Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

The ABCís Revisited

June 24, 2011

My typical routine is to veer from blog topic to blog topic by the week, never alighting in the same place twice in close succession. Right now, thatís not something I can manage, so, this weekís topic follows on from lastís.

My mother continues (see last Fridayís post) to struggle in numerous ways, both physically and cognitively. At present Iím writing from her bedside on a bad day (while she sleeps).

Six days ago, one of her two closest friends back at her independent-living place, Shirley, died. Though Shirleyís death at age 83 from Parkinsonís disease was not unexpected, it was a tough loss for many. Given this fresh sadness, I was particularly grateful that my cousin Tom and his wife Carolyn drove up from Miami, arriving here on Sunday to cheer my mother. Tom has been close to my mom since his boyhood days, and my mother has loved Carolyn for decades as well.

Sundayís reunion at the nursing home was punctuated with laughter, a lift for us all. We parted with plans to meet again the next day. Early the next morning, however, Tom telephoned. Carolyn had died in her sleep in the night, in the hotel bed. The shock of that death (ruled as due to acute coronary insufficiency) continues, as do the aftershocks. We miss Carolyn badly.

This whole travail is so much not about me. Still, as my many people remind me, it would be smart to attend to my own health Ė physical and emotionalófor the sake of the long haul. Itís been a mantra of mine that being with animals makes the highs of a life higher, and the lows more bearable. And Iíve become increasingly preoccupied with thinking through why the second part of that equation should be the case. Why do animals (right now, cats, ranging from ďBugletĒ the high-energy abandoned kitten weíre socializing for adoption to the large rescued adult female Diana who lies on me when I nap in the sunroom) raise my spirits even during the most difficult times?

In Being With Animals I quoted a favorite writer, Verlyn Klinkenborg, in this context. Three days after 9/11, Klinkenborg left Manhattan for his rural home. The horses and dogs who greeted him there, he wrote, could not be told what had happened that week. In that fact lay the consolation. They had only the old news to give, their old satisfaction with the world as they know it.

Itís true of course that other animals donít endure the panoply of emotions that come with human-made tragedies. And Klinkenborg is right that when we embrace animals, we may immerse joyfully in a world free of immediate human concerns. Yet Iím coming to take more and more seriously an alternative idea, one I peeked at in the book and now am considering in greater depth.

Often Iíve observed that itís the ABCs-- animals, books, and chocolateóthat get me through life, along with loved ones. Iím amending that just a bit, to the ABCCís, with the second C standing for connection. Families all the time deal with the worries and sorrows my family have recently endured, and that feeling of common humanity is a good touchstone.

But in matters of emotion, as in so many other matters, we humans are far from unique. Many animals feel othersí old age and death. In researching material for the book Iíll be writing during my sabbatical year, How Animals Grieve, Iíve found example after example of love and grief Ė and even now and again worry-for-a-loved one-- in a wide variety of species. One of the most fascinating and convincing stories along these lines involves cats!

As an anthropologist and writer, Iím keenly interested to figure out the degree to which and the way in which we humans feel these feelings differently from other animals.But as a daughter, as a cousin, and as a friend? The inevitable points of species- by-species separation fade away for me, replaced by the point of deepest connection.

To be born and to die, to be social-group-oriented and smart and sentient (each species in its own ways), means we are all joined in a network of felt emotion for others. This fact has moved beyond the book-writing realm to become a source of personal comfort to me, more so than I would ever have predicted.


