California Condor

“That which I am may not be pretty to you, but I know I serve a deep divine purpose and I am more than happy to fulfil it.  We each play our part in the divine plan and I know without a shadow of a doubt I am playing mine.”
– Animal Totem Tarot

I’ve written before about vultures and the condor is a New World vulture, a term I’m not really a fan of but is widely used to differentiate between Africa, Asia and Europe vs the Americas.  It was coined back in 1503 by a guy who had travelled from the ‘old’ world to the new and comes with heavy colonialist baggage.

Anyway, back to the California Condor.  They are the largest wild birds in North America, with long, broad wings and a wingspan of 277cm!  Adults have a naked head, black plumage and intensely white strikes under their wings.  The lack of feathers around the face does give them a bit of a scrappy, sketchy kind of look but this is an important part of their teachings.  They implore us to look beyond appearances and to see the inherent value of everyone and everything.

Condors are incredible masters of the sky, able to soar on air currents as high up as 15,000 feet and can do so for over an hour without flapping their wings.  Their heavy, solid body means they can soar steadily, not being buffeted by the wind, they use the wind but do not let it push them around.  These birds mean business and can travel over 100 miles a day looking for food!

In terms of reflecting on the condor, think about where in your life you want to soar, where do you want to feel like you’re pushing forward and in control?  How can you reach this?  We also need to think about how the condor has conquered the element of air, which in terms of tarot is all about the mental realm; thinking, ideas, communication, learning and with all of those thoughts comes worry and anxiety. 

We create little video tapes in our heads of what we think will happen when we do x or y and we do this as a dress rehearsal so we can reflect and make changes.  This can be very helpful in terms of reaching your goals – you can practice what you’re going to say in your job interview etc – but in can become a problem when it becomes about scaring yourself instead of preparing yourself.  Take some time to check in with your mind and how it’s helping, or hindering, you.

Food is a crucial part of any living thing’s life but people get squeamish when thinking about what the condor eats – they are carrion birds, eating dead and rotting flesh, such as that of cattle and deer.  This means they do a great service to our world, without them and other animals which eat the dead, we’d all be knee deep in carcasses… 

“The most valuable role of carrion feeders is the safe disposal of dead, decomposing and diseased animals, protecting human and animal co-habitants from ill effect… a healthy population of such carrion eaters can have an important impact on removing diseased and rotting carcasses from the area.”
Animal Diversity Web

We all have our own roles to play in the world, and so much of being a human seems to be working out what that role is.  What makes you come alive?  What makes you feel the most you?  Find out what those things are, do them, forge your own path and that, that is where you will find your purpose.

As they eat decaying meat, there is a real risk of the condors becoming infected but they are adapted to this lifestyle.  They have things in place which help them stay healthy, such as careful preening, bathing at watering holes and grooming their bald head area.  Sometimes in life you have to get your hands dirty but when you do, you can take your own measures to ensure that one tough action doesn’t seep into the rest of your life, or your soul, and infect it.  You may feel like a jerk when you have to fire someone, but that doesn’t make you a jerk.  You might have done some less good things in your past, but you don’t have to become a less good person because of that.  You have choices.

When they aren’t eating or flying, they are roosting.  They start the morning by sunning themselves, which sounds rather luxurious and on a lighter note, this makes me think a leisurely breakfast is a good idea.  Whether you want breakfast in bed, or want to head off to a little café, think about how you can treat yourself and get your day off to a wonderful start.  Maybe you live somewhere warm and can incorporate some sun basking yourself!

For California Condors, courtship involves those magnificent wings being displayed as well as head bobbing and once the female has accepted the male, they mate for life.  Often people like to think of cute, little, song birds as monogamous and yet they aren’t and this huge, flesh eating creature, mates for life.  It’s a reminder to consider your prejudices and assumptions.  They start breeding starting around 6 to 8 years old and lay one egg every other year meaning they are slow when it comes to maintaining the population.  Something that became a significant concern during the 1970s when they nearly went extinct. 

