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Q&A with Barbara King, author of How Animals Grieve

 How Animals Grieve is an important book about the inner lives of animals.

In April, author Barbara King was kind enough to answer of a few of my questions about the book and what inspired her to write it and how people have reacted to it so far.

If you haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, please add it to your “must read” list.


What inspired you to write this book?

It was the animal themselves who inspired me, as I gradually began truly to see the grief that may sear a survivor when death steals a loved one away. Elephants, apes, and dolphins, horses, rabbits, cats, dogs, some birds—depending on individual personalities and circumstances, all of these creatures (and more) tell us through their actions how profoundly they feel their lives.

In writing two of my earlier books, I started to find hints of animal mourning in the scientific literature. So I settled down to answer in How Animals Grieve the questions that compelled me the most, about the scope of animal grief, what does and doesn’t credibly count as grief, what animals’ grief means for our connection with other species.

I was particularly moved by the story of the two ducks Kohl and Harper. What story moved you the most?

Kohl and Harper opened my eyes wide. These two ducks, fragile in body and spirit after their rescue from a foie gras factory, formed an unshakable bond at Farm Sanctuary in New York State. Fast friends, they spend their days together. When Kohl was euthanized to spare him untreatable pain, Harper was allowed to watch. The only word for his response is “heartbroken,” not only on that specific day but for weeks. He never did recover. How many of us think about ducks in this light, as experiencing such bonds of friendship and loss? I hadn’t, but I do now.

An equally moving story for me was about Willa and Carson, two Siamese cat sisters who lived together for 14 years, at the home of good friends of mine. The sisters ate and slept together, enjoying sun patches and warm blankets as a pair. Carson developed some health problems, and one night was settled into a warm incubator at the vet’s office for treatment. She never woke up. At first, Willa seemed mildly distressed. Then she began seek out her sister in all their favorite places: as she roamed the house, she would pass by one of those favorite places and let out a keening sound. She was terribly sad, for a long time.

In each case, I find solace in thinking not just of the sadness, but also of the strong love that linked Kohl and Harper, and Willa and Carson—and knowing that in each case, loving humans surrounded the survivors and gave them as much comfort as they could.

Have readers contributed stories as well that you could share?

Oh yes. I’m slowly reading and responding to emails, because it’s an honor when people want to tell me about their own animals. This topic matters to people who love animals.

I will share a dog story from Cristina Chuecos who sent it to me by email last month. For almost a year now, Cristina’s 8 year old shih tzu, Milou, has been grieving for his friend Cobi, the older dog in the household who died at age 14 The two lived together for 7 years. Once, when Cobi needed surgery and was away from home, Milou’s distress was so great he would only eat when hand-fed.

When Cobi went into kidney and heart failure, his human family knew it was time to help him. Thus they left home, for the vet’s office, with Cobi and came home without. For a few days, Milou looked for Cobi but then he underwent what Chuecos calls “a deep personality” change from his usual upbeat demeanor, a change that persists. “Milou now spends his days sitting in the same spot, looking in the same direction, as if he was looking out a window,” Chuecos wrote me. “We have a three floor townhouse, and in every floor he sits in the same area, looking at the same spot. Occasionally he whimpers or growls. He is has been standing alert for hours at a time, looking at the same spot. I recently moved his bed to that area, so that at least he can lie down, and he has started taking breaks in what appears to be his watch. He only relaxes completely when we bring him up to lay down next to us on the sofa.”

Chuecos detailed for me a number of things she has tried in her efforts to help Milou, who is lucky to have such a loving and supportive caretaker. Milou’s sadness has perhaps eased somewhat, and I hope he will regain some of his previous joy in life.

You talk about the importance of allowing time for animals to grieve their dead companions. What additional recommendations would you offer to humans to help animals when one of their companions moves on?

I’m so impressed by the sanctuaries, farms, and zoos that encourage animal survivors to spend a bit of time with the body when a relative or friend dies. That’s a very enlightened approach. Although from my research I found that this helps only some survivors, it’s definitely worth a try. In terms of our companion animals, many—but again not all– respond with a fairly sudden uplift of emotion if a younger animal is brought into the home, after an appropriate time for quiet sadness. This strategy won’t be practical for everyone, but even occasional visits from “a therapy companion” to a grieving animal may help. Love and time are the best emotional medicine, as they are for people too. The thing to remember is that animals vary individual by individual, just as we do—some may not grieve at all.

