William & Mary

Barbara King included in 'Best American Science and Nature Writing' anthology

  • Waiting for a hard copy
    Waiting for a hard copy  Barbara King checks out the cover design of "The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014" on an iPad. Her "Scientific American" piece on animal grief is among the 25 essays.  Photo by Joseph McClain
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A piece by William & Mary anthropologist Barbara King is included in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014, a recently released anthology that currently holds the number one spot in the nature writing and essays category on Amazon.

“When Animals Mourn” was originally published in the July 2013 issue of Scientific American. Deborah Blum, editor of the 2014 volume, said King’s piece was considered early, appearing on series editor Tim Folger’s longlist as well as her own.

“I’m a regular reader of Scientific American and it stood out for me because I think she’s such an elegant smart writer so when I do see her work I always find myself drawn into it,” Blum said, in a phone interview.  “I had almost 200 stories that I had to whittle down to about 25—which was hard. But that one, for me, was a keeper from the beginning.”

King, the Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at William & Mary, says she is delighted to be included and it was a bonus to find her name adjacent to Barbara Kingsolver in the alphabetical table of contents. “When Animals Mourn” emerged in parallel to King’s 2013 book How Animals Grieve.

“I finished writing the book in 2012, and the University of Chicago Press decided to fast-track its publication,” King recalled. “In talking about how this book was coming—on Twitter, specifically—I heard from Kate Wong, who is an editor at Scientific American. She said to me, ‘Would you like to submit an article?’”

There was a small catch, though. Sci Am wanted new material for the article and, as King says, “I had already thrown my best material at the book!” She began the search for yet more examples of grieving behavior in non-human animals to add to her already-considerable compendium of depressed rabbits, bereft birds and mourning residents of both barnyard and wilderness. The search was fruitful.

“I found some things—most memorably for me, a good example of giraffe mourning in Africa that I had not known and a few other things,” she said.

 “When Animals Mourn” and How Animals Grieve came out within months of each other. Both the book and the Scientific American article are more than a collection of sad-animal anecdotes. King calls for a need to study the phenomenon scientifically. In How Animals Grieve, she warned about the dangers of “anthropomorphic excess” in studying animal reactions. She says that while some segments of society tend toward overzealousness in identifying animal grief, others deny the reality of the phenomenon.

“To study and understand grief among animals, scientists need a definition that distinguishes it from other emotions,” she wrote in “When Animals Mourn.” She also is careful to keep in mind the human capacity to feel grief for fellow beings whom we have never known, a kind of mourning that seems to be absent in non-humans.

“I can walk among the stele of the memorial to murdered Jews in Europe and be moved to tears at the deaths of people from another time period,” she said. “To our knowledge, this is not the kind of grieving or mourning that animals do.”

King added that evidence has shown that among certain animal species, grief can extend through degrees of separation beyond a surviving partner grieving for a dead mate or a mother grieving for a dead offspring.

“Five different elephant families can come and mourn the death of a matriarch. The experience can be wider, concentrically, than we thought,” she said. “But I believe it is worthwhile to note the differences as well as the similarities in grief and mourning between humans and non-humans.\.”

King’s insistence on evidence and a scientific approach to the animal-grief phenomenon has generated more criticism from people who believe she doesn’t go far enough than from those who believe she goes too far.

“People sometimes get very angry with me—people who are real continuity thinkers. They say, ‘Barbara, you don’t know that about animals. You can’t possibly know that there’s not a wider circle of grief,’” she said. “I’d like to see some evidence of that, and I haven’t seen any. How would I ever test if elephants in Amboseli mourn elephants elsewhere? It doesn’t compute for me. I don’t even know if they’re aware of other elephant populations.”

Blum won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for a Sacramento Bee series called “The Monkey Wars,” a look inside the primate-research controversy. Her 2011 work, Love at Goon Park, details Harry Harlow’s understanding of the mother-infant bond among primates. Among Blum’s work is a piece about deception among chickens and she said King’s discovery of grief in unexpected corners of the animal kingdom—ducks, giraffes, cats—added to the appeal of  ”When Animals Mourn.”

“A lot of this kind of work stands because you can actually get confirmation in laboratory settings of some of these behaviors. You see grief. It was something that Goodall looked at pretty early,” Blum said. “One of the things that was actually good and important about this piece is that it reminds you that we’re still figuring this out, right? We are still weaving these connections. We’re still figuring out not only who these animals are, but essentially figuring out who we are in this web of connections.”