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An Unhealthy Skepticism About Animal Grief

The grieving orca mother reminds us, once again, of what we share with our kin.

The world has been transfixed over the past several weeks by the spectacle of a mother orca whale carrying her dead infant through the icy waters of the Salish Sea, keeping the infant afloat as best she could, and persisting for more than 17 days in one of the most protracted displays of cetacean grieving ever recorded by marine scientists.

Despite the openness with which the media has talked about Taulequah’s grief, skepticism about animal grief and other emotions is alive and well, even among scientists. Many of the reports about grieving behavior will use scare quotes around "grief" to suggest that animals like Taulequah only look as if they are grieving. Zoologist Jules Howard, for example, wrote in The Guardian a couple of days ago, “if you believe J35 was displaying evidence of mourning or grief, you are making a case that rests on faith not on scientific endeavor.” I find myself increasingly impatient with this kind of response to animal suffering.

There is a long-standing prejudice against the idea that animals feel deep, complex, or “human-like” emotions such as grief, and this part of a larger assumption that animals don’t think about or care about or even have much awareness of death. Some might admit that animals engage in behaviors that seem to suggest underlying emotional states, that animals have the neurophysiological architecture for emotional experiences, that they are built very much like we are, that they act as if they are grieving. But, they will say, we need to remain skeptical. We don’t know for sure, because we can’t get inside an animal’s mind and see what’s really going on.

At first glance, such skepticism seems like a healthy scientific attitude: Let’s be cautious, let’s wait until we have adequate data to support our hypotheses. But this isn’t how skepticism functions in the conversation about animal emotions; it plays a much more insidious role.

The animal grief skeptics are correct about one thing: We don’t know all that much about death-related behaviors such as grief in nonhuman animals. We know very little about how the multitude of creatures with whom we share the planet think and feel about death, either their own dying or the dying of those with whom they live. But we don’t know because we haven’t looked. Scientists haven’t yet turned serious attention to the study of what you might call “comparative thanatology”—perhaps because awareness of mortality has remained a bastion of human-perceived uniqueness.

Nevertheless, we are now poised to begin asking the right questions. We have a growing database of anecdotal reports of grieving and other death-related behaviors in elephants, dolphins, peccaries, magpies, dolphins, orcas, chimpanzees, crows, dogs, donkeys, and many more. Serious, tenure-desiring academics are beginning to study death-related behaviors in a broad range of species, beginning naturally with work on primates, but extending now into a broad taxonomic range of creatures, including cetaceans.

We don’t really know how to talk about what we are observing. For now, we have our human concepts such as “grieving” and “mourning ritual.” Given evolutionary continuity, these terms are scientifically compelling. But the experience of animals at the end of life—their own lives and the lives of those they know and to whom they feel emotionally attached—is an open book at this point. We are just now beginning to realize that there may be a whole suite of death-related behaviors, from mourning to burials and other mortuary practices to death vigils to corpse cleaning and corpse carrying.

The question is not “do animals grieve?” but “how and why do animals grieve?” We have a great deal to learn, and this is exciting, to be on the vanguard of a new appreciation of who animals are, what their subjective experiences might be like, and how different they might be from our own.

A large degree of caution is appropriate when it comes to ascribing emotions such as grief to animals—but not because there is any doubt that animals feel, that they grieve, that a mother’s anguish over the loss of her infant isn’t terribly, painfully real. There is an important difference between being careful and being “skeptical,” where skepticism is used as an excuse to put off or even stand in the way of advocacy for animals.

The admonition against “anthropomorphizing” is also critically important if understood as a nuanced call for careful science and careful reporting. But in the hands of the skeptics, the “we can’t call it grief without scare quotes” refrain simply becomes a blunt tool used to bludgeon away a creeping sense that the shallowness of our empathic response to other animals is shameful. If animals feel what we feel, then how we treat them is deeply wrong.

Being as right as possible—being scientifically accurate—about what animals are experiencing is our ethical responsibility. This is true most obviously for animals directly under our care, such as companion dogs and cats, animals in zoos, and, perhaps most critically, for those animals caught in the wheels of agribusiness. (An orca grieves for her calf, but a cow doesn’t? What kind of skepticism is at work here?) But getting it right is just as important when it comes to wild animals: The better our understanding of animals, the more we can shape our interactions in ways that reduce harm we cause them, even inadvertently.

As a bioethicist I’ve been studying the interplay between science and ethics for over two decades. During this time, I have witnessed, first with curiosity and then with a growing sense of alarm, how the scientific data on animal feelings have failed to translate into action on behalf of animals. We are two-faced: What we say with our science we refute with our behavior. We know that animals feel emotions such as fear, anxiety, depression, and grief, yet when animal advocates try to press for changes to policies or cultural practices that impose these “negative affective states” on animals, the scientific skeptic (in the service of industry) jumps up and says “Wait, we can’t be quite sure animals feel these things.” This is why the story of Taulequah and her “grief” is about so much more. We have an opportunity to call out the skeptics and get down to the important business of trying to treat other animals with kindness and respect.