How Animals Grieve

How Animals Grieve

How Animals Grieve

“One of the 50 Must-Read Science/Nature Books” —Book Riot


From the time of our earliest childhood encounters with animals, we casually ascribe familiar emotions to them. But scientists have long cautioned against such anthropomorphizing, arguing that it limits our ability to truly comprehend the lives of other creatures. Recently, however, things have begun to shift in the other direction, and anthropologist Barbara J. King is at the forefront of that movement, arguing strenuously that we can—and should—attend to animal emotions. With How Animals Grieve, she draws our attention to the specific case of grief, and relates story after story—from fieldsites, farms, homes, and more—of animals mourning lost companions, mates, or friends.

King tells of elephants surrounding their matriarch as she weakens and dies, and, in the following days, attending to her corpse as if holding a vigil. A housecat loses her sister, from whom she’s never before been parted, and spends weeks pacing the apartment, wailing plaintively. A baboon loses her daughter to a predator and sinks into grief. In each case, King uses her anthropological training to interpret and try to explain what we see—to help us understand this animal grief properly, as something neither the same as nor wholly different from the human experience of loss.

The resulting book is both daring and down-to-earth, strikingly ambitious even as it’s careful to acknowledge the limits of our understanding. Through the moving stories she chronicles and analyzes so beautifully, King brings us closer to the animals with whom we share a planet, and helps us see our own experiences, attachments, and emotions as part of a larger web of life, death, love, and loss.

(Description: University of Chicago Press)


Publishers Weekly
“King’s thoughtful, warm-hearted prose will raise awareness and amaze readers.”

“A beautifully written book that will appeal to animal lovers.”

Our Hen House
How Animals Grieve is thoughtful, poignant, and simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking.”

Cynthia Moss, author of Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family
“Barbara J. King has pulled together anecdotal and scientific data on grief and love in animals in her excellent book How Animals Grieve. With her engaging story telling she opens up our eyes to the possible inner lives of some surprising species. We expect big-brained chimpanzees and elephants to express their feelings, but her tales of rabbits, goats, birds, turtles and others force us to look again at the emotional content of animal lives.”

Jennifer Holland, author of Unlikely Friendships
“Poignant, thoughtful, and sometimes heartbreaking. King once again elevates the discussion of animal emotion. She tackles a tricky subject with a scientist’s care and an animal lover’s grace.”

Jessica Pierce, author of The Last Walk
“I must admit that I was skeptical that an entire book could be written on the subject of animal grief, because the scientific literature in this area is so painfully thin. But Barbara King has succeeded beautifully. She has collected an incredible database of stories about various kinds of animals, and taken together they offer more than enough substance to sustain this book. It is as if she has created a mosaic for her reader. She has collected bits and pieces—individual stories about one animal or another—which by themselves might be little but trifles. But King pastes them together with masterful skill, and the result is a compelling picture of animal grief. We get the feeling that there are still a lot of blank spaces on the canvas, as our scientific understanding is far from complete, but it is only a matter of time before these spaces will begin to fill in. How Animals Grieve is a fascinating book which will interest and inform animal lovers and scientists alike.”

David Kirby, author of Death at Sea World
“In this deeply moving and beautifully composed treatise that is sure to anger some, but inspire many, Barbara King methodically presents her powerful evidence that many animals possess thoughts, feelings and emotions, including the profound sense of loss following the death of a family member or close companion. Consider, for example, the female dolphin who carries her dead calf for several days, loath to part with her beloved child. What else is she doing but grieving? It might be a controversial, minority viewpoint that some animals mourn the death of others, but King’s profound and well-documented work has left me firmly in her camp.”

Gene Baur, president and cofounder of Farm Sanctuary
“Humans and other animals experience love and fear, and form deep emotional bonds with cherished companions. We mourn when a close friend dies, and so do other animals, as Barbara King’s poignant book illustrates in compelling detail. How Animals Grieve helps us to connect and to better understand the complex social lives of other animals and of ourselves.”

“Let me begin by saying I recommend this book to anyone who doubts that animals grieve. The evidence presented is overwhelming.”