What animals did you wish you had covered for the book but simply ran out of time or space or both?

The study of animal grief is so new that credible cases—those either published in the literature or offered by astute “animal people”–are still relatively few. I’m hoping that How Animals Grieve may help change that: a database of examples is now emerging due in part to the book and in large part also to scientists who more and more record animals’ response to death at their field or captive research sites. That said, I have an article to come out in the July edition of Scientific American magazine (on the stands in June) that includes a stunning example of giraffe grief that I became aware of after the book went to print.

As people become enlightened about animal grief, do you see any positive developments regarding animal welfare in general?

Yes, I do. As we come to know that many other animals love and grieve, we will, I believe, see them as creatures whose lives matter in their own right. How could we not, then, work to end the practice of using chimpanzees, cats, rabbits or other animals in biomedical laboratories? Of asking dolphins and whales to endure life in small tanks and to entertain us in shows? Of eating animals without a thought to the cow who gives birth but grieves when her babies are taken away for slaughter time and time again? We’re in the midst of a sea change in how we think and act towards animals.

How has the writing of this book changed your own relationship with animals?

I’ve always felt close to certain individual monkeys or apes whom I have observed or filmed or spent time with, and with our own (very many!) rescued cats. Now my sense of connection to animals has rippled out in an unexpected way. The tree in our front yard frequently hosts a raucous group of crows, and from what I have learned about corvids I now realize when they chatter, they’re expressing something (I’ve no idea what specifically) about their tight network of bonds. And during the writing of this book I stopped eating chicken and turkey, adding to my already-in-place practice of eating no beef, lamb, veal, or pork.

What’s your next writing project?

An exciting change in my life is underway: I’ve become a part-time freelance science writer. This year and next year, and perhaps beyond that, I am teaching only half-time in order to immerse in more writing. The College of William and Mary, where I’ve taught Anthropology for 25 years now, has been supportive of my efforts at public engagement through science. Now, I have the best of both worlds: in fall semester, I’m paid to teach a fabulous group of undergraduates about biological anthropology and primate behavior, and during spring semester through the summer, I’m making a go of it as a freelancer. At present, I’m busy with articles for science and literary magazines, and just barely starting a new book about animals, with a chapter underway about octopus. It’s too early to say more, but I’m blown away by octopus cognition and emotion!

barbara king

About Barbara King

Barbara J. King has taught Anthropology at the College of William and Mary since 1988. Originally focused on primate studies through her observations of wild monkeys in Kenya and captive apes, she now takes up intelligence and emotion in a wide variety of animals. She writes for NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog and the TLS. In Gloucester County, Virginia, she lives with her husband and many cats. Besides cat rescue, she enjoys attending her daughter’s college choral concerts and reading as much fiction as possible. Her website is

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Book Review: The Secret World of Red Wolves: The Fight To Save North America’s Other Wolf

The Secret World of Red Wolves
Considered functionally extinct in 1980, the much-misunderstood red wolf (Canis rufus) has made a tenuous but promising comeback. In The Secret World of Red Wolves, T. Delene Beeland relates the fascinating saga of the red wolf. In researching her book, Beeland followed Fish and Wildlife biologists into the field, crawling through blackberry thorns and dense stands of myrtle while swatting at mosquitoes and gnats in the hot, humid environment of North Carolina’s Albemarle Peninsula. Her interest and firsthand involvement in the project makes The Secret World of Red Wolves the wonderful book that it is. Beeland’s presence is on every page, and in a pleasantly personal yet scientific manner. We come to know the red wolf through the eyes of an objective writer, one who has the ability to deliver the details in both a factual and enthralling way.

The red wolf, a smaller version of the better-known grey wolf, once inhabited much of the northeastern part of this country, including Louisiana, Texas, the Carolinas, Florida, and Alabama. Devastation of its environment, as well as the wolf-loathing mentality brought to this country by early settlers, caused a drastic reduction in their population. Once the red wolf population was depleted, coyotes moved in from the west, taking over the niche of their larger cousins. The two canids began to interbreed, and the resultant hybridization has become a serious threat to the integrity of the red wolf species.

