Is it dead? Or not?

Most of us have some idea about what life is and what, or when, death is although the latter is a concept that has changed over time with scientific development.

In terms of life, a lot of high school textbooks go with movement, respiration, sensitivity, growth, reproduction, excretion and nutrition.  There are always exceptions, possibly designed just to annoy those high school teachers… But it works as a basic idea.  Apparently, NASA’s definition is that ‘Life is something that undergoes Darwinian evolution’ (Dr Louisa Preston quoted in Death on Earth).

Defining death intuitively feels like it should be straightforward… In the past, your heart stopping would be the end of your life but today we have CPR and technology that brings the possibility of being revived.  If your body cannot function for itself, you may be considered dead, or you may be considered brain dead and be reliant on machines to keep your body alive.  Where is the defining line in these cases?

Jules Howard adds further complicating examples…

“Consider those creatures that undergo cryptobiosis, able to survive for long periods as lifeless shells or hardy eggs.  Consider, for instance, the tiny sexless metazoans that live in birdbaths (among other places), the bdelloid rotifers, which expel all water from their bodies and form a hard stone-like ball when their puddles dry up… They can last for seven years in this dehydrated state.  They undergo no growth or metabolism, nothing life that, in all that time.  They are surely not alive in this state… but they are surely not dead either.  They might revive.  And then there are the sea monkeys (brine shrimps), which can undergo cryptobiosis like bdelloid rotifers but for far longer, perhaps for centuries in some cases. Not all of these dehydrated life forms will find water.  Many of them may blow away or be buried in places without water, and many will break down over years or decades, eroded by the elements.”

With these cases, when did the organism finally die?  Wood frogs are another weird case, seeming to die and be revived each winter:

“Wood frogs stop breathing and their hearts stop beating entirely for days to weeks at a time. In fact, during its period of frozen winter hibernation, the frogs’ physical processes—from metabolic activity to waste production—grind to a near halt.”
National Geographic

To throw another spanner in the works, let’s have a look at a case involving a zombie caterpillar…

Trees have developed tactics to win the war against pests, and some can influence parasites into attacking caterpillars.  The tree influences the rate that caterpillars are infected by baculovirus.  Once infected, the baculovirus enters the caterpillars gut and multiplies before overwhelming the entire body.  The caterpillar swells because of this internal flood of the virus.  The virus then manipulates the caterpillars behave, in a way that zombie writers would be proud of.  The growth cycle of the caterpillar is halted and the caterpillars mind is essentially taken over.  Instead of carrying out normal caterpillar behaviour, they seek out light, struggling up the treat and eventually burst.  This is great for the baculovirus as it creates a virus shower that covers the tree, the leaves and all the other caterpillars who live there… Baculovirus 1 – Caterpillar 0.

Does the caterpillar die when it explodes?  Or does it die when it’s mind is taken over by the virus?  Or when it gets infected?

If we return to the school definition, the caterpillar is moving, respiring but is no longer growing or reproducing and I would have questions about whether it is sensitive any more…

Given that there are over 100,000 species of parasitic wasps, compare that to the less than 10,000 species of mammals, the case of the zombie caterpillar becomes important to our question about when is death.  And spoiler alert, I probably won’t be answering that question…

Aside: If you want to explore a related question, why death is, then I recommend Death on Earth.

It seems like viruses may well be making zombies out of all of us.  Apparently if you are infected with the flu, but aren’t showing any symptoms, you are more likely to engage in social activities and hence spread the virus.  The rabies virus changes personality and causes aggression which again helps it move hosts.

Toxoplasma is something that cat owners may be familiar with, at least on an intimate level, possibly unawares.  It loves cats because the only place they can have sex is inside the cats digestive system.  This means they have to get from current host to cat, and they do this by manipulation.  If they’re in a mouse or a rat, for example, they control the host’s behaviour and turn animals which are fearful of cats into animals that seek out cats.  They travel further, explore more and have less anxiety about unknown or dangerous situations. Ultimately, toxoplasma is hoping the host will get eaten by a cat, turning the host suicidal.

“Animals, on the whole, don’t kill themselves unless their parasites want them to.”
– Howard

Just for fun, let’s have a look at some of the other zombies that are currently making our planet their home…

There is a type of parasitic barnacle that sets up home in a crabs reproductive system, cutting off all chance of the crab reproducing.  The barnacle has such power over the host that it can cause a male crab, who doesn’t normally take care of eggs, to care for the barnacle as if it was a brood of eggs.

