Saturday, June 23, 2018
Books

Review: How Animals Grieve shows pattern of animals reacting to loss

My statistics professor at Stanford was fond of saying, "The plural of anecdote is not data." How you receive Barbara J. King's How Animals Grieve depends on whether you agree.

Even if you do, you'll warm to her string of well-chosen anecdotes that show the reactions of dogs, cats, ducks, elephants, chimps and dolphins (among others) to death. You will likely find the stories beautiful and the details surprising. You'll read of animals being listless at the death of a compatriot, not eating, not exploring, and showing body language that appears to indicate sadness or depression.

Written by an anthropologist sensitive to the permutations in human grief over place, culture and time (burial is only about 100,000 years old), the book also meditates about how humans grieve.

Just like humans, who vary from person to person in grief, King argues the same is true of animals: We shouldn't require that all dogs grieve to believe that some dogs do. Differences matter. Goat grief is not chicken grief or chimpanzee grief — or human grief.

Despite variations, King believes in a common denominator. Earthly creatures are constantly surrounded by the dying and the dead. Whether grief ensues depends on whether the living loved the deceased. Thus her definition: "Grief can be said to occur when a survivor animal acts in ways that are visibly distressed or altered from the usual routine, in the aftermath of a death of a companion animal who had mattered emotionally to him or her."

How you receive How Animals Grieve also depends on whether you already believed her hypothesis. Skeptics may stay that way. The field of animal grief continues to lack much controlled research. Still, King reviews intriguing findings: elephants attracted more to elephant skulls and ivory than other objects; monkeys having elevated stress hormones after a death; apes engaging in odd corpse-carrying behavior. Maybe it won't change many minds but, by the end, the anecdotes begin to verge on data.

Jonathan Rottenberg is an associate professor of psychology at the University of South Florida and author of the forthcoming "The Depths: The Origins of the Depression Epidemic."

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