Shelf Awareness
How Animals Grieve is not the definitive work on animal grief, but rather a stepping-stone to further investigation, observation and understanding. King hopes others will continue to look with fresh eyes, expand our knowledge and better understand all animals.”

Marc Bekoff | Psychology Today
“Admirably, carefully, and cautiously reviews and synthesizes a topic that is of great interest to numerous people, including those who are fortunate enough to live with nonhuman companions, those who are lucky enough to study them, and those who are interested in other animals for a wide variety of reasons.”

“King makes a compelling case for the rich and deep emotional lives of other animals.”

Interview with NPR

Read the full interview on »

Q: It seems, despite the lack of research, like there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence about animal grief — and even biological evidence.

“In the book I tell stories — some gleaned from the scientific literature, others from interviews with animal caretakers — of individual animals and how they expressed love for a relative or friend, then grieved when that other animal died. Rather than writing about grief in the collective or as an abstract, I describe what happened when a gorilla silverback lost his closest gorilla friend, when the house cat Willa lost her sister Carson, when a dolphin mother observed in Greek waters lost her infant. It’s from those stories that patterns, and hypotheses to test, emerge.

“I also describe field scientists who use GPS collars to track elephants’ movements then closely observe the behavior of individuals as they approach the body of a dead matriarch, or others who compare hormonal (e.g., glucocorticoid) changes experienced by monkeys who have lost kin in witnessed predator attacks versus monkeys who have not lost kin but witnessed those same predator attacks. Video, too, is revolutionizing the study of animal emotion; when we film what happens as an animal is dying or dies, we can assess the behaviors by rewatching and coding the tapes, rather than by making snap judgments about what’s unfolding quickly in real time.”

Q: What do you say to skeptics, people who say oh, you’re just anthropomorphizing; there’s no way we can ever tell what an animal is actually thinking?

“Yes, there’s that A word again. I agree that we can’t always, or even often, discern what an animal is thinking. For example, whenever a chimpanzee or gorilla mother is seen carrying the corpse of her baby, the media headlines fly about ‘maternal mourning!’ And that may be right — or it may not. If the mother is going about her normal routine, or simply staring at her baby, we have no firm basis on which to say that she is steeped in grief.

“My definition of grief requires that an animal’s normal behavior routine is significantly altered, and that she shows visible emotional distress through body language, vocalizations, social withdrawal, and/or failure to eat or sleep. So while I do need to follow consistent criteria in describing grief, I don’t need to know what an animal is thinking, any more than I’d need to know what a person is thinking, if he shows marked emotional response to a death.”

Q: You make an interesting distinction — that while all animals are capable of grief, not all of them do grieve. What has to happen for an animal to express what we would perceive as grief?

“That’s right, animals are individuals. Not all elephants, not all dogs, grieve when a relative or friend dies — some may be curious and want to explore the body, others may be indifferent. I wouldn’t want to say ‘all animals are capable of grief,’ though, because we don’t know the scope of animal grief yet. Would I expect amphibians, reptiles, and insects to have the capacity for grieving as birds and mammals do? No, not really. We’ve yet to fully discover how brain physiology correlates with the expression of emotions like grief in the animal kingdom.

“We humans grieve differently than other animals do: using language, enacting symbolic rituals like funerals, and with an acute awareness of our own and others’ mortality. Other animals don’t do those things. But many other animals do love. My book is as much about love as it is about grief, because it’s from love that the grief emerges.”

Q: What can animals teach us about grief in humans?

“Animals teach us that grief is a natural, if at times profoundly difficult, result of feeling love and joy with another being. If you don’t mind though, I’d like to conclude by tackling a different question: What can animal grief teach us about our relationship with other creatures? To me, that’s the heart of why animal emotion is incredibly important to study and understand.

“The more we understand that the chimpanzee (or cat or rabbit) confined to a biomedical lab feels his life and his friend’s death in the next cage over, and that the dairy cow sorrows over the repeated loss of her calves as they’re taken away to slaughter, the more we work effectively towards animal welfare. Each one of us can do something for animals. Maybe you’re all about educating children in wildlife conservation, or working to get cats and dogs spay-neutered. Or maybe you decide not to eat animals anymore. Whatever works for you, it all makes a difference.”