Ants and caterpillars can get taken over by fungi, essentially becoming a fertilizing, transport vessel.

And for one final example, there are cicadas who end up pumped full of hallucinogenic drugs and have to face the horror of their abdomens falling off…  Despite this, males then become hyperactive and hypersexual.  Personally, sex is the last thing that would be on my mind if half my body had fallen off…

I’d love to know your thoughts about the when is death question.  Until I started looking into zombie creatures, I’d not really thought much about it.

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The lifelike dead

When looking at pet obituaries and pet cemeteries, we see the practices of mourning human death transferred to animals, especially pets.  This can be seen as extending personhood to what may in other circumstances be deemed a possession.  Taking this the other way, we also see death practices which solidify the idea of pet as possession, for example taxidermy.  It would not even be considered appropriate in the western world (is there anywhere it would be? Hit me up, I’m intrigued!) to taxidermy a human loved one.

Taxidermy of pets likely originates from the Victorians when taxidermy more broadly was popular.  Stuffed animals were found in homes, hunting lodges and museums and to some extent were considered educational.  Taxidermy of pets turns a once living creature that was loved into an object, and often the people wanting to memorialise their pet would be the same people who’d argue that the pet had some degree of personhood.

“It is hard to imagine that the bereaved owners who arrange for their pets to be preserved in this way act from anything other than grief for and love of the animal they have lost; it can be equally hard to contemplate the finished product without discomfort.”
– How We Mourn Our Dead Pets

Taxidermy has historically been used for museum specimens – as a representative of an entire species – or as a way of marking human prowess when it comes to hunting.  In neither case is the life of the individual celebrated by the act of taxidermy and in both cases, a statement is made about man’s dominion over nature.  In hunting this is clear but in museum specimens, it is about the scientific knowledge that we gain and thus by gaining this we label ourselves above other species.

However, modern taxidermy is bucking the trend a bit and is more about the individual animal, or at least can be, especially when we’re looking at pet taxidermy.  Some taxidermists won’t take pets because they are challenging – customers are hoping for a simulacrum of their loved once and putting the appearance of life into a lifeless body is a big ask.

“Instead of representing humans dominating animals, performances of modern taxidermy show humans with animals, engaged in the taxidermic process as a way to work through and even critique several of the paradigms through which humans typically engage with animals.  Rather than forget or efface the lives of animals, then, modern taxidermy can facilitate the work of memory by emphasising an animal’s death and the particularity of the animal who died.”
Mourning Animals: Rituals and Practices Surrounding Animal Death, edited by Margo de Mello

Modern technology can take taxidermy and raise it, with the process of freeze drying which alleges to give a lifelike experience in a way that taxidermy cannot.  In the process of freeze drying, organs and eyes are removed, the corpse is posed and then freeze dried… And then you get to own your beloved forever!  And own it is, this is not a relationship any more, you cannot argue that it is anything further than ownership.  Your pet becomes your possession.  It is without doubt now an object.  I do wonder what happens when you run out of space for the freeze dried fido, or you pass on and your children decide to get rid of it…

There is another option if you aren’t ready to let go of your beloved pet and that is cloning.  It’s incredibly expensive, exploits grieve and won’t even ensure your “new” pet has the same personality as the one that’s died, or even the same markings.  It is also a cruel practice as the clone has to be incubated within a living animal and it reinforces the idea of pets as property.  When your tv breaks, you buy a new one.  When your dog dies, you get a clone.

“Bioethicist Jessica Pierce articulates the problem with seeing dogs as mere objects in her New York Times op-ed and notes that dog cloning “reinforces the status of dogs as things to buy and collect, and as sentimental tokens…  Dogs are valued for our feelings toward them, rather than for who they are as individuals.”
Jessica Baron

Whilst I understand the temptation to hold onto your pet for that bit longer, some of these options do make me wonder if they are a way to avoid facing the death.

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Pet cemeteries

In 1886 a vet in New York State offered to bury his client’s dog and that would be the start of the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery.  Hartsdale continues to operate today and is the resting ground of thousands of buried animals (including a lion) and shattered ashes.  It is often seen as a better way of honouring your pet than what would essentially be getting rid of them as if they were waste.  Burial in a cemetery also gives space for death ritual and mourning in a more formal way than burial in the back garden.  It also means you can revisit your beloved pet if you move house.

