sea World to watch captive, performing marine mammals without a second thought; and back then I was eating chickens and turkeys (though not cows, pigs, and lambs).

Dolphins may grieve their losses, including when they are separated from their loved ones; cow moms may grieve when their calves are taken away for slaughter. To me, the knowledge that so many animals love and grieve brings more urgency to issues of animal welfare. Admittedly, at the same time, animals who don’t love and grieve also need our attention.

MN: This is an issue of debate across history—and something that Performing Humanity has tried to emphasize by connecting past and present debates. To what degree do you see historical artistic, literary, or legal representations of animals acknowledging or denying their ability to grieve?  Did any such texts shape your study?

BK: To Marc Bekoff, I send extreme credit and respect. Marc is an animal behaviorist and author of books including The Emotional Lives of Animals (2008) and (with Jessica Pierce) Wild Justice (2010). His writings illuminate the lives of animals. He cuts through inflated claims of human cognitive and emotional uniqueness and, just as we discussed above, does so with a primary goal of working for animals and their welfare, of awakening our responsibility to do this now and not later. Marc’s work has significantly influenced my own writing and activism.

I could mention many other works—in anthropology, the writings of Tim Ingold and Eduardo Kohn; the entire Animal Series (2004-2012) from Reaktion Books, ranging from Ape to Frog to Mosquito, all of which I have reviewed for the Times Literary Supplement; and books like Andrew Westoll’s The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary (2011). It’s not so much that these volumes dwell on grief per se, as that they open up a wide space to think openly about animals, animal lives, and what animal lives mean in their own right apart from human concerns.

MN: Earlier, we discussed that your work (like so much quality scholarship) is also personal. Is there any particularly important moment that occurred during the project that you can share with readers to illustrate this?

BK:  Six weeks after the book came out, a bolt out of the blue hit my family and me. I was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of uterine cancer. After a 6-hour surgery done in May, and 6 months yet to come of chemotherapy and radiation, my prognosis should be good. This sudden entry into a serious medical situation has left me thinking about people around the world who face similar calamities with far fewer medical and financial resources available than I have.

What does all this have to do with animal grief? At some visceral level, I feel the answer is… everything. How Animals Grieve is about what it is to be alive, thinking, feeling, and loving. So many of us animals, human and nonhuman, do those things, and we as a result may also grieve. Somehow, and I very much recognize how lucky I am in my loving family and friends, the resources available to me, and indeed my prognosis, all this made me feel even more connected to the animal stories in the book.

MN: Barbara, I can’t say how glad I am we had the chance to talk. Thank you for taking the time to share with me and the readers.


Recent Discussion of Dr. King’s Work also appears at  NPR, the NY Post, and TIME Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter @bjkingape.

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