Coyotes and red wolves are often mistaken for each other, and the hybrids are even more difficult to identify. Because of the morphological similarities between Canis rufus and coyotes, there remains much controversy over the genealogical origin of the red wolf. Is it a subspecies of the grey wolf or a species of its own? Is Canis rufus derived from its liaisons with Canis latrans? Or is the red wolf perhaps part of a lineage that led to the coyote of today?

The Secret World of Red Wolves pursues these questions in depth, as well as many others pertinent to Canis rufus. The text is divided into three sections: the current red wolf situation, the animal’s difficult past, and, finally, its guarded but hopeful future. By beginning with close-ups of today, including Beeland’s forage into the brush to locate litters of whimpering, month-old pups, readers become invested in both the four-legged and the two-legged characters, as well as in the red wolf recovery project. When we play catch up with the history of the story, we’re already aware of the trajectory the Fish and Wildlife Service must take to reverse the damage done to this fragile species. And when we read of the future, we understand what challenges will be faced, including the continued struggle to prevent hybridization, the loss of wolves due to hunting and trapping, the continued degradation of habitat due to climate change, as well as the ever-important goal of garnering public acceptance for the maligned red wolf.

Beeland lays it all out there, the struggles and successes of what continues to be an innovative and determined effort to save an endangered species, and we finish her book feeling something of an expert ourselves. Beeland’s hope in writing this thorough and relatable text is, in her words, “…that future scientists and citizens will see fit to conserve what we have left of Canis rufus as a living reminder of both what was and what still can be.”

The Secret World of Red Wolves holds much potential in helping Beeland’s vision come true. The work tells a tale most of us, even those who consider ourselves environmental enthusiasts, know little about. For the first time, we have at hand a comprehensive and up-to-date resource that serves to enlighten the world on the precarious status of the red wolf. And once enlightened, we can do our part to ensure the continued protection of this rare and unique species.

The Secret World of Red Wolves: The Fight to Save North America’s Other Wolf
By T. Delene Beeland
The University of North Carolina Press, June 2013

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Book Review: Penguins: Natural History and Conservation

penguins book cover

Let me preface this review by saying that I am a longtime fan of co-author Dee Boersma’s work.

Years ago, I was part of a volunteer project at Punta Tombo, assisting Dee and her team with a penguin census. It was a week that changed the direction of my life in ways I couldn’t possibly imagine at the time. Dee has spent more than 20 years at Punta Tumbo researching Magellanic penguins — and helped to found the Penguin Sentinels organization.

So now that you know of my affinity for penguins and those who work to protect them, on with the review.

This is a reference book at its core.

It provides an in-depth description (and plenty of photos) of each of the 17 penguin species — from Gentoos to Rockhoppers to the Emperor penguins that were made famous in March of the Penguins. You’ll learn how to identify each, as well as its breeding habits, range, prey, and predators. (Did you know the Emperor penguin can dive up to 500 meters and hold its breath for 23 minutes?)

Yet even though this book is chock full of penguin details, such as counts and feeding habits and population trends, there is plenty drama between the lines.

For example, in the African Penguin section there are two photos of the Halifax Island colony in Namibia. In the photo taken in the 1930s, the colony is filled with penguins. In the 2004 photo, only a handful of penguins can be seen. The African Penguins are in big trouble, due to oil spills and overfishing.

I didn’t realize until reading this book the extent to which penguin eggs were once collected by locals. And penguin guano was also a target (which some species very much need for their nests).

Not all penguin species are declining. The Gentoos appear to be growing in number (though it appears that most species are indeed in various stages of decline).

Ultimately, this book is a call to action. For example, if the human demand for seafood ended tomorrow, the fishing trawlers would have a reason to be out in the oceans, scooping up the penguins’ food supply (as well as the penguins themselves).

Climate change is a more insidious challenge simply because it’s not so easily combatted or its impact fully understood. All we do know is that the waters are warming and food sources are moving or declining. And penguins must adapt to these changes or fade away.

Some species, sadly, are fading away.

