News and Tribune


May 10, 2013

STAWAR: Creature discomfort


In 1872, Charles Darwin published “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals.” In this work, Darwin broke with tradition by attributing emotional expression to the “lower animals.” Up until then, it was generally held that only humans were capable of complex feelings. 

In fact, French philosopher René Descartes argued that since animals had no souls, they were simply automatons — mechanisms made of flesh and bone instead of metal. He even suggested that animals’ cries of pain were simply mechanical phenomenon, like the squealing of a fan belt. 

In 19th Century Britain, a movement to curtail animal cruelty started and the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote that regarding animals, “The question is not can they reason nor can they talk, but, can they suffer?” 

Today, no one seriously questions whether animals can suffer from physical pain, but the question remains can they express emotional pain such as grief? 

The Time article covers the research presented in “How Animals Grieve,” by anthropologist Barbara King from the College of William and Mary. She says that since animals are social creatures that form bonds, they also develop ritualized behaviors to deal with loss, just like people. Animals, however, cannot afford to expend much of their resources on mourning because of nature’s harsh demands. 

Among examples of animal mourning are domestic dogs and cats who languish and refuse to eat. There is a large body of literature about loyal dogs seeking their lost companions. 

Hachiko was an akita in Tokyo who continued going to the train station every day for more than a decade after its owner died. Greyfriars Bobby was a skye terrier who spent 14 years guarding the grave of his late owner. A commemorative statue erected near Bobby’s Edinburgh grave remains a popular tourist attraction today. Similar stories of canine devotion occur around the world. 

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