If not sadness, then what?

I finished watering my garden the other day and went about coiling up the hose. I glanced down and saw a leaf that resembled a fetus or newborn animal. Closer inspection revealed that unfortunately it was a new born bird who’d fallen from its nest. Directly above it was a hole in the side of our house that I’d seen a bird fly into a few days earlier. Devastated, I abandoned my project to attend to the bird. I picked up the tiny body, about two inches long, and placed it on a trowel so that I could look at it up close. Its perfectly formed little body had a tiny little beak and tiny wings that were beginning to sprout the downy feathers that would have covered its entire body during the upcoming weeks. It looked so peaceful, eyes closed, at rest. I was so sad for this little creature. I was just as sad for those it left behind.

I’d noticed one of the parents a few days before flying into the hole. I remember thinking that it was a great place for a nest. It was protected from the elements like the crazy wind that’s been wreaking havoc on our trees. It was hidden away from predators, as the cats in the neighborhood had no chance of getting near it. The mother had sat on her nest, laid an egg and tended to it with her mate close by, waiting to introduce it to the world. The egg hatched, revealing the tiny life.


with the blink of an eye,

it was gone.

What did this mother bird do when she realized her baby had fallen out of her carefully thought out nest? Did she made a sound? Was it quiet? Loud? Drawn out? Did she sit next to her tiny baby? When did she finally accept defeat?

I often think about how animals experience emotion, more specifically how they mourn. We’re told not to attribute human emotions to animals; that they don’t “feel” like we do. Tell that to the dog that risked rush hour traffic to save its friend and dragged it by the collar through the on-coming cars. Or to the cat who tried to bring its mate back to life while people tried in vain to pull him off, viciously attacking their efforts. Or what about the mother in March of the Penguins who cried hysterically over her lost egg and went as far as to try, unsuccessfully, to steal another mother’