This is a true story:
In 2006, two ducks were rescued from a foie gras factory in New York and taken to a farm sanctuary.
The two, named Harper and Kohl, were in bad shape physically. Harper was blind in one eye and Kohl’s legs were severely impaired by untreated fractures. Both ducks were extremely apprehensive around humans.
The ducks were rehabilitated and allowed to roam about the sanctuary — for four years, they stuck together, not really bonding with other animals. Where one went, the other followed. Both of them exhibited much less fear of humans over time.
Kohl’s gimpy legs finally gave out on him; the staff made the difficult decision to euthanize.
This process was carried out in front of Harper. It was hoped that by witnessing the passing, Harper might have some benefit of understanding.
After Kohl passed, Harper approached and attempted to nudge Kohl into wakefulness.
When nothing happened, Harper laid next to Kohl, resting his head and neck on the other duck’s head. Harper remained there for some time.
For two months, Harper appeared changed: he was again nervous around humans and never bonded with another duck. He finally passed away.
Was he in mourning, was he involved in a grief process?
Anthropologist Barbara J. King, who chronicled the story of Harper and Kohl, thought so. King, now a retired professor from William and Mary, has explored animal grief behavior and is convinced of its existence.
And she is not alone in the scientific community, although there is much debate about the topic.
In fact, wrangling over cognitive/emotional abilities of animals goes back as far as the original interactions between man and beast. But it really materialized in full throat in Charles Darwin’s time. With the appearance of his “On the Origin of Species” and “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,” Darwin set the stage for vociferous scientific inquiry.
When Darwin posited that humans share universal emotional expression and, to a lesser extent, animals do the same, those who opposed that viewpoint organized behind the principle of anthropomorphism — that is, the unscientific attribution of human characteristics to animals. In contemporary terms, seeing the animal kingdom through Disney eyes.
Behaviorist John Watson asserted that animal behavior could best be understood as a simple stimulus/response external action — as opposed to guesses about internal mental functions.
B.F. Skinner, the influential Harvard professor who used reinforcement conditioning techniques to teach pigeons to play ping pong, steadfastly opposed speculating about emotions in either man or animals.
“Twenty five hundred years ago it might have been said that man understood himself as well as any other part of his world,” Skinner wrote in 1971. “Today he is the thing he understands least.”
In recent years, skeptics about the inner life of animals and “empty box” behaviorists remain firm in their convictions, but an abundance of hard data now exists that supports the other side.
Research about the intelligence of animals is substantial: the University of London has discovered just how brainy bees are; psychologist Diana Reiss has delved into the complex and sophisticated communication patterns of dolphins; biologist John Marzluff has studied the impressive memories of crows; dogs, chimps and cats have demonstrated remarkable cerebral agility…the question of intelligence among animals appears to be largely settled by a formidable body of well done work.
Primatologist Frans de Waal summed the consensus pretty well: “All animals are very smart to do what they need to do to survive.”
The questions surrounding the emotions of animals have also generated much interest: The Companion Animal Mourning Project conducted by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) is the most well-known, but there have been many others. The work tends to support what anthropologist King has hypothesized — animals are capable of having profound grief experiences and they can mourn.
Professor Marc Bekoff, a former Guggenheim Fellow, offered this compelling reasoning: “By closing the door on the possibility that many animals have rich emotional lives, even if they are very different from our own…we will lose great opportunities to learn about the lives of animals with whom we share this wondrous planet.”