Overtime, threats to California Condors have changed with shooting being one of the threats present in the 1890s.  They were also endangered as a side effect of traps and poison put out to kill large predators.  By 1965, there were an estimated 60 birds left, falling to less than 25 by 1982, possibly because of illegal egg collecting and loss of habitat.  As a result, in the mid 80s, all remaining wild birds were caught for captive breeding.  Whilst the slow rate of reproduction makes replacing population numbers difficult, if you remove the one egg a female has laid, she will lay another one that season.  Through immense effort, attempts to reintroduce them to the wild started in 1992 and today there are now more than 300 birds living in the wild.

Like the phoenix coming out of the fire, the California Condors have survived the unsurvivable and, hopefully, have come out strong.  As it stands their populations are increasing so it’s promising.  In terms of your own life, you can go through things that nearly break you, and come out the other side with greater knowledge. I know it’s a clichéd idea but a lot of clichés are so because they are true.  I feel that there’s another idea here, and that’s that you can ask for help – without human intervention the condors would almost certainly be extinct today (I do realise that without us, they might not have been at risk at all… but still…).

“Who amongst us has not dreamed of soaring effortlessly over the landscape seeing everything in the daily lives of lowly earthbound pedestrians?  With scarcely a wing flap, condors soar over the deserts to the seacoast, cresting the highest peaks and spanning the most foreboding terrain. Such is the perspective of the California condor and perhaps the key to its special place in many native cultures across the Californias.”
California Department of Parks and Recreation

Perhaps unsurprisingly, condors were considered sacred to some Native Americans and as such, their feathers were used in ceremonies and rituals.  They are also said to have been occasionally sacrificed for funeral rites although not in large numbers so would not have affected the population size. They also feature in mythology.  For example, the Wiyot tribe say that the condor recreated humans after they had been wiped out in a flood.  They believed that the California Condor had physical and spiritual strength and shamans would try to embody this by dreaming of the bird and their feathers were used in healing.  A nice condor story from the Yokut tribe tells how the condor would sometimes eat the moon, creating the lunar cycle, and his wings were the cause of the eclipses. 

As we’ve seen, condors, like vultures, are associated with death and are thought to have knowledge about death and the dead. In fact, the death card in the Animal Totem Tarot depicts the California Condor.  Symbolically, the death card suggests a transformation.  You may need to work though some stuff but it will be worth it when you come out on the other side.  When we bring in the condor, this suggests the things you need to work with might be around preconceptions and prejudgements, or it might be around your attitude towards death itself.

Condors make us face death, something we tend to push aside.  This is the time to examine your attitudes towards death, to explore why we suppress it and to think about our own death, and the ritual we would like around it.  Like the condor, these topics aren’t pretty but again, like the condor, they are vital to consider.

With any ending, whether it’s death or something less drastic, we have a beginning.  We may not know what is beginning but things will become clear over time. 

Links

Animal Diversity Web
National Geographic
Audubon
Condor Tales

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.

Reading

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.

Links

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.

Links

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.

Links

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.”

Reading:

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.)

Links

Me and death

Having looked at death around the world and considered the various rituals and ways that the grieving tend to their loved ones, I wanted to think about my own experience with death.

The first time I can recall being confronted by death was my grandad, who died when I was five.  He had been ill and I don’t have many memories of him although I do remember a sort of sense of him, a sort of feeling for his aura.  I wasn’t at the funeral.

Growing up we had a lot of pets.  We had a dog, guinea pigs, hamsters, fish, cats and obviously having pets involves pet deaths.  They were all buried in the same patch in the garden.  All except my guinea pig, Hunny (spelling courtesy of Winnie The Pooh), who had died whilst we were on holiday.  My neighbours had been looking after her.  They buried her and marked the spot with a little wooden cross, inscribed Honey.  Looking back, I think this was my first experience with a bad death.  Other losses had been expected or at least peaceful.  This time I wasn’t there.  I don’t really know what happened.  She was buried in the wrong place and memorialised with the wrong name.

When I was 14, my granma, my beloved granma, passed away.  It was incredibly sudden.  She got ill on Christmas Eve and died in the very early hours of the new year.  She didn’t want grandchildren in the hospital or at the funeral.

