William & Mary

‘Wild Grief/Untamed Love:’ animal emotions at the Tack Faculty Lecture Oct. 28

  • Tack lecturer:
    Tack lecturer:  Barbara J. King is the Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at William & Mary and will give the Tack Faculty Lecture on Oct. 28 in the Sadler Center's Commonwealth Auditorium.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Update: Due to increased demand for the Tack Faculty Lecture by Chancellor Professor of Anthropology Barbara J. King, the event has been moved to the Commonwealth Auditorium in the Sadler Center. The lecture will begin at 7 p.m., but attendees are asked to arrive early as a full house is expected. Doors will open at the Commonwealth at 6:30 p.m.

Scientist and author Barbara J. King will discuss the science of animal emotions at William & Mary’s Tack Faculty Lecture at 7 p.m. Oct. 28 in the Commonwealth Auditorium of the Sadler Center.

Her presentation, “Wild Grief/Untamed Love: Emotions in the Animal World” is very nearly a last lecture for King, the Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at William & Mary. She is serving her last semester after teaching and researching at the university since 1988.

Attendees should keep two things in mind, King said. The first is that she will be speaking as a scientist, and therefore will base her remarks on data collected by trained observers as well as observations by “animal people” from wild as well as captive animals.

“The anthropomorphism issue cannot be ignored, and it shouldn’t be ignored in such a public forum,” she said. “For instance, when I hear that a monkey acted in a jealous way because one juvenile got a lot of attention and another juvenile didn’t, as a scientist I am going to be very skeptical. I mean, ask yourself: What would you need to see that is incontrovertible evidence of jealousy in an animal?”

The second point is that her presentation will challenge many traditional notions of human relationships with animals.

“Why do we care about these animals? Part of the answer is that these animals have rich, complicated lives. And people are starting to understand that,” she said.

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The talk will focus on what King calls the polar extremes of the emotional spectrum: grief and love. King says the basis of love is friendship and she explained that friendships between individual animals — not necessarily members of the same species — are a phenomenon that is subject to considerable study by scientists.

“By ‘friendship,’ I mean animals who stay together more than just survival-type situations,” King explained. “They’re hanging around together. They’re grooming together. They’re choosing to be around together. Love is just a ramped-up version of that.”

King defines love and grief as being connected. The intertwining of the two polar-opposite emotions is evidenced when one animal is separated from the other, King said.

“You see this outpouring in the animal left behind,” she said. “They enter into an altered state.”

Her 2013 book, How Animals Grieve, gives copious examples of pets, farm animals and denizens of the wild dealing with loss in ways that any human would recognize. But King says that it’s a mistake to look at animal emotions as being just like human emotions. The subject is filled with “blurry lines,” starting with where sadness and friendship end and where grief and love begin.

Individuality among animals is one factor that blurs the lines. King has written often about cats who show great outpouring of emotion when a fellow feline dies.

“Then I get people writing me who tell me that their cats aren’t grieving,” she said. “They want to know what’s wrong with their cats. I tell them that nothing is wrong with their cats; it’s just the way those particular cats are.”

King points out that as the modern study of nonhuman emotional response is in its infancy, the research tends to yield up a number of surprises and examples of startling behaviors.

In fact, it can be difficult to categorize one emotional response from a very different one in primates, our closest relatives. It’s a problem that King says her William & Mary students struggle with when they study ape behavior in zoos.

“When I would take my students to observe apes, they would tell me that they couldn’t tell the difference between play and anger,” she said, “because sometimes these apes look pretty mad when they’re running around after each other.”

King says the key to interpreting animal behavior and to understanding the emotions that drive such behavior is close expert observation. When she mentors her students observing interactions of an ape community, King encourages them to look closely. Who is laughing? Who isn’t? Any of the apes displaying tight muscles?

She explained that careful, painstaking observation of animal behavior in their daily lives is the only way to study animal emotion and to begin to parse out the differences in concepts such as love, grief, friendship and sadness. Right now, King says, she is comfortable in using terms that refer to the emotional extremes.

“I know for sure that there is love in certain cases,” she said. “And that there is grief in certain cases. Then there is a shadowy middle that we’re working out.”

Attendees at “Wild Grief/Untamed Love” will hear plenty of examples that King has accumulated in research for her books and other writings, including a regular slot in National Public Radio’s 13.7 science blog. For instance, there is the gothic tale of Willa and Carson, Siamese cat sisters who jointly supervised a literary-minded Southern household.

“In their lives, these two animals would intertwine in front of the fire and stay together on the bed,” King said. “I believed that they loved each other.”

After many years, one of the cats died and the surviving sister started acting like something out of Faulkner.

“Such an outpouring! Changed behavior! Social withdrawal!” King recalled. “She refused to eat. Keening! It continued for a long period.”

Willa and Carson make a good example of the love-grief duality, King says. “Their love was visible during their lives,” she said, “but it became visible in a heightened way when one of them was gone.

“So I wonder: What would stop us from calling that ‘love?’” King asked.

The Tack Faculty Lecture Series, sponsored by a generous commitment by Martha '78 and Carl Tack '78, is an opportunity for one of William & Mary’s world-class faculty to address the community. The popular series was inaugurated in 2012 and is free and open to the public. No tickets are required, but those planning to attend should RSVP for the event.