Orcas and Other-Than-Human Grief

There has been an outpouring of media attention to the grieving orca who carried her deceased calf on her nose for seventeen days. The mother orca lost her infant thirty minutes after her birth in the waters near San Juan Island, Washington and refused to let her go, even as she fell behind the pod. Her calf’s weight caused her to slow down, as did the need to periodically dive deep to retrieve her body. Members of the mother’s kinship group responded to her plight, taking turns supporting the baby whale.

Alongside public empathy elicited by the orcas’ display of collective mourning, marine biologists and conservationists understand that the experience of the mother whale, whom they call Tahlequah, or J-35, reflects a crisis within the southern-resident killer whale population, the smallest of four colonies inhabiting the northwestern portion of the North American Pacific Ocean. For the last twenty years, the orcas have had only a twenty-five percent successful birth rate.

Both the orcas’ grief and scientists’ concern with species extinction invite a broader discussion about animals and loss. The mourning rituals of elephants — like whales, charismatic megafauna considered to be worthy of empathy — are relatively well known. Less so the grief of animals domesticated and bred for human use. Captive animals exist in a state of constant mourning for their kin. The dairy industry is a case in point: it is dependent upon forced reproduction and the repetitive, constant disruption of the mother-child bond, with mother cows wailing for calves taken from them soon after birth and auctioned, usually with a few inches of umbilical cord still intact and dripping with uterine fluid, as veal.

One of the obstacles to empathizing with animals is the claim that injustice to humans must, before all else, be redressed. This claim suggests that it is only possible to care about one thing at a time, as though empathy were in limited supply. In her study of the case of the gorilla, Harambe, at the Cincinnati Zoo (“Murder and Mattering in Harambe’s House,” 2018), political scientist Claire Jean Kim advocates a practice of mutual avowal which recognizes the interconnectedness of racialization and animalization, throwing neither the gorilla nor the African American child who fell into his enclosure under the bus. In other words, no one group is stripped of subjectivity in order to elevate the other to human status, an ever-shifting category that serves to exclude and objectify those outside its imagined perimeters.

Kim reflects on the anti-black racism that mediated the Harambe story while also grappling with the loss that structured Harambe’s lived experience on its own terms. She traces the chain of human brutality that was his legacy at least as far back as his grandparents’ capture; since gorillas will give their lives fighting to protect their young, capturing a baby gorilla frequently requires killing the entire adult population of a particular group. Kim points further to the captive breeding program, which subjected Harambe himself as well as generations before him “to the creation, breaking up, and reshuffling of gorilla ‘families’ over the years with an eye to maximizing conservation goals and zoo profitability.”

In addition to the “first things first” argument, another critique of empathy for animals’ kinship bonds is that it reflects sentimentality and anthropomorphism. But in fact, it is natural to interpret what looks and sounds like sociability as sociability, just as it is intuitive to understand the expression of grief and loss as grief and loss. The radical projection in operation is the contrary: that animals do not suffer, despite what they show us. In a context wherein animals’ yearnings are anxiously disavowed, the mother orca balancing her dead calf on her nose, refusing to let her go, summons us to reassess our assumptions.

Scientific studies attesting to animals’ sociability and familial bonding are abundant and widely available. Proof of kinship structures, mental capacities, empathy, altruism and mourning rituals encourage a more complex and nuanced appreciation of the co-species with whom we share the earth. Literature provides yet another source of “evidence.” Indeed, for South African novelist J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, fiction is uniquely effective in inspiring empathy since it requires that the reader enter the other’s consciousness. In Elizabeth Costello (2003), Costello observes of Sultan, one of the chimpanzees upon whom German psychologist Wolfgang Köhler experimented: “The question that truly occupies him, as it occupies the rat and the cat and every other animal trapped in the hell of the laboratory or the zoo, is: Where is home, and how do I get there?” Likewise, Brazilian author João Guimarães Rosa attends to the melancholic bellowing of oxen separated from their kin and driven to the cattle trains heading for slaughter: “And the worst of all is the stampede of homesick cattle. A yearning bull when it gets out of hand turns into a wild animal. I find that homesickness in an animal is even worse than in people….” (“The Little Dust-Brown Donkey”).

Philosopher James Stanescu introduces an additional genre of animal-related grief  – one that is experienced by humans. He hypothesizes the experience of walking down a grocery store’s meat aisle: “And suddenly, the scene in front of you shifts. No longer are you seeing normal products of everyday existence. In front of you is the violent reality of animal flesh on display: the bones, fat, muscles, and tissue of beings who were once alive but who have been slaughtered for the parts of their body. This scene overtakes you, and suddenly you tear up. Grief, sadness, and shock overwhelm you, perhaps only for a second. And for a moment you mourn, you mourn for all the nameless animals in front of you”  (“Species Trouble: Judith Butler, Mourning and the Precarious Lives of Animals,” 2012).

Stanescu observes that we avoid grieving for animals in order to function and that even the most committed animal advocates must regularly engage in disavowal. Like Stanescu, Kim reflects on the impulse to recoil from “all of the grief and loss of being ‘animal’ in a human world, the incomprehensible, interminable record of ‘irreparable harms.’ It is worth doing almost anything to suppress this terror.” Will the empathy stirred by the grieving southern-resident mother orca instigate better listening to what animals tell us? Or will the outpouring of feeling for this specific individual override and obscure the potentially life-changing scene in Stanescu’s meat aisle?

Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond is Associate Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature and Luso-Brazilian Studies at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of numerous publications on the legacies of African enslavement and critical animal studies. Her forthcoming memoir, “Home Sick,” probes caregiving, dying, the medical-industrial complex, Islamophobia and the commodification of (human and nonhuman) animals.


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