Over time the nature of the burials have become more elaborate.  Headstones can be more moving and less constrained that those for humans, there is less tradition guiding them and this frees up space for expression, it also opens up space to ask things like do you gift your pet your surname and if you do or don’t do that what does that say about the role of the pet in your family unit

Over the Atlantic, in London, we find the Hyde Park Pet Cemetery from the 19th century.  In the same era a pet cemetery was established in Paris.  During this time, the status of domestic animals grew and in turn so did the desire to commemorate them in death.

When Hyde Park Pet Cemetery opened it was illegal to bury animal remains in public spaces, meaning that most animal bodies, including pets, were left out with the rubbish or burnt.  This was starting to butt up against the idea of pets having more value than other animals.  Hyde Park was not run for profit and was almost solely for dogs, closing in 1902 as it was full.  Since then other animal cemeteries have popped up including one in Ilford which has memorials for individual animals deemed to have been heroes during the Second World War and the remains of thousands killed by their human ‘companions’ at the start of the war.

Of course, whilst pet cemeteries may be a relatively new idea, burial of animals is not.  It is possibly the most traditional way to deal with animal death, with the oldest known pet burial being 14,000 years old.  Evidence shows that cats and dogs have long been buried and it seems to be that this has been intentional and carried out because of a connection with the humans who buried them.  In the classical world, dogs were found buried with gravestones that carried touching messages, much as in the pet cemeteries of today.  More recently, urbanisation made burial harder as demand for land increased and many people didn’t have their own space they could use.

“Spatial limitations, as well as societal aspirations and emotional needs, were the key factors in the emergence of the contemporary pet cemetery… After the Second World War, however, pet cemeteries sprang up around the United States and Western Europe.”
– Michal Piotr Pregowski

Animal cemeteries are “a place of visible death” (Hilda Kean) which offers a role in the grief process akin to that of pet obituaries and today they can be found across the world.  There are about 700 across the US, about 75 in the UK and in 2009, the Australian Yellow Pages listed 138 pet cemeteries and crematoriums.  You can even visit the graves of celebrity animals at Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park.

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Pet obituaries

Pet obituaries are a new phenomenon and are not free from contention.  They highlight the shifting status of pets and push against the idea of personhood and objects.

“A pet obituary raises multiple issues about the “appropriate” objects of mourning, of the “right” to mourn publicly, and of the ways that public mourning legitimates social relationships.”
– Jane Desmond

Obituaries were once reserved for rich, powerful, white men and whilst this has changed somewhat, pet obits seem to be, for some people, crossing the line.  Pet obits have been met with derision and mockery and this revealed that for some people, the mourning of pets is undignified.  Perhaps this is because it defies the hierarchy of value which is often at play in human-animal thinking.

“As one commenter noted in regard to the death notice of 10 year old German shepherd, Annie in the Las Cruces Sun-News, “What is this world coming to? I am as much a dog or pet lover as the next person, but I’m appalled to see a dog in the obituaries with people. I’m disgusted that you would think this is OK. Maybe your loved ones are on the same level as animals, but mine are not.””
mysendoff.com

Additionally, those mocking them, often see pet obits as overly emotional – the realm of crazy cat ladies – and thus there is a gendered aspect at play as well.

“Pet obituaries articulate an extended notion of kinship obligations and recognition by publicly recognizing this bond with non human animals… pet obits, which publicly commemorate a life and make that life part of the historical record, provide one of the test cases of this shifting positioning of the ‘pet’ in relation to human companions.  As with humans, pet obits assign value to a life, define its highlights, extol socially validated accomplishments, and serve as models of living.”
– Jane Desmond

By extending family to include pets, we are challenging the very idea of what a family is, something that has been changing for many decades and now includes single parent families and same sex couples.  For those against these newer models of family, adding pets into the mix might be one more aspect to push against.

Other arguments against pet obits include the idea that their inclusion would insult the human dead who appeared alongside them. Another is that obits have a certain form – they are a space to note the death of a person and to highlight their accomplishments.  With pets, we cannot really do the latter.  We cannot say that a pet graduated from a certain university or was really proud of their contribution to the world.  At best, we have pets who have carried out a heroic act or have worked through their life as a service dog etc.  Inherent in this idea is that animals, even pets, have less value than humans do.

“Beyond the challenge of translating the obit form from human to animal life is the issue of social value – of social worth – and this is an even more fundamental dividing line.”
– Jane Desmond

Humans are considered to be of social worth simply by being human, a lottery of birth, and this is generally only extended to animals who have done something heroic, and is only really extended to pets as opposed to wild or food animals.