I didn’t tell anyone at school.  I didn’t want to talk about it and jinx it and make it real.  But then I was forced to.  On the way home from school, an elderly man stopped to talk to me and my sister.  He knew my granma but they weren’t as close friends as they had been.  He asked after her.  No one had told him she’d passed away.  My younger sister started to move away, making it clear that she wasn’t going to be the one to break the news.  Telling him, uttering those words, remains one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  I can still remember his shaky words, “No one told me… No one told me…”

During my first year at university, I went to Ghana on a voluntary placement to help build a school. Our contact in the village was also the village chief. While we were there, his estranged wife died. She lived over the border in Togo.  Where in the UK, this would be a private moment, in Ghana, it was a public one.  He invited us to hike over to the village she lived in and join him for the funeral.

In a remote, mountainous area, I found myself at the funeral of a stranger, surrounded by a visceral, almost violent, outpouring of grief.  To my 18 year old eyes and ears, it seemed intense and felt uncomfortable.  And yet, the chanting and singing and wailing felt like it was a healing expression of love and pain.  It felt like a release.  It was an intense introduction to funerals.

The next funeral I would attend would be back in the UK, a few years later.  My then-partner’s grandad had passed away.  I knew him a little but obviously my presence was much more for support.  It followed the UK model of death and funerals.

A while after, me and that partner separated, but remained friends.  And then I got a phone call from his mum.  His dad had died.  Suddenly, unexpectedly.  A heart attack that struck from nowhere.  She wanted someone to be with him when she rang him.  Waiting for the taxi to arrive seemed to take a life time.  And then the journey across town seemed to involve every red light available.  When we arrived, I grabbed £20 out of my purse and flung it at the driver, severely overpaying him.  I couldn’t wait to get my change.  There was another lifetime spent trying to find him.

When he finally found out, he slumped to the floor, overwhelmed with tears – and shock – and a bystander wanted to know if they could help, could they get him some water?  Some tissues?  But nothing can help with that pain.  Later, when I finally got home, I slumped to the floor.

The funeral was the first I went to where I really experienced grief.  Grief for myself, not the grief that comes when someone you love has lost another.  Although there was a lot of the latter as well.

It wasn’t long after this that my aunty got suddenly ill and died not long after.  This was a church ceremony, followed by a trip to the crematory then back to her local pub.  There were hymns and memories and a lot of trying to figure out exactly how people were related to me.

She left me a little money and, as she loved to travel, I used it to go to Bali.  Here I encountered another death.  Or at least the cremation prep.  Driving through the luscious rice fields and stepped green hills, we stumbled onto large, decorated sculptures.  Our guide assured us that, being a public affair, the mourners would not mind if we got out and had a quick look.  He explained that often the family can’t afford a cremation straight after death. They temporarily bury the body at a funeral ceremony and visit it, leaving offerings.  But this cannot be the end point.  It is believed that the body must be burnt in order to free the soul from the body so that it can be reincarnated.

 

When it comes to the cremation, the whole village work with the family to prepare.  The body is placed in a sarcophagus, made of paper and wood, which can take the shape of holy animals; the one we saw was an ox.  Later this will have been burnt and thus the soul will be ready to continue its life.

A year later I went to Cambodia and as part of the trip, I visited the Killing Fields.  It was a powerful experience, the atmosphere felt heavy and there was a hushed nature to the place.

“BETWEEN 1975 AND 1979, TWO TO THREE MILLION PEOPLE WERE KILLED IN CAMBODIA BY THE EXTREME COMMUNIST GUERILLA GROUP THE KHMER ROUGE. THIS WAS GENOCIDE IN ITS PUREST, MOST EVIL FORM.”
Responsible Travel

As you walk around the Killing Fields, you confront death in a way that most of us have never experienced.  There are no tarmacked or paved paths here.  You follow the worn groves of paths made by other visitors.  And as those makeshift paths erode with use, the dead begin to appear.  Scraps of clothing.  Bits of bone.  Brutal reminders that these were people.  People who were forced to dig their own graves.  Starved, beaten and exhausted, the graves they managed to dig were shallow.  So now, today, they reappear, forcing us to face the atrocities that happened there.  Forcing us to face the brutal realities of this world.  At the Killing Fields, death is not glossed over, not subject to platitudes and not something you can escape from.

