Sunday, December 02, 2012

Sorrow and Science

Mesa, the fourteen year-old Golden Retriever, died in surgery four days ago. We were trying to amputate his cancer ridden left front leg. The long and difficult surgery proved too much for his old, tired, cancer stressed body. The vet cleaned and closed him up, and we brought him home.

We laid him on a rug in the garage so his young companions, Lucy (3) and Ziva (2), and we, could say our final goodbyes. The normally exuberant and irrepressible Lucy was subdued and solemn. After quietly inspecting the body, she lay down close to him, forelegs out front, head bowed alongside and lightly touching Mesa's. I think her eyes were closed. She lay there for the longest time, quiet, still and close. It seemed completely out of character.

Ziva was more distracted, unsettled. Both dogs typically greet Mesa with excitement and enthusiasm whenever they've been apart. Ziva would normally hop around at his head as he lay on the ground, firmly nudging it with her muzzle, enthusiastically wagging with her entire body, hips swinging wildly, and yipping excitedly. Now her yipping was more a confused moan. She didn't try very hard to rouse Mesa to attention. She jumped around the body and could not completely settle herself.

Ethologist Alexandra Horowitz, author of Inside of a Dog, surmises that dogs are happily unaware of their own mortality. I wonder what they understand about death of their companions.

Are humans the only animals that know of their own eventual demise? Observations have shown that elephants have long, enduring memories of their deceased. They return to the sites where family members have died and examine the weathered bones.  But do elephants mourn?  Some experts believe they do. Do dogs mourn? Was Lucy mourning?

Scientists warn against anthropomorphizing when trying to make sense of animal behavior. Still, it seemed to two non-scientist human observers that Lucy realized something profound was happening, and that the proper response was to be quiet and reverential.

"Reverential" is a loaded, anthropomorphized, word. There are possible explanations for Lucy's behavior that don't involve her understanding the significance of Mesa's death. Horowitz explains that dogs employ their remarkable sense of smell to detect changes in the emotional states of their human companions. It turns out that hormones associated with our emotions cause us to emit scents that dogs can easily detect. What dogs understand about those emotional states is a larger question. After Mesa's death I was experiencing my own intense grief, and had already done a lot of crying; whatever she understood, Lucy surely knew that something was up. But did she feel anything that we would call grief?  Did she experience sadness, or perhaps awe?

The next morning we brought the two young dogs into the garage one last time. This time their inspection of the body was more perfunctory, as if they realized that nothing had changed, nor would it. With them watching, we carried Mesa to the back of the truck, and took him away. We buried him beside Kodi, Aspen, Juniper, and Jasper.  More tears. More heartache.

A lonely sadness has settled over our place these past few days, and it seems Lucy and Ziva have been at least somewhat caught up in it. They still play, but with what seems to be less gusto——at least to this strongly biased human. Their demeanor is less effusive and more subdued. Again, there are explanations for this that don't involve grief. And again, they could be keying off the emotion driven scents emanating from their humans. At a minimum, I think, they must realize that there is one less dog in the yard, that things aren't normal.

Not bound by scientific objectivity, I choose to believe they understand at least that Mesa is never coming back. How quickly will he fade from their memory? Will they remember him a few years from now? Maybe not. Dogs seem to live mostly in the present. Did Mesa remember his sister, Juniper, with whom he lived his entire life, beginning in the womb, until she unexpectedly died at age eleven?

I wish I knew.

In addition to Horowitz's excellent book, see also Marc Bekoff's The Emotional Lives of Animals.

Copyright (C) 2012 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved


At Fri Dec 07, 01:09:00 PM, Blogger Bert Haverkate-Ens said...

Again, life goes on, but not for all of us.

Interesting piece. It's enough for me to try to observe animal behavior and try very hard to ask what is going on without making too many assumptions.

Figuring it all out isn't as important as recognizing commonalities (and differences) between species (and individual animals, for that matter). Seeing what is in front of us is important. We can always theorize later.


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