If you’re passionate about penguins and the oceans, this is a must-have book. You’ll find yourself referring to it again and again, as I have.

Penguins: Natural History and Conservation

Pablo Garcia Borboroglu (Editor), P. Dee Boersma (Editor)


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Book Review: The Hidden Life of Wolves

Hidden Life of Wolves

Jim and Jamie Dutcher
National Geographic Press
$25, 210 pages

For six years they shared a 25-acre enclosure at the base of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains with a pack of wolves. Their office was a Mongolian yurt; their sleeping quarters a canvas tent. The path to the outhouse required frequent snow-shoveling for below-zero excursions.This was the life of Jim and Jamie Dutcher, award-winning documentary filmmakers. Their new book, “The Hidden Life of Wolves,” is the culminating portrayal of their experiences.

Although “The Hidden Life of Wolves” is an oversized book and contains hundreds of the Dutchers’ compelling photographs, as well as maps and illustrations, it is not a coffee-table book. The text contains an extensive study of wolves, both those inside and out of the enclosure, comparable in depth to Barry Lopez’s “Of Wolves and Men.”

“The Hidden Life of Wolves” details all aspects of wolf life, their social structure, hunting techniques and body language, as well as human-influenced issues, including the Yellowstone and central Idaho wolf reintroductions of the mid-1990s. Readers explore the similarities between the eradication of wolves in the 1800s and the current profusion of hunting and trapping, made legal when wolves were dropped from the Endangered Species List in 2011. Solutions to wolf problems, including livestock depredation, are explored. The Little Red Riding Hood myth is thoroughly debunked. There are references to many authorities, including Aldo Leopold, Gordon Haber, L. David Mech and Carter Niemeyer. The Dutchers suggest the wolf “may be the greatest shape-shifter in the animal kingdom,” acknowledging the vast disparity in our opinions of Canis lupus. Through intensive observation of their hand-raised pack, the Dutchers gained intimate knowledge of the inner workings of wolves. Their conclusion was that their subjects were extremely social and complex animals that were “neither demon, nor deity, nor data. “Readers come to know the Sawtooth wolves personally. Kamots is the benevolent leader. Without undue force, this striking gray wolf maintains order among his peers. Littermate Lakota is larger than Kamots yet remains at the bottom of the pecking order, often harassed by the other wolves. Younger brother Matsi comes to Lakota’s rescue, blocking blows from offending wolves. Amani, the adoring uncle to all pups in the pack, endures onslaughts of sharp puppy teeth.

These and other wolves are brought to life as they interact with each other and with the Dutchers, who record the wolves with camera and sound device, their hearts never quite out of the picture but at a distance that allows for an objective view.

Published by National Geographic and with a foreword by Robert Redford, “The Hidden Life of Wolves” is a richly layered work that speaks to the intricate and controversial relationship between wolves and humans.

While some see the wolf as a scapegoat for a litany of evils, the Dutchers maintain, “More than wolves themselves, it is our relationship with them that needs to be managed.” Their aptly titled book is a valuable guide for this process.

— Beckie Elgin

This review appeared in The Oregonian on April 27, 2013

photo from Living with Wolves
photo from Living with Wolves
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Q&A with Mindy Mejia, author of The Dragon Keeper

Q&A with Mindy Mejia, author of The Dragon Keeper

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Dragon Keeper, and how long did it take you to write it? Did you have a special routine or place in which you wrote?

 A: I was on a business trip in London in December of 2006 when I read an article in the paper about a Komodo dragon reproducing via parthenogenesis at the Chester Zoo. Since it was so close to Christmas, the article made a lot of overt comparisons to the Virgin Mary, and the tone of the entire piece was very light. It was clearly intended as entertainment. I immediately ripped the article out of the paper and read it obsessively in my hotel room over the next few days. I knew there was a much bigger story there, but I had no idea it could be a novel. A few weeks later, I was watching The Daily Show back at home when they aired a clip from the Chester Zoo. The dragons had hatched, and one of the zookeepers told the cameraman that it was the best day of her life. Jon Stewart made some joke about how pathetic this woman was, and in that moment I knew I had to write this story. I was fascinated by this woman, by the revelation that animals had begun reproducing without mates, and by the idea of a love story between a zookeeper and a dragon.