“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and the other begins?”
– Edgar Allan Poe

Death Around The World

In America, death has become a big business since the start of the 20th century.  Before this, families were in charge of the body, the funeral and what happened after that.  It would have been seen as odd if you weren’t involved in preparing your loved one for the afterlife.  Today, we are very detached from death and the rituals we have around death echo this.

Whilst this might be the case in America and the UK, other parts of the world do things very differently.  This is the topic of From Here To Eternity by Caitlin Doughty and I would highly recommend giving it a read.  See what takes your fancy for your own death, and have a think about what really grates on you and why.  And most importantly, have a conversation, or multiple, about death.

A few themes weave their way through the different cultures that are covered in the book, including that of an intimate goodbye and a much more natural seeming option for what happens after death.  For example, a 30 year old man from Belize, told Doughty that when he dies, he’d like to “be buried in a simple hole, shrouded with an animal skin, with leaves lining the walls of the grave.  He plans on designing the animal shroud himself.”

Religion and culture are often the forces that define when death occurs.  And that seems an odd thing to say from a Western perspective but death is more ambiguous that we give it credit for.  Even within Western cultures, we find a physical and a social death.

Physical death: the point after which the body begins to break down

Social death: The point at which a person is no longer a socially active member of a group – you can persist as a social entity long after physical death through memories, mementos etc.

“The way that the corpse is understood effects the way we look at its disposal”
– Olson, 2014 (I forgot to note a first name, I think it was Phil, sorry if it wasn’t!)

In Indonesia, the people of Toraja have a different defined point of death.  Whilst a person may have stopped breathing, they are considered to be in a state more like illness.  This illness will last until an animal – buffalo or pig – has been sacrificed, then the person will be able to die.  During the illness phase, the body is kept in the home, and this can last several years.  Whilst in the home, the family cares for their family member, making sure they have food, changing their clothing, speaking to them and even sharing a bed with them.

This can seem, to eyes from another culture, to be disgusting or disrespectful but that is far from the truth.  The acts are seen as a way of showing love and respect and a way of caring for a loved one that recognises the strength of that bond.  It is an intimate process and a meaningful way to stay connected to a loved one.

After death, most of us think that of burial and cremation, with the latter occurring within the context of a professionalised crematory.  But we have been dealing with death since humanity first began and thus our versions of these rituals are just a touch of the ice burg.

Possibly the earliest example of cremation is found in Australia and refers to the bones of a woman who lived about 42,000 years ago.  She is known as the Mungo Lady and was cremated, then the remaining bones were crushed, and in a second cremation were burned.  We also know that other parts of the world, such as the Ancient Greeks and ancient Romans, and Hindus have practised cremation as a way to cleanse and liberate the soul.

In Italy, in 1869, burial was announced to be unhygienic and thus cremation was touted as the best option for your corpse.  It was presented as being a way to save yourself from being eaten by worms.  The machines used in cremation today, closely resemble those from the 1800s and have a heavy impact on the environment.  To burn quickly, it’s recommended that you have a wooden coffin as cardboard – which intuitively feels more environmentally friendly – burns too quickly so more fuel has to be used to burn the body.  Additionally, there are various byproducts which aren’t that great…

Most cremation in the western world goes on behind closed doors, away from the family, away from view.  Then the ashes are turned into something unrecognisable from the human that the family knew and loved.  As an aside, these are not like on films, they will not scatter into the breeze.  One friend described them as more like cat litter…

One thing I found very interesting is that in the UK, any metal that is left after the body has been cremated gets collected by a company from the Netherlands which then turns it into cars and bikes and taxis.

Japan has the highest rate of cremation, with 99.9% of dead people being cremated.  They also have some fantastically innovative options for the cremated remains, which are normally devoid of individuality.  With an ageing population, the dead may not have someone to tend to their grave or the site of their ashes and so technology has stepped up.  Large buildings store multiple sets of remains and thus the care and tending is carried out by monks.  If you are a relative who cannot get there, you can check in on your relative online, even experience a virtual gravestone with virtual incense and flowers and offerings.

Traditionally, after a Japanese cremation, the family will pick bones from the ashes.