  1. June 24, 2011 7:38 AM EDT
    Another "B"--one that a good friend (who had been through the serious illness of her parents ) gave me--Breathe. "Don't forget to breathe," she kept telling me. It's quite remarkable how easy it is to forget that. Sometimes, given what's happening, it's hard to take care of yourself--to eat right and sleep enough--but you can always breathe. My thoughts are with you and your family.
    - Mary Pratt
  2. June 24, 2011 9:43 AM EDT
    Thanks - that blog helped me. Though I'm not struggling with loss, I felt a strong sense of inner peace after reading this.
    - Sian Evans
  3. June 24, 2011 9:49 AM EDT
    I absolutely loved this post and I'm so sorry for your losses.
    - LornaG
  4. June 24, 2011 10:01 AM EDT
    Another A: Accept. Animals are a comfort to me because, whatever is happening, animals accept it. Oh, they try to avoid or escape distress, naturally, but that's "Not me!" not "Why me?" They don't try to deny what's happening or to make sense of it or to make lemonade out of lemons. Sometimes, things are just bad, and the healthiest thing to do is to accept that and live through it. I love your ABC's of Animals, Books and Chocolate. :)
    - Marian Allen
  5. June 24, 2011 10:06 AM EDT
    Sorry you're going through such a tough time :-(. Those ABC (C)s work for me too, although I'd never thought of them like that. I shall always remember that now! Looking forward to the new book when it is written.
    - Anonymous
  6. June 24, 2011 10:10 AM EDT
    These comments are helping me SO much. I love the suggestions for other A's (accept) and B's (breathe). I love people reaching out to me with kindness. And you know what, I love, too, Marian, your telling me it's OK to resist 'making lemonade out of lemons'. I KNOW people mean well when they tell me that this experience is helping me grow and learn. But...! I'm too exhausted to grow and learn right now! I am filled with happiness just laying in my sunroom with that huge cat atop me, not learning a thing.
    - Barbara J. King
  7. June 24, 2011 3:16 PM EDT
    Barbara, I am very sorry to hear of the difficulties being faced by you and your family. I also appreciate you posting this discourse. In my experience no words are appropriate for the profound loss of a loved one, but animals don't speak, they touch and help anchor one through touch to "this world" while your heart breaks and your mind adjusts. Mourning has become a hidden topic in many respects and I appreciate you pointing some well deserved light at it and its universality. I look forward to your future posts, and your book. Thank you, I wish you a whole alphabets worth of comfort.
    - Jessica
  8. June 24, 2011 6:26 PM EDT
    Jessica, this is a splendid point to make. I have been reminded in recent days of the power of touch to convey love- holding a sick loved one's hand, embracing someone who is grieving in the tightest hug you can manage - in silence. And yes, animals employ touch and body contact so profoundly. I have learned a great deal, and try to adopt some of what I've seen, from close observation of primates (gorillas and bonobos especially) in this realm of behavior.
    - Barbara J. King
  9. June 24, 2011 11:59 PM EDT
    Barbara, a few days ago I was going to write you privately with thoughts about all this tragedy you are living through. That idea has evaporated as I read all the many FB comments, and this blog. Everything possible has been said, thought, and considered already, by many and by you. As our sweet cat Annie crawled up my shoulder in the recliner yesterday, and made me drop the newspaper I was reading and close my eyes and simply hold her purring little body, I realized that her gift to me is the ability to STOP THOUGHTS and bring about peace and oblivion. And that is what we sometimes need the most.
    - Joanne Tanner
  10. June 25, 2011 8:57 AM EDT
    Joanne, one of the first things I saw this morning was your photograph of Annie & Spirit posted elsewhere. A great start to my day! I can picture your happy oblivion with her draped upon you. I'm wondering if the nursing home my Mom is in ever brings in therapy animals. I will ask tomorrow; it's possible they've come in at a time I'm not there.
    - Barbara J. King
  11. July 11, 2011 11:11 PM EDT
    "In Being With Animals I quoted a favorite writer, Verlyn Klinkenborg, in this context. Three days after 9/11, Klinkenborg left Manhattan for his rural home. The horses and dogs who greeted him there, he wrote, could not be told what had happened that week. In that fact lay the consolation. They had only the old news to give, their old satisfaction with the world as they know it."

    YES. That's it! -- their pure presence, their "ordinary" being. Through two divorces in my adult life, it's been my cats who have kept me alive during the most shattering times. I mean this literally; there is ample evidence of our biological need to be in resonant relation with others (see *A General Theory of Love* by Thomas Lewis, et. al) -- In bonded relation, we keep each other in a state of neurological, cardiac and hormonal balance. My health is currently in a precarious state, and there are moments when my body could have died if my beloved cats had not been with me after my husband left. Another 'ABC' could be Attachment, Bonding, and Cuddles ...

    Wishing you and your family loving resonance, and my thanks for how you think :-)
    - Jaliya
  12. July 12, 2011 11:30 AM EDT
    Jaliya, I send you every good wish for dealing with your health. I fervently wish everyone in precarious health was surrounded by loving animals! By the way, your comment came in at 11:11pm on July 11, 2011... which is just fun.
    - Barbara J. King

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.