In addition to formal obituaries in newspapers, there are less official spaces online which serve a similar function.  They are websites where a bereaved owner can post about their lost pet, knowing that in this semi-public semi-private space, their grief will be heard by like minded people.  Having your grief listened to gives it a legitimacy which isn’t always there in the ‘real’ world.  They tend to be places where humans are seen as survivors of loss, not just an owner, and as such are places of sympathy and understanding.  In contrast to this, the formal obits are public and there is a sense of exposure and vulnerability with that – people who view pets very differently can comment and criticise.

Creating a formal or informal obit can be part of the grieving process and in that respect, there isn’t a clear difference between the death of humans and animals.  There is merit in taking time to remember and celebrate your loved one and I think those deriding the idea of pet obituaries do need to consider this.  Those who want to write a pet obit, may want to think about where this is published, especially if they aren’t open to the potential of negative reactions.  I think this is where informal obituary websites shine.  They are a space to be heard by like minded people, to feel understood and to feel like you can grieve.  In this respect, pet obituaries are similar to pet cemeteries in that they mark a line between those people who feel compelled to (semi) publicly mourn and those who don’t.  Pet cemeteries will be the topic of my next animal and death blog post.

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How we mourn (some) animals

If you have had a pet, it is likely that you know how strong the bond between human and animal can be, and how painful the death of a pet can be.  Some people have even said that they feel a greater loss when they lose a pet to losing a human loved one.  Either way, in the 21st century, the loss of a pet is often seen as akin to the loss of a family member.

With grieve tends to come a desire for ritual and remembering.  Whilst these paths are generally societally proscribed when it comes to human loss, when it comes to pets there is more freedom to choose what seems right to you.  This is reflected in the growing pet death care sector.

Options when your pet dies include: freeze drying your pet, pet cemeteries, taxidermy, cremation, burial in the garden, skull on mantlepiece, leaving them in the wood biostyle, funeral/wakes and much more.   You can choose to turn your beloved’s remains into jewellery, tattoos or artworks.  For the death itself, if a pet is being put to sleep, home euthanasia can be more personal but more expensive.  And the price of the after death options don’t come cheap either.

 “For some grieving pet owners, the combined costs can climb into the thousands—though for most, still below the $7,000 to $10,000 median human funeral cost. But while the options were once limited to burial in a backyard or abandonment at the vet’s for disposal, pet owners now can access a spectrum of services that rivals—and sometimes exceeds—those available to humans.”
Atlas Obscura

To help you through the grief there are apparently how social workers and counsellors who specialise in the mourning of pets.  There are classes for vets to attend to help their human clients with grief and pet psychics who can communicate on behalf of your pet to provide you with reassurance.

As I explore a couple of key options for pet death care in upcoming posts, we’ll see that the idea that pets can be legitimate objects of grief is becoming much more wide spread.  That’s not to say that it’s uncontested, but it does reflect a changing status of pets as more than objects.

There will be a short break in blog posts but when I come back, I’ll have a look at pet cemeteries, pet obituaries and a couple of other options and what they say about the status of pets and the meaning we imbue our animals with.  And note I say pet.  Animals are not all deemed worthy of grief and being mourned for and I aim to unpick that idea a little further.

What happens to animals when other animals die?

Before leaping into how we experience animal death, I wanted to take a quick look through the eyes of non-human animals.

“There is no question that animals grieve.”
– Marc Bekoff

“A growing body of scientific evidence supports the idea that nonhuman animals are aware of death, can experience grief and will sometimes mourn for or ritualize their dead.”
Jessica Pierce

Grieving animals may withdraw, seek time alone and not respond to attempts to draw them out.  They may sit, staring into space.  They may stop eating.  They may lose interest in sex.  They may attempt to revive their lost friend or relative.  In other words, they react to the death of a loved one as we do.

Grief is interesting as there is no evolutionary purpose to it.  In fact it goes against the behaviour we engage in to continue our species; it does not aid reproductive success and it can end up killing the affected individual.  There are cases where it seems an animal has died of a broken heart but even if we take those out of the equation, the behaviour of grief – not eating, not moving etc – opens up the individual to risks which could result in death.

