Love is an Animal Thing

TheGiantVermin, via Flickr

There is a stork whose yearly migration—from South Africa to rural Croatia—brings him to his destination on the same day, at approximately the same time. Humans have begun to call him Rodan. They want a name for him, it seems, because he has become a kind of inspiration. He travels these 8,000 miles in order to be near his mate, who is called Malena. She cannot fly south with him, in the winter, because she harbors permanent injuries from a gunshot wound. Malena winters at the homestead of a local human, who has been witness to this annual reunion of storks. As of 2010, Rodan had been making this journey for five years. Together the storks have apparently born thirty-two chicks. Every year, Rodan teaches the little ones how to migrate south before the weather turns.

I don’t think I need to explain what’s made so many humans go crazy for this story. But for the sake of clarity, I will wager something: it seems to be evidence that love and devotion are not only for humans. We may, often, call love “divine.” We may, periodically and in a state of crisis, doubt its existence. But a story like this—uncovering love between non-human creatures—suggests that love is so ubiquitous and natural that we can’t really avoid it. Love transcends species boundaries. This stork story makes love seem more omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent—like the divine thing we often suggest it is. We humans love to love love. We love stories that convince us that love is big, inescapable, ready and waiting.

The love story of Malena and Rodan is one of the many tales of devotion and romance in anthropologist Barbara King’s new book How Animals Grieve (University of Chicago Press, 2013). This is, indeed, a book about grief. It is a book that works to convince us that animals, much like humans, experience the emotion of grief. But King argues that, “like us, animals grieve when they have loved.” Grief “blooms” in animal life, she says, because animal bonds run deep—they can be tough, durable, unconditional. So in order to find animal grief, she suggests, we need to look for animal love.

King is an anthropologist, and not a philosopher. So she doesn’t have much to say about the ontology of love. She doesn’t, in other words, venture a clarification about what love actually is. Instead, King tells us stories. In her book we meet individual animals: storks like Rodan and Malena, a pair of cat sisters, a mamma bear and her cub, Tarra the elephant and her stray dog Bella, a gelada monkey who carries around the corpse of her deceased infant. These narrative accounts illustrate what King is calling animal love: forms of extreme (often seemingly irrational and self-disinterested) care and devotion.

These are extremely uplifting stories. But when we see these instances of animal love, King suggests, we also see animal grief. Social bonds that run deep are painful, when they break. Effectively, this means that King’s book can also be kind of depressing. One minute, we’re being convinced that animals love deeply, the next minute we watch them grapple with the death of a creature they once loved.

The narrative accounts, amusing as they are, aren’t meant to be simply entertainment. King is aware that her “science-minded readers” may see her claims about the emotional life of animals as over-reaching. The narrative accounts are anecdotal case studies of animal emotions. They’re meant to be forms of proof. King does, from time to time, bring a skeptical eye to these tales. And she also discusses her choice to use these narrative accounts, to build her case, rather than (say) strictly evidence from controlled experiments. A healthy portion of animal-behavior research, King notes—the kind that seeks to make sense of animal lives outside of the laboratory—has long been reliant on narrative reports as data. Moreover, the rise of video technologies has allowed for a different sort of sort of narrative account—one that doesn’t rely on a single person’s description of the event. We can watch the animal interaction with our own eyes. Even these mediated events are not free of (at the very least) a temporal frame organized by a human recorder. But there is, increasingly, a sense that we can witness these social interactions for ourselves, and attempt to make our own assessment.

There is, however, always the question of how we name what we see. When we hear a story about deep social bonds between birds, what do we name that social bond? When we see intense forms of social devotion between dogs captured on video, what do we name it? King is constantly on guard against the charge of anthropomorphism—that she’s violating species boundaries by finding something so human as love, or grief, in animal life. “Anthropomorhic excess”, she acknowledges, can very likely “cause us to miss crucial distinctions.” It could make us humanize all of animal life. For this reason, she’s careful to specify that the physical experience of grieving in cat life looks (like all cat behavior) notably distinct from the experience of grief in dog life, which is inevitably different from goat grief.

The 17th century English philosopher Anne Conway argued that the differences between humans and other creatures were “finite” differences—differences of degree and intensity. There is no infinite difference between creatures that makes another’s form of life wholly and eternally incomprehensible. Whoever can’t see that something sort of like “justice” functions in the animal world, Conway argued, “must be called completely blind.” I’m with Conway. In a sense, then, I’m also with King. Whoever can’t see that something sort of like love, or something sort of like grief, functions in dog life must be blind.

This doesn’t mean, however, that King’s book raises no questions for me. I am less concerned about our tendency to anthropomorphize per se and more concerned, perhaps, with our anthropomorphic penchant to idealize. Ideas, so far as we can tell, tend to be a rather human thing. We express them in human languages. They bend, shift, and vary across human cultural contexts. We can never really be sure that our own human experiences are perfectly encapsulated in the ideas that describe them. On the one hand, we need to name phenomena like love, or grief, in order to make these emotions more communal, more actual, more comprehensible. This is part of how we build and replicate social worlds.

We also, however, have the tendency to make our ideas really big—to blow them up, amplify them, find evidence of them everywhere. Sometimes we make them into inhuman or superhuman forces that, we allege, drive and move us. There’s something beautiful about this, of course. It’s precisely our ability to share ideas that allows us to see things as divine. But this can also encourage a certain kind of blindness. Not, perhaps, the kind of blindness that makes us see everything in the cosmos as fundamentally humanoid. Rather, when we’re under the spell of our big ideas—rapt in the face of the superhuman or inhuman forces that have captured our attention—we can forget about the fact that it’s our flesh-and-bone bodies, bringing us into contact. We run the risk, in other words, of abstraction—abstracting ourselves out of ourselves. I do wonder if the excitement of finding something like love in animal life will drive us to make certain kinds of abstractions.

Think, for example, of how naming or citing instances of love, or grief, in human life can sometimes give us a reason to stop asking questions. Love and grief, as we know them, are powerful things. These terms name intense emotional states, intense passions. Love and grief can make us do crazy things. And they can, sometimes, explain why a person appears to in the thrall of some incomprehensible, mad fit of passion. Love and grief have a certain kind of explanatory power in human life. There are moments when, in human social interaction, it’s entirely appropriate to declare, “I don’t need to explain myself, I’m in love!” Or, “leave her alone, she’s grieving.” There is, in these explanations, an almost implied obligation to stop asking questions, to stop being curious, to leave this person alone with her emotions.

I think King’s use of these categories can have the positive effect of making us develop more respect for (and, perhaps, awe of) animal life. But if it doesn’t remain just a little bit bizarre and inappropriate to speak about something like (for instance) dog grief, I do worry that we might stop seeking alternative explanations for the complex range of dog behaviors, or to stop asking questions about them. It may be the case, for instance, that my (hypothetical) dog loves me with all of her heart and soul and might. Or it may be the case that she is comfortably dependent upon me to feed and walk her, and realizes that treating me with a certain set of social graces ensures that this will happen with regularity. I don’t think it’s useless—in this case—for me operate as if there is love somewhere between us. But I think it’s also important for me, still, to maintain some degree of uncertainty. If she is in dog love, it may not be in our best interest if I become too confident that I understand what this means.

Beatrice Marovich is a writer who studies theories of divinity. She’s currently working on a PhD at Drew University’s Graduate Division of Religion in Madison, NJ.