“The family are handed pairs of chopsticks, one made of bamboo, one made of metal.  The chief mourner begins with the feet, picking up bones with the chopsticks and placing them in the urn.  Other family members join in and continue up the skeleton.  The skull will not fit into the urn intact, so the cremator might intervene to break it up into smaller bone fragments using a metal chopstick.  The final bone, the hyoid (the horseshoe-shaped bone underneath the jaw) is placed in the urn last.”
– Doughty

There is an aspect of caring going on here, as well as following reassuring rituals at a time when nothing seems to make sense.  It provides the opportunity for you to carry out something meaningful, something that you can do when there is very little you can do.

Another obvious model for death, dying and grief comes from Mexico where traditions, including the Day of the Dead, embraces and exists alongside death.

“For the families, this night is not just a one-way acceptance of offerings for their dead; it is an exchange with the community.”
– Doughty

There are so many amazing, fascinating death rituals that can be found all round the world and of course I will only be touching on a few.  With this in mind, I really suggest reading up about sky burials.  Many of us have heard of them but know little about the actualities of the ceremony.  In part of India, cremation and burial are considered off limits as post-death options because unclean dead bodies are thought to defile the sacred elements of earth, fire and water.  Hence the body must go to the sky.  In Tibet, wood (for cremation) is scarce, and the ground is too hard and cold for burial, so again, we have turned to the sky.  This is where the vultures come in.  These sky dancers carry the body, in pieces, up into the sky and your body is returned to nature.

Where America and the UK avoid death, formalise death and deny death, Mexico embraces it and in bringing death out of the shadows, they create space for grief, and thus for healing.  My own experience of non western death comes from Togo.  In a remote, mountainous area, I found myself at a funeral and there was a visceral, almost violent outpouring of grief.  To my 18 year old eyes and ears, it seemed intense and felt uncomfortable.  But even then, it felt more authentic than what I imagined a western funeral to be like (my own granma had asked that children weren’t at the funeral when she died).  There was something in the chanting and singing and wailing that felt powerful, and healing.

Whilst I have been hard on the west, things are starting to change.  Just a few weeks ago, I went to a few talks about death as part of York’s Dead Good Festival.  This included a talk about the cremation process, about natural burials and about what happens if you donate your body to medical education.

In the UK, traditional burial is waning in popularity, with 77% of people choosing cremation by fire and with natural burials becoming increasingly popular since 1994.

“The poet Walt Whitman spoke of soil and earth as the great transformers, accepting “the leavings” of men and producing “such divine materials.”  Whitman marvelled at the ability of the earth to reabsorb the corrupt, the vile, the diseased, and produce new, pristine life.”
– Doughty

And what could be more inspiring that that?!  As one person Doughty met said, it takes nine months to grow a baby, perhaps it should take the same time for the body to disintegrate, rather than the few hours that cremation takes.

Natural burials can be more personalised, more intimate and have more family involvement.  You can say goodbye to your loved ones in a way that reflects who you were in life and, in giving your body back to nature, you feed the very landscape you will spend eternity in.  And that’s a really important point – very often, if you choose traditional burial, you are only guaranteed that site for a set number of years, after that, you may find yourself getting rehomed.

Another way to die as you lived, is to donate yourself to medical education.  As a clarification, many people seem to muddle whole body donation with organ donation.  The first is where your body is used by medical students and the second is where your organs are given to a living person who needs them.

In the UK, you can tick a box on your drivers license to agree to organ donation and as of some point in 2020, it will become an opt out system instead of opt in.  This means your organs will be up for grabs, unless you have specified otherwise.  For whole body donation, you need to contact an anatomy unit.  If you visit the Human Tissue Authority you can get more information about body donation as well as find out where your nearest unit is.

If your body is accepted for organ donation, it is unlikely to be used for medical education – they need whole bodies, preferably ‘normal’ bodies for the students to learn from.  If you are accepted for whole body donation, you may be used for either up to three years, or indefinitely depending on what you choose.  After you’ve been used, there will be a funeral and a thanksgiving ceremony.  Family can be involved as much or as little as they want but the funeral is free and provides a way of memorialising the death.  The thanksgiving ceremony is an opportunity for the medical school to acknowledge this ultimate gift.

In the UK, you donate directly to medical schools but in the US, there are body brokers and some of these seem to be profit driven so do your research. Other uses for bodies include researching specific conditions, for military weapons testing, for car safety and even in body farms.

Further reading: