Our sweet boy Champ, the eldest of our dogs, recently died after being diagnosed with lymphoma. Unlike most dogs who can achieve remission with treatment, his tumor burden was resistant to the most effective, compassionate, and commonly used treatment regimen. After we learned of Champ’s diagnosis, we tried to do all we could for him – respecting his will to live and his wish to avoid suffering.
Champ was part of our family for more than a decade. I can still remember the day we brought him home from a Washington, DC shelter. While grieving him, I’ve been reflecting on all the wonderful memories and adventures we had together – traveling across the country, hiking near our West Virginia cabin and in the national forests, and quiet evenings with our other dogs. A gentle giant, Champ was unfailingly kind and tolerant. He was committed to making everyone he met feel welcome and at ease. His joy and love for life were contagious.
Our other dogs have been rocked by his death. They knew he was ill and treated him with care until he died. Everyone has been grieving in his or her own way – some on edge, others withdrawing. All our dogs have sought comfort from my husband Nik and me.
As someone who thinks and writes about (nonhuman) animals and our relationships with them on a regular basis, I still didn’t fully appreciate the unspoken depths of Champ’s relationships with the other animals in our family. In retrospect, he was our patriarch, our anchor, our quiet leader.
No matter how much we care about and advocate for them, we still underestimate animals’ experiences. We will never completely realize their secret lives, including how they grieve.
In anthropologist Barbara King’s How Animals Grieve, King shows how animals of many species grieve their loved ones. She makes the point that grief is made possible through love – an emotion that other animals are clearly capable of based on their anatomy, physiology, and behavior. She tells of elephants surrounding their dying matriarch, a cat wailing after the death of her sister, and horses circling a freshly dug grave of their companion. In her compelling book, she demonstrates the similarities and differences in how humans and animals experience loss. In doing so, she turns concerns about anthropomorphism – attributing human-like characteristics to nonhumans – on their side.
It’s really anthropodenial – a taboo against granting that animals have emotions like humans, or that humans have emotions like animals – we should be worried about. As primatologist Frans de Waal points out, despite an abundance of scientific studies showing animals suffer and have internal decision-making skills, we are still slow to acknowledge their inner lives, or the fact that many of our own emotional capacities stem from the fact that we are animals:
Modern biology leaves us no choice other than to conclude that we are animals. In terms of anatomy, physiology, and neurology we are really no more exceptional than, say, an elephant or a platypus is in its own way. Even such presumed hallmarks of humanity as warfare, politics, culture, morality, and language may not be completely unprecedented.
Perhaps some people deny animals’ emotions because of a discomfort with the way we, as humans, treat the very beings we resemble. It removes them from the moral equation. They lose, but so do we.
In many ways, animals are more attuned to us than we are to them. Since animals don’t typically communicate with words, they are keenly observant of body language, including ours. Sometimes they know what we’re thinking before we do; not because they are mind readers but because they carefully read our subtle cues.
We could learn a lot from them.
Though our family is deep in grief, we are lucky our house is still full of love. Our animals’ lives and loving kindness are a reminder to us of how we should treat others. My hope is that we can honor Champ’s memory, and the memory of his brother Charlie who died a few years ago, by continuing to extend love to the many human and animal beings in this world who are in need of compassion. After all, as Maya Angelou once wrote, “love costs us all we are…yet it is only love that sets us free.”