Featured Image Credit: Ken Balcomb/Center for Whale Research
By: Dr. Jason Bruck, Oklahoma State University, Department of Integrative Biology
Over the past days, the story of an orca pushing her dead calf through the waters of the Puget Sound has captivated the world. This part of the story, however, has come to an end as J35, the 20-year-old orca also known as Tahlequah, finally released her calf this past Saturday. While this event has brought much-needed attention to the plight of the southern resident killer whales, it has also highlighted a trend toward anthropomorphism amongst well-meaning and empathetic people. It has been claimed on blogs (https://www.seadocsociety.org/blog/is-southern-resident-killer-whale-j35-really-mourning) and even by scientists through the popular press (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/07/27/an-orca-calf-died-shortly-after-being-born-her-grieving-mother-has-carried-her-body-for-days/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.91ccc4182b2f) that j35 is “grieving” for her dead calf. While it is natural for many to want to ascribe human thoughts and emotions to this whale, we should ask ourselves what that means, and if this is the best policy moving forward as we try to focus the public’s attention toward worthy conservation issues.
Scientifically, we assume parsimony in the interpretation of behavior because that leads to more successful predictions. While the book Beyond Words by Carl Safina (https://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Words-What-Animals-Think/dp/0805098887) claims we share the same brain and neurophysiology with whales, but that’s only true for the latter. We really do not share the same brain as aspects of our cortical shape and anatomy are actually quite different from that of an orca (see Cozzi et. al., 2016 with a particular focus on the temporal lobe https://www.elsevier.com/books/anatomy-of-dolphins/cozzi/978-0-12-407229-9). But even though we share neurotransmitters and neuron structures with dolphins, we also share the same underlying neurophysiological processes with fruit flies. Yet, I don’t think we can assume these invertebrates grieve (especially as we do). Safina goes on the write:
“Only humans have human minds, But believing that only humans have minds is like believing that because only humans have human skeletons, only humans have skeletons.”
But that is the key. How can we assume what a mind processes, especially when we do not share that mind? I have watched hedgehog moms eat their babies at the slightest disturbance. When we see behaviors that we cannot easily identify with, what are we to do? Are these animals no longer worthy of our protection and conservation? The evolutionary biologist explains infanticidal behavior as an adaptation to strict energy demands or intersexual competition (http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/18035811). In the case of the hedgehogs, it is better to take the energy and nutrients of your offspring back, then to leave them to some predator (yet we do now know if the hedgehog actually makes such calculations internally, they only need to behave as if they do).
Hedgehogs aren’t the only offspring killers in the animal world, with orcas (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-22714-x) and bottlenose dolphins (http://www.jwildlifedis.org/doi/10.7589/0090-3558-38.3.505) directing the behavior toward unrelated calves. The idea that a male orca could kill a calf to make its mother fertile sooner strikes us as foreign and beyond even the literary machinations of George R. R. Martin. Yet this is part of the cetacean behavioral repertoire. ‘Scandalous’ behavior to be sure, and hard stuff to try and make a conservation campaign from.
Anthropomorphism trivializes the role of the behaviorist. It makes assumptions that humans (and our cognition) are at the center of all animal thought. It limits our ability to conceive of animal mental capacities that we do not share. At worst case, anthropomorphism makes it difficult to interpret behavioral motivations. For example, in most species, the showing of teeth is a threat, whereas in humans it is a disarming display. A person in front of a non-human primate that is barring its incisors would be well served not anthropomorphizing.
Perhaps J35 was simply performing behaviors consistent with keeping her calf’s blowhole above water. Perhaps she did not recognize her calf was dead, at least in the parts of her brain that would have allowed her to stop sooner. Which leads to the possibility that if she could have been convinced the calf was no longer alive sooner, she might have abandoned her self-destructive behavior before the calf ultimately deteriorated in front of her. But if you assumed this was unmitigated grief, there would be no remedy. Nothing you could have done to mitigate the unnecessary risk J35 was taking. And this thinking influenced her management, as the decision was made not to take the calf away because of a perceived need for her to mourn (https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/environment/researchers-wont-take-dead-orca-calf-away-from-mother-as-she-carries-it-into-a-17th-day/). Do we assume she would have acted like a human whose child had been taken away if the dead calf was removed? What if the removal of that calf was actually what she needed to break this behavioral cycle? A neurological reset to what had become a cognitive “blue screen of death”? The animal behavior literature speaks of stimulus-response patterns that can be extinguished if triggering stimuli are removed (see Niko Tinbergen https://www.amazon.com/Curious-Naturalists-Niko-Tinbergen/dp/0870234560). We will never know the answer to this question for J35, however, it is still important to understand how anthropomorphic thinking, even among the scientists charged with her care, led people to exclude a remedy that could have gotten her on the road to recovery sooner.
I have seen this behavior before in bottlenose dolphins. Not this long mind you, but when I have seen it, this behavior is done with a sense of urgency. It’s exhausting. Is that what you would predict in a grief response? Not as we know it. In truth, however, I do not know what this whale was thinking. No human does, and that is ok. Her plight these last 17 days was still worthy of our attention even if we do not try to project our grief onto her. If we can learn to appreciate whales, dolphins and other non-human animals for what they are, rather than how human they can be, then we can protect them even when we don’t see ourselves in their behavior. I’m looking at you sharks (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/people-and-culture/onward/2013/03/01/100-million-sharks-killed-every-year-study-shows-on-eve-of-international-conference-on-shark-protection/).
Dr. Bruck is a Faculty member in the Department of Integrative Biology at Oklahoma State University who is focused on marine mammal cognition and communication. He has worked with numerous marine mammal species both in the wild and under human care and his research on dolphin memory has been covered by National Geographic, NPR, and the Washington Post.