The grieving monkey

Jun
3
2016
by
thayne
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The papers acted like it was a revelation: the first example, they said, of a wild animal displaying grief.

A female snub-nosed monkey was weak and bleeding from the nose. Her partner, the alpha male of the monkey group, warned the other monkeys of their group away and began touching her hand tenderly, before climbing up a tree with her, where he groomed and cared for her some more, before she fell to the ground, cracking her head on a rock.

Her partner spent her final hour with her, gently touching and grooming her, and after she was dead he stayed by her side for five minutes, touching her and pulling gently at her hand, as if trying to revive her.

The papers acted like it was a revelation: the first example, they said, of a wild animal displaying grief.

A female snub-nosed monkey was weak and bleeding from the nose. Her partner, the alpha male of the monkey group, warned the other monkeys of their group away and began touching her hand tenderly, before climbing up a tree with her, where he groomed and cared for her some more, before she fell to the ground, cracking her head on a rock.

Her partner spent her final hour with her, gently touching and grooming her, and after she was dead he stayed by her side for five minutes, touching her and pulling gently at her hand, as if trying to revive her.

Although he joined the others of his group, which sat by a river, he continuously looked back to where she lay and then returned with his group the following day to the spot where she’d died.

This entire scene in the Shaanxi province in China had been witnessed and carefully documented by a team from Kyoto University in Japan. Scientists and animal biologists spent days debating over the ‘evolutionary origins’ of these ‘mourning behaviors’ and their purpose for animals, the harder nosed among them reporting it as a simple case of ‘confusion’ among the alpha monkey.

Complex emotions

Ask any pet owner or kindly farmer, and they will consider their animals as conscious beings capable of a range of complex emotions—joy, grief, playfulness, sulking, even embarrassment.

However, to the scientific community, an animal is still perceived as nothing much more than a robot with an array of chemical processes, without the ability to register much more than the crudest pain or fear—certainly none of the more complicated human feelings such as excitement, boredom, annoyance, anger or suspicion.

Mark S. Blumberg, of the University of Iowa, numbers among the most vocal proponents of the behaviorist view, claiming that the idea that animals process emotion is pure fiction and ‘anthropomorphic.’

A variation of this theme is the suggestion that animals have a kind of ‘animal consciousness’ that is far less sophisticated than ours.

But these ideas fly in the face of the mounting evidence that humans are not the only species to display grief or to mourn their dead and therefore to display the capacity for empathy and compassion. Recently, scientists observed as captive chimpanzees held a kind of funeral for one of their number, and crows also demonstrated mourning behaviour.

Similar brains

The standard scientific attitudes are also being challenged with the advent of sophisticated brain-imaging technology.

In studying the brains of both animals and humans, scientists have discovered remarkable similarities in the emotional biology between species. Increasingly, they have come to believe that animals have sentience—the ability to have a conscious experience, to compare and understand experience, to have an internal representation of what is going on in their lives— in effect, to know that they know.

At the forefront of this underexplored area of research is Jaak Panksepp, professor emeritus of the department of psychology at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio.

According to Panksepp, aside from the core emotions which sit in the more primitive portion of the brain, the ‘higher brain centers’ lie in the newer sections of the brain, the ‘neo-mammalian’ cerebral cortex.

It is here that animals, like us humans, show evidence of sophisticated secondary ‘social’ emotions: separation distress; sexual attraction and lust; social attachment and bonding; and play.

These secondary emotions are the more complicated variety as they require reflection and choice—a weighing up of the effects of different actions.

Get me out of here

Without human speech, animals cannot prove to us that they think the same way we do about a certain situation. But those animals that can talk may offer us a tiny window into the animal soul. Psychologist Irene Pepperberg once owned an African grey parrot called Alex, a species known for their ability to use cognitive language and also for their psychic ability.

Alex needed a lung operation but when Pepperberg turned to leave after handing him to their veterinarian, Alex cried after her, “Come here. I love you. I’m sorry. I want to go back.”

Like a child, he felt that he was being abandoned and, more to the point, that it was his fault.

Of course, discovering that animals have complex emotions like grieving and abandonment presents human beings with a number of complex moral questions.

As Jeffrey M. Masson, co-author of When Elephants Weep, once wrote: “What are the implications of finding that animals lead emotional lives? Must we change our relationships with them? . . . Should we cease eating animals who have complex social lives, are capable of passionate relations with one another and desperately love their children? And if we are going to continue to eat them, aren’t we morally obligated to only eat meat from animals that have been humanely reared and killed?”

Perhaps our most important lesson as beings tortured by reasoning and choice is to learn from an animal’s simpler emotional moral code. Unconditional love comes naturally to a dog or cat; animals aren’t ambivalent or repressed about their emotions.

As animal trainer Temple Grandin once said, there is no such thing as a love–hate relationship in the animal kingdom. “If an animal loves you, he loves you no matter what. He doesn’t care what you look like or how much money you make.”

thayne

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