“Some theorize that perhaps mourning strengthens social bonds among survivors who band together to pay their last respects.  This may enhance group cohesion at a time when it’s likely to be weakened.  Whatever its value is, grief is the price of commitment, that wellspring of both happiness and sorrow.”
– Marc Bekoff

In addition to grieving behaviour, we see ritualistic activity that could be described anthropomorphically as a funeral.  We know gorillas hold wakes, baboons seek comfort from friends after a death and there have been numerous cases of elephants showing concern for dead relatives, and even extending this beyond their family to nonrelatives.  Without this become a list of observed displays of what might be grief, I want to add that wolves, foxes and llamas have been seen grieving.

Corvids have been said to hold funerals, and it’s certain there is some prescribed behaviour surrounding death although we cannot know their motivation.  Some suggest it is a grieving process with others suggesting the birds are trying to understand why and how their friend has died.  Either way it suggests an awareness of the concept of death.  Magpies have even been observed laying grass over their dead comrades.

“We can’t know what they were actually thinking or feeling, but reading their action there’s no reason not to believe these birds were saying a magpie farewell to their friend”
– Marc Bekoff

 

Of course, the easiest animal grief to see is that in pets.  It is not unusual to hear people talk about how a pet grieved for another pet when it died, or there are cases where pets have died after their owners have passed, seemingly not get over their loss.

It is currently impossible to know where the line between accurate understanding of animal behaviour vs anthropomorphism lays but I am inclined to agree with Marc Bekoff and return to where I began in stating that

“There is no question that [at the very least some] animals grieve.”

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Animals and death

In this post I’m going to highlight a few topics around animals and death which will be explored in more detail in later posts.

 ‘Animals become extinct. They are also killed, gassed, electrocuted, exterminated, hunted, butchered, vivisected, shot, trapped, snared, run over, lethally injected, culled, sacrificed, slaughtered, executed, euthanized, destroyed, put down, put to sleep, and even, perhaps, murdered’
Animal Studies Group

One of our most common interaction with animals, is through death.  We kill them to eat, to wear, for leisure and yet we also distance ourselves from animal death.  We call dead pigs pork, dead cows become beef, we take our pets to vets to have them put down in a clinical setting.  This isn’t all that surprising given how much we distance ourselves from human death – we get the body ushered off as soon as possible to be tended to by professionals and so on.

When talking about animal deaths, it’s important to note that, like in life, animals are not equal in death.  There are some which die without comment and others which we mourn and grieve for like kin.  We accept some animal deaths through wilful ignorance and justify others by putting human needs above animals.  Diana Donald noted that ‘perhaps the absolute basic distinction is between those kinds of killing that are wilfully invisible, removed from the consciousness of the perpetrators and excluded from the sight of anyone else, and those that are in some way commemorated or represented?’

We have selective empathy and that can be turned on or turned off depending on how we categorise animals; Are they useful to us? Are they wild or tamed?  Are they physically similar to us?  One simple example of this animals that are killed on the roads.  The reaction to roadkill versus the reaction to pets being hit by cars.  Another example to think about is the difference between swatting a fly and kicking a dog.

The majority of the animals we kill for meat are invisible.  They live and die out of sight, behind closed doors.  These are animals which only exist so they can die, for us.  And yet in contrast with these invisible, distant animals, we are living incredibly intimately with a different group of animals, namely our pets.  We share our houses and even our beds with our furry friends and this intimacy is reflected in how we feel when our beloved pets die.

The idea of who is grievable is cultural specific.  In the UK today, most people see pets as uniquely grievable within the animal kingdom whereas in Japan, ritual mourning for animals has been going on for thousands of years and was necessary to appease the spirits of the animals they hunted.  This respect for animals and the rituals around the kill is found in other hunting communities and often is part of thanking the animal for giving their life.

As is clear, killing animals doesn’t happen in a bubble, it happens in a society with particular attitudes and perceptions of the animals.  Quite often this is a society or culture in which man has dominion over nature and killing animals reinforces this hierarchy.  Hunting, and then killing, can bring with it status and thus the act of killing is imbued with meaning.

“It is possible to argue that the killing of animals deconstructs, redefines, or reshapes the social order between humans and animals… in the case of human-animal relations, the human need and ability to kill animals and the general acceptance or tolerance of the violence of killing is fundamental to the creation of the social order between these sets of creatures; such killing constructs, defines, and shapes this order.”
Garry Marvin

So, that’s a bit of a taste of what I’m hoping to look at in the next few posts and hopefully it gives you some ideas and concepts to mull over.  I will specifically be looking at who is grievable and how we mourn for (some) animals as well as any other rabbit holes I fall down!

(Also, an apology if this isn’t as coherent as normal, or has mistakes, I’m not on top form so it’s not been as carefully edited as normal.)

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