Did Szenja the Polar Bear Die of a Broken Heart?
It's the best explanation of the sudden death of a polar bear at SeaWorld.
Posted Apr 19, 2017
A good number of people sent me the link to an essay by Saryn Chorney in People magazine called "Szenja the Polar Bear Dies Unexpectedly at SeaWorld, PETA Says Cause Is 'a Broken Heart'." Besides being appalled by the fact that her best friend, Snowflake, had been shipped to the Pittsburgh Zoo to be used as a breeding machine to make more polar bears who will surely live their entire lives in captivity, many asked something like, "Can an animal really die of a broken heart?"
The simple answer to this question is, "Yes, nonhuman animals (animals) can suffer and die from a broken heart." If we can, they can. It's well known that other animals, including our companion animals such as dogs and cats, can suffer from a variety of depressive disorders including PTSD. Ms. Chorney's essay is available online, so here are a few snippets to whet your appetite for more.
She writes, "While the official cause of death is still pending necropsy, some believe her separation from another polar bear, 20-year companion Snowflake, may have caused Szenja’s downward trajectory." Ms. Chorney also notes, "'Szenja died of a broken heart, PETA believes. After losing her companion of 20 years when SeaWorld shipped Snowflake to the Pittsburgh Zoo in order to breed more miserable polar bears, Szenja did what anyone would do when they lose all hope, she gave up,' said People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) vice president Tracy Remain in a statement."
We also read, "Al Garver, SeaWorld San Diego’s vice president of zoological operations, said in a statement. 'Szenja not only touched the hearts of those who have cared for her over the last two decades, but also the millions of guests who had the chance to see her in person. We’re proud to have been a part of her life and to know that she inspired people from around the world to want to protect polar bears in the wild.'” She did? Of course, Mr. Garver is just spouting the party line that zoos make people do something meaningful to save other animals. The key word in his quote is want. While many may want to save polar bears and other animals, very few, if any, actually do anything that makes a difference to the wild relatives of zooed animals.
While it's known that polar bears in the wild tend to be solitary, this has absolutely nothing to do with the way in which Szenja and other captive polar bears actually live in their water cages. They live with other animals, become tightly bonded with them, and suffer their loss, as did Szenja when Snowflake was ripped away from her. SeaWorld's statement about Szenja's death is vacuous. A SeaWorld spokesperson claims, "We and other accredited and world-class zoological facilities remain focused on our important mission of animal conservation and public education and inspiration." They continued, "Szenja lived a long and enriching life at SeaWorld."
Is life in captivity really easy?
This last "feel good" statement, thoroughly undocumented, reminded me of an essay I recently discovered by Christie Wilcox called "Bambi or Bessie: Are Wild Animals Happier?" Ms. Wilcox claims, "What we do know so far is that evidence suggests wild animals can be as happy in captivity as they are in nature, assuming they are treated well. ... Zoo animals with proper care and enrichment, for example, have similar hormone profiles, live longer, eat better, and are healthier than their wild counterparts. Why? Because life in the wild is hard. In captivity, it’s easy."
One major problem with Ms. Wilcox's essay is that she suggests that stress and happiness are mutually exclusive, which a good deal of research clearly shows they're not. Another is her cavalier attitude about how life in the wild is utterly miserable and that being "treated well," whatever that means, is better than being allowed to live the life that an individual was meant to live as a member of a given species. For more discussion on the importance of letting individuals of a species live the lives they've evolved to live, please see The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age. Yes, there is suffering in the wild, and there also is a lot of joy and happiness. It's anthropocentric arrogance to think that we can, or should, step in, and make things "better" -- whatever that means -- given that a wide variety of behavior patterns and diverse social systems evolved in many different sentient beings before we became a major negative factor in the lives and deaths of countless individuals of numerous species.
And, if life in captivity is so easy, why do so many zoos have enrichment programs to help zooed animals who are bored and frustrated, and who engage in repetitive stereotyped pacing and self-destructive behaviors? Zoo administrators and those who work in zoos know that life in a zoo is not "easy," and claiming otherwise is utterly absurd. Zooed animals suffer from a host of behavioral and psychological disorders, are shipped around as if they're breeding machines as was Snowflake, and, when they're considered to be "surplus animals," they're killed -- zoothanized, not euthanized -- even if they are otherwise healthy. For more on the killing of animals who do not fit into a zoo's breeding program please see "'Zoothanasia' Is Not Euthanasia: Words Matter" and "Killing Healthy Animals in Zoos: "Zoothanasia" is a Reality."
Szenja and Flint: Two broken hearted animals
Nonhumans can die of a broken heart and zoos need to realize that this is a reality, not some fluffy explanation of death. In a previous essay I wrote called "Grief, Mourning, and Broken Hearted Animals," I described the deep grief that animals feel when they lose a loved one. I highlighted Jane Goodall's observations of Flint, a young chimpanzee who withdrew from his group, stopped eating, and died of a broken heart soon after the death of his mother, Flo. In her book Through a Window, Dr. Goodall wrote,
"Never shall I forget watching as, three days after Flo's death, Flint climbed slowly into a tall tree near the stream. He walked along one of the branches, then stopped and stood motionless, staring down at an empty nest. After about two minutes he turned away and, with the movements of an old man, climbed down, walked a few steps, then lay, wide eyes staring ahead. The nest was one which he and Flo had shared a short while before Flo died. . . . in the presence of his big brother [Figan], [Flint] had seemed to shake off a little of his depression. But then he suddenly left the group and raced back to the place where Flo had died and there sank into ever deeper depression. . . . Flint became increasingly lethargic, refused food and, with his immune system thus weakened, fell sick. The last time I saw him alive, he was hollow-eyed, gaunt and utterly depressed, huddled in the vegetation close to where Flo had died. . . . the last short journey he made, pausing to rest every few feet, was to the very place where Flo's body had lain. There he stayed for several hours, sometimes staring and staring into the water. He struggled on a little further, then curled up- and never moved again."
There's no doubt Flint was grieving and feeling totally lost in the world. Life was no longer worth living. Szenja's sudden death strongly indicates that she, like Flint, missed her best friend and life simply became too much. Losing Snowflake, Szenja's best friend of 20 years, made for a heartache that was just too hard to handle.
Grieving, mourning, and dying of a broken heart clearly show that nonhuman animals are socially aware of what is happening in their worlds and that they feel deep emotions when family and friends die.
Clearly, we're not the only animals who possess the cognitive and emotional capacities for suffering the loss of others.
Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Lives For Dogs and Us will be published in early 2018. Marc's homepage is marcbekoff.com.