I wrote the book during my last two years in the Hamline MFA program, and it became my thesis. Since I have a full-time job, I wrote mostly during my lunch breaks and before classes at night. After I graduated, I revised the book two more times in the two years that followed, while working on other projects as well.

Q: Have you ever worked at a zoo?

 A: No, I never have. My zookeeper abilities don’t extend much beyond feeding a cat. My work life has been largely spent in corporations, and that’s the employer that ultimately came to the page. The Zoo of America is, of course, completely fictional, and I began thinking of it as corporate America, as in: “How would corporate America behave if it owned a zoo?” The actual zoos I was lucky enough to visit while researching the book were conscientious, humane institutions that bear little resemblance to the Zoo of America.

Q: Are you trying to say that zoos are a bad institution?

A: I didn’t want the book to be strictly pro-zoo or anti-zoo, but I did want to raise questions that we don’t always think about when we visit zoos. As the planet’s current conquering species, what is our responsibility to the other creatures who live here? We’ve come a long way from the roadside menageries, but do we have the right to capture and display animals for entertainment or education? What if, like Komodos, the species is losing its natural habitat? There are a lot of issues to consider, and I hope I’ve been able to introduce some of those questions for readers.

Q: What sort of research did you do to write the book?

A: Although I would have loved to travel to Indonesia, my budget dictated that most research had to be conducted through reading. Because Westerners first encountered the Komodo dragon relatively recently, there aren’t a great deal of academic studies available. I read the ones I could find, including Walter Auffenberg’s definitive 1981 book based on his research while living on Komodo Island.

I also wanted to get a sense of zoo life, without getting too focused on the habits of any one particular zoo. I visited the Memphis Zoo in 2007 and was fortunate enough to interview the curator of reptiles as well as both keepers who looked after their two Komodo dragons. At one point I mentioned Auffenberg’s comment that early expeditioners thought the dragons were deaf because they didn’t react to gunshots. The curator had never heard that and seemed incredulous of the fact. Later he showed me why. When we were behind the Komodo exhibit, he opened the top half of the door that led inside and said, “Jeff!” Jeff, the eight-foot-long Komodo, immediately turned 180 degrees and barreled for the door. The curator and I had to retract our heads and slam the door shut before Jeff could rear up over it into the hallway. “He can hear,” the curator said, grinning.

Q: Is parthenogenesis really possible?

A: Yes, it is, and there are documented cases of parthenogenesis in Komodo dragons. When I happened to find that article about Flora, the Komodo at the Chester Zoo who reproduced via parthenogenesis in 2006, I was immediately fascinated by the idea of sexual animals reproducing without mates. In the course of The Dragon Keeper, we learn that Jata’s offspring are even more unique than Flora’s. What happens with Jata specifically has never been known to occur in Komodos, but it seemed to me like the next logical evolutionary step, although I’m as much at a loss to explain it as Meg and everyone else in the book. To me, it’s still somewhat of a miracle.

Q: Are there really Komodo dragons like Jata?

A: Yes! It was very important to me to portray Komodo dragons as accurately as I possibly could. I researched the species extensively, and in several of the studies I found references to a Komodo dragon named Bubchen who lived in the Frankfurt Zoo in the early twentieth century. By all accounts, she was an extraordinary animal who became completely acclimated to living with humans. Many of Jata’s behaviors are based on what I could find out about Bubchen, and I couldn’t resist including a small tribute to her in the book as well.

Q: Would you describe The Dragon Keeper as a love story?

A: Certainly Meg is embroiled in a love triangle for much of the story, but ultimately I’ve always seen this as a love story between Meg and Jata. Sometimes the perception is that a human-animal bond is simpler than relationships between humans, but I’ve always thought it raises many compelling questions. Why does this person choose to give their affection to an animal instead of someone within their own species? And then you have to look at the animals’ side of the relationship. Are they even capable of returning affection? What are the circumstances of their lives that have brought them into close contact with humans instead of others of their own species? In Jata’s case, you also have to understand that she’s an alpha predator, and her instincts will always be at war with any attachment she is capable of developing on Meg.

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