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Animals and Grief

Animals and Grief

In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, we were all moved by the TV scenes of lost or abandoned dogs hanging around their flooded homes, some fearfully evading capture, others swimming desperately after the rescue boats. They had lost their familiar lives. They surely missed their familiar people. And what if there had been more than one animal in a house? Do animals miss other animals? Do animals grieve for each other?

Last year a scientific colleague, Jane Packard, wrote me to ask if, in my opinion, animals that were separated or that lost a close animal companion felt anything similar to human grief. Jane had been looking at biochemical changes in the blood and brain of animals that appeared to be bonded and that then experienced separation and loss for one reason or another. She thought that evidence for grieving was certainly there. What did I think, from a behavioral standpoint?

I looked at the question first from the reinforcement angle (the effects of learning and life experience of the individual) and then from the ethology angle (the effects of innate or genetically based behavior in that species).

We humans don't just miss people who are gone from us. We miss places and things, too. B.F. Skinner wrote a lovely discussion of homesickness. When you move to a new house or a new town, you "miss" the old place, because, in living there, whether it was great or lousy, you developed a set of reinforcers during your day. Making and sipping the coffee. Walking down the street to get the morning paper. Turning on the TV news at the end of the day.

The surrounding stimuli for each particular reinforcer also become discriminative stimuli, which are conditioned reinforcers in themselves. Therefore, when you move to a new place, you lose a very well-established set of reinforcers—the sight, placement, look, even the smell, of the kitchen cupboards, the newsstand, the front door of your apartment or house, and so on. Enduring the extinction of an established way of acquiring a reinforcer is a very aversive experience for all organisms. Whenever you move to a new habitat and lose access to a set of familiar reinforcers, you will feel emotions ranging somewhere from restless irritability to complete misery, at least from time to time.

Even if you are going from prison to a palace, the extinction process for established reinforcers will occur and will have to be endured. I have taken comfort from this insight many times, and used it to practical and personal advantage in my peripatetic life.

So, even for animals, leaving a familiar environment is bound to produce symptoms of the extinction process. Losing a species mate or companion may be a wrenching experience if only from the sudden extinction of access to familiar sources of reinforcement.

What about innate behavior? We accept that the biologically determined ties of mare and foal, say, or pairs of bonded birds, are often very strong. We don't feel surprised when a cow bellows for her weaned calf for a day and a night. We tell ourselves that her distress, whatever its nature, is short-lived, and therefore not at all like human grief. (My feeling is that emotion is emotion—handed out to different species in differing amounts perhaps, but causing the same internal sensations while it lasts.)

I think however there is a form of attachment in animals that scientists have not yet taken much of a look at: friendship. Animals, like people, have preferences for other individuals that can only partly (in my opinion) be explained by reinforcement history and for which we have no particular evolutionary explanation either. In Germany some years ago, a herd of cattle, by some rich owner's whim, was allowed to simply exist and reproduce with no individuals being removed. Ethologists studied this herd over a period of years. One discovery was that the cows had particular friends; and those friends (as with humans) often dated back to their "school years." When they were all calves together, female calves associated closely with some age mates and avoided others; and those friendships (and antagonisms) persisted throughout life. Isn't that a lot like people? I am a grandmother but I still have friends whom I first met in the third grade.

Another interesting finding from that cattle herd study concerned the herd sire, that is, the dominant bull. In this undisturbed herd, the lead bull was not purchased from elsewhere as bulls usually are, but rose to his position after growing up in the herd. The investigators noticed that this bull always grazed around midday next to one particular cow. Why? His favorite in the harem? Not at all. Turns out he was in the habit of having lunch with his mother. Those apparently brief attachments between cow and calf might not be quite so brief as we like to suppose.

And of course the depth of the parental attachment can vary, as it can in people. When I was breeding Welsh ponies in Hawaii one of my broodmares, Lyric, had several foals for me, among them a dark bay filly I named Sonnet. I sent Sonnet to California to show and sell, as a two-year-old. She was a sturdy, cobby Welsh—very pretty, I thought. I did not know that the fashion in California was for longer necks and more hock action; no one bought her. I left her there with other breeders for a year or so and then brought her back to Hawaii to join my broodmare band again.

When she was unloaded from the truck, her mother, Lyric, two fields away, saw Sonnet and set up a tremendous uproar of screams and whinnying. The two were reunited in great joy (more joy on Lyric's part than on Sonnet's, I thought). Lyric had seen her other foals come and go with aplomb. Her handsome son Telstar was probably in plain sight, too, another two fields over. Apparently, however, Lyric was strongly attached to this particular daughter.

What about dolphins? In my years as curator and head trainer at Sea Life Park in Hawaii, I watched and often caused many removals of one or another animal from a group; I oversaw introductions and reunions as well. Losses inevitably occurred from illness and death also. Usually there was no discernable emotional response to the absence. Sometimes the group even seemed to be relieved: "Ding Dong, the witch is dead!" Sometimes, however, when an attachment had formed between two individuals and one died, the remaining individual was truly grief-stricken. At the Seaquarium in Miami, the death of one of two killer whales plunged its tankmate into a terrible state that really endangered its health.

At Sea Life Park we had a pair of Pacific spotted dolphins, Hoku and Kiko, male and female, who performed as a team and were always together for many years. (Read more about Hoku and Kiko in Lads Before the Wind.) They certainly liked each other. They swam in synchrony, copulated frequently, and ignored or rejected other animals.

Then Kiko died suddenly of an undiagnosed kidney ailment. Hoku swam for days with both eyes shut, as if he did not want to look on a world without Kiko. Feeling very sorry for Hoku, we gave him a new companion of his own species, a young spotted dolphin female named Lei who had been living in one of the show pools with a bunch of spinner dolphins. Lei immediately joined up with Hoku. Hoku was polite; he allowed her to swim with him, he did not steal her fish or act aggressive in any way, and he even began to look around again. But for a week he kept one eye shut on whichever side Lei was swimming on.

So, if those abandoned and lost Louisiana dogs had canine housemates, do they miss each other? Sometimes not. Sometimes, I think, very much. For more than a few reasons.

About the author
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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

Has anyone got experience clicker training cows or alpaca?

I want to know what would be a practical but tasty treat to train a cow?

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