When we interpret animal behaviour as humanlike, we risk simply seeing ourselves – which demeans us and them
And so, the killer whale known as J35 is back to her old self. She is no longer carrying the dead body of a calf she held aloft in the water for more than two weeks. Her so-called tour of grief has ended, to the relief of a global audience who had become wrapped up in this heart-wrenching animal drama. Great news, right? Sure. Yet I have a strange feeling in my stomach. It’s a familiar one. The pedant in me is stirring, eager to get us to consider what we know about animals and what we don’t – and may never – know about their lives. It isn’t my aim to belittle J35 and her apparent pain, far from it. It’s rather to make sure we don’t accidentally dilute the emotions of a killer whale by making it all about us.
First, I have form on this issue. A while ago, I published a book called Death on Earth and episodes of apparent animal grief was one of the areas upon which I focused. During my research, I drew up a list of all sorts of anecdotes about animals labelled (by respectable researchers) as evidence of “mourning” and “grief”. These included police dogs pawing at their master’s coffins, macaques resuscitating fallen loved ones and turtles appearing on beaches to mourn at makeshift graves made by humans for the turtles that didn’t make it. I was told by members of the public on Twitter about dogs going off food after losing kennel-mates and horses burying dead stablemates in hay and I was reminded regularly of those BBC documentaries featuring elephants in apparent (but I would argue edited) tears at the loss of a loved one.