FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

Weekend Edition
January 18, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
Star Wars Revisited: One More Nightmare From Trump
John Davis
“Weather Terrorism:” a National Emergency
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Sometimes an Establishment Hack is Just What You Need
Joshua Frank
Montana Public Schools Block Pro-LGBTQ Websites
Louisa Willcox
Sky Bears, Earth Bears: Finding and Losing True North
Robert Fisk
Bernie Sanders, Israel and the Middle East
Robert Fantina
Pompeo, the U.S. and Iran
David Rosen
The Biden Band-Aid: Will Democrats Contain the Insurgency?
Nick Pemberton
Human Trafficking Should Be Illegal
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
Did Donald Get The Memo? Trump’s VA Secretary Denounces ‘Veteran as Victim’ Stereotyping
Andrew Levine
The Tulsi Gabbard Factor
John W. Whitehead
The Danger Within: Border Patrol is Turning America into a Constitution-Free Zone
Dana E. Abizaid
Kafka’s Grave: a Pilgrimage in Prague
Rebecca Lee
Punishment Through Humiliation: Justice For Sexual Assault Survivors
Dahr Jamail
A Planet in Crisis: The Heat’s On Us
John Feffer
Trump Punts on Syria: The Forever War is Far From Over
Dave Lindorff
Shut Down the War Machine!
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: Student Voices of the Los Angeles Education Revolt  
Mark Ashwill
The Metamorphosis of International Students Into Honorary US Nationalists: a View from Viet Nam
Ramzy Baroud
The Moral Travesty of Israel Seeking Arab, Iranian Money for its Alleged Nakba
Ron Jacobs
Allen Ginsberg Takes a Trip
Jake Johnston
Haiti by the Numbers
Binoy Kampmark
No-Confidence Survivor: Theresa May and Brexit
Victor Grossman
Red Flowers for Rosa and Karl
Cesar Chelala
President Donald Trump’s “Magical Realism”
Christopher Brauchli
An Education in Fraud
Paul Bentley
The Death Penalty for Canada’s Foreign Policy?
David Swanson
Top 10 Reasons Not to Love NATO
Louis Proyect
Breaking the Left’s Gay Taboo
Kani Xulam
A Saudi Teen and Freedom’s Shining Moment
Ralph Nader
Bar Barr or Regret this Dictatorial Attorney General
Jessicah Pierre
A Dream Deferred: MLK’s Dream of Economic Justice is Far From Reality
Edward J. Martin
Glossip v. Gross, the Eighth Amendment and the Torture Court of the United States
Chuck Collins
Shutdown Expands the Ranks of the “Underwater Nation”
Paul Edwards
War Whores
Peter Crowley
Outsourcing Still Affects Us: This and AI Worker Displacement Need Not be Inevitable
Alycee Lane
Trump’s Federal Government Shutdown and Unpaid Dishwashers
Martha Rosenberg
New Questions About Ritual Slaughter as Belgium Bans the Practice
Nicky Reid
Panarchy as Full Spectrum Intersectionality
Jill Richardson
Hollywood’s Fat Shaming is Getting Old
Nyla Ali Khan
A Woman’s Wide Sphere of Influence Within Folklore and Social Practices
Richard Klin
Dial Israel: Amos Oz, 1939-2018
David Rovics
Of Triggers and Bullets
David Yearsley
Bass on Top: the Genius of Paul Chambers
Elliot Sperber
Eddie Spaghetti’s Alphabet
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail