By Lynda V. Mapes
2 August 2018

(The Seattle Times) – Is it her grief … or ours?

As she carried her dead calf for the ninth straight day, Tahlequah the mother orca whale has captured the world’s attention.

People have responded to her plight with poems. Paintings. Songs. Cascades of phone calls, emails and social media posts — sharing searing, intensely personal moments of grief in their own lives. Miscarriages, bereavement, the bone-deep sadness of loss.

No one should be surprised, say experts who have observed animal behavior and know in their own lives how an animal’s apparent grief can trigger, and even sometimes help us work through, our own.

Barbara King, professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary and author of the book “How Animals Grieve” (University of Chicago, 2013) has for years documented animals and grieving behavior, whether in giraffes, gorillas, dolphins, monkeys or even a human working through grief with an animal.

In Tahlequah, also known as J35, she sees nothing different.

“She is laboring. She is using this incredible energy, she is not acting in a way she normally would in terms of self-care,” she said.

And a human response to her is only to be expected.

“We risk a lot by denying our connection with other animals,” she said. […]

“There is this really quick jump to interpreting this behavior as grief,” said Kaeli Swift, a doctoral candidate at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington. “There are lots of things animals do that are easy to understand through the lens of what we do ourselves. … We have to be cautious about not projecting about how this makes us feel as to what is going on with this orca.” […]

Aerial view of an orca mother named Tahlequah, also known as J35, on the the tenth straight day of carrying her dead calf, 3 August 2018. Photo: Michael Weiss / University of Exeter / Center for Whale Research

But, Swift said, it is not necessary to believe animals grieve to be moved by the sight of Tahlequah carrying her dead baby day after day.

If anything, she hopes it galvanizes people to act on the fact that this is a population of whales that has dwindled to only 75 animals and has just lost another calf.

“The sad part of this story should not be that she is sad,” Swift said. “It should be that our critically endangered pod of whales lost another calf, that is the take-home message that people need to be galvanized on.

“The fact that this pod has lost a calf, and that it is coming at such a critical time, that is an objective thing we can agree on, that is an objective fact. My hope would be that we wouldn’t require animals to experience the world like we do to have compassion for them and to want to protect them.”

Tahlequah has brought attention to the plight of orca whales in a way no task force or scientific paper can.

“She has made the most powerful, eloquent statement of any of us by far,” said historian Jason Colby, of the University of Victoria and author of the new book Orca, How we came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator (Oxford, 2018). [more]

A mother orca’s dead calf and the grief felt around the world

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