As part of my ongoing interview series with solutionaries and changemakers, I recently interviewed author and William & Mary Chancellor Professor of Anthropology Barbara King.
Barbara is an inspiring, thought-provoking writer who focuses on the deep emotional connections between humans and other animals.
HF: In 2013, you published the book, How Animals Grieve. What motivated you to write about how animals experience grief?
BK: In two of my earlier books, Evolving God (2007) and Being With Animals (2010), I explored issues around cross-cultural responses to death in prehistory and history, such as the nature of burials. As I researched this material for human societies, I began to think about it in the context of human exceptionalism.
A theme of my work over the years has been to question supposed uniquely human abilities like complex communication, mental “time travel” to the past and future, culture, and the ability to form enduring friendships. So – I figured –why not look into other animals’ responses to death and what emotions and rituals may be associated with them?
I expected to find hard evidence of grief in elephants and apes and did, but uncovered much more than that –including clear evidence of mourning in farmed animals, cetaceans, some birds, and companion animals ranging from horses and rabbits to cats and dogs when a family member, mate, or friend dies.
HF: In How Animals Grieve, you suggest that grief is an emotion indicative of the capacity for love.
BK: Yes, I see love and grief as completely intertwined. Our emotional world, and the emotional world of some animals, turns upside down at a death when the one who died was cared for deeply. It’s not that I think all animals love and grieve—either in the sense of all species, or in the sense of all individuals within a species (since personalities vary so much). Rather, I think we need to look hard and open our minds to discover who loves and grieves. It’s possible, as I’ve done in the book, to offer clean definitions of “love” and “grief” that can be applied in species-specific ways. We really have no idea yet of the bounds of love and grief in the animal kingdom.
HF: You are one of a few – but seemingly growing number – of scientists who also identify as an advocate. Your interest in animal protection is highlighted in your recent article, “Cruel Experiments on Infant Monkeys Still Happen All the Time–That Needs to Stop” in Scientific American. Tell me about how your roles as a scientist and an advocate – and your roles as an educator, writer, and editor – come together for you.
BK: I do think the number of scientist advocates for animals is growing! And how could it not be, with so many urgent issues at stake. For about the last year I’ve joined other animal advocates, especially at PETA, who work to bring greater public and governmental scrutiny to the ongoing maternal-deprivation experiments on rhesus monkey infants at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Laboratory of Comparative Ethology (LCE) in Poolesville, Maryland, headed by psychologist Stephen Suomi.
In the June issue of Scientific American I describe the LCE’s experiments funded to continue until at least 2017, in which baby monkeys are taken from their mothers within hours or days of birth. These infants are caged nearby, but without any tactile access to, other monkeys for 22 hours on weekdays and 24 hours on weekends. They are subjected to experimental stressors because they are considered to be animal models for human stress and anxiety. Ethically, this is wrong because the infants (and their mothers) suffer, and it’s bad science. People beset by stress and anxiety face far different life experiences than their supposed monkey “models” do in NIH cages. From the responses I’m receiving to this piece, I know that many, many American taxpayers do not want to fund this sort of antiquated research.
In short, my various roles do come together because my primary goal across all of them is to speak with, write for, and maybe motivate to action animal lovers who care about animal suffering.
HF: What can you tell me about your current writing projects?
BK: What works best for me is spinning a number of plates at once, as most freelance science writers do. (I’m retiring from 28 years of college teaching this December to become a full-time freelancer.) I’m pretty much always in the midst of a book project. When I found a home at University of Chicago Press, the entire book-crafting process from proposal through to promotion became much more joyful for me.
I’m nearing the end of writing Animals We Eat, in which I consider 8 kinds of animals who are eaten by humans, ranging from insects to chickens to chimpanzees. Rather than pushing any single set of food choices in the book, I offer what we scientists know about animals’ behaviors and personalities in ways that might urge people to think hard whether to consume these animals or not.
At the other end of the scale (in terms of length of process), I write a post every week for NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos & Culture blog. It’s incredibly rewarding and fun for me to put the finishing touches on an 800- or 1200- word piece about animals or anthropology, zap it to my editor that evening, view it online on Thursday morning, and watch throughout the day as discussion comments bloom from readers. I regularly write book reviews and essays on those same topics for the TLS in London. Continuously I explore other possibilities. My dream assignment right now would be for the New York Review of Books. So far no luck with my pitches but there’s always hope!
HF: The latest Pew and Gallup Polls show an increase in the number of people who believe animals deserve protections similar to some of the legal protections humans enjoy. But despite changes in attitudes about animals, they are still subject to tremendous cruelty. How do you stay hopeful about the future?
BK: I don’t always stay hopeful. My guess is that no one who’s paying attention every day to issues of animal extinction and animal suffering maintains that state. On the other hand, when I teach or write about animal welfare issues, I must do so from a place of genuine hope or it just doesn’t work. So, I don’t wait around to tap into hope as it wells up, I work actively to create it, by focusing on good reasons to hope. My daughter Sarah Hogg (who is just 21 and a mint-green college graduate) and her friends, and my students at William and Mary, give me hope because they grasp the urgency of the issues for wild animals, laboratory animals, zoo animals, and farmed animals. They are keen activists already who align their life choices with their principles (I refer here to any realm of social justice as I believe all are connected).
Second, I surround myself with people I admire. I’ve learned so much from colleagues and now friends at PETA, Farm Sanctuary, and HSUS at the national level, from the work of you and your colleagues, Hope, and from my husband Charles Hogg and friends locally who dedicate themselves to making lives better for cats, dogs and other animals here in Virginia.
Finally, it’s impossible to remain down-hearted for very long while living with our rescued cats, all spayed and neutered of course: Jenna, Nicholas Longtail, Flame, Diana, Marie, and Bootsie in our home; Samuel and Ivan in our yard; and Patrick, Daniel, Dexter, Sandy, Maren, Hayley, Kayley, Big Orange, Blackie, and DT in a spacious, shaded, outdoor pen in our yard built by my husband and complete with an indoor shelter (these cats are formal ferals who were at risk in their public colony site). We know each of their personalities and habits, of course, just as we did over the years with all the loved cats who are now gone. These cats, like so many animals, have social histories and likes and dislikes, and when their upturned faces greet us over and over and over again with love, it makes every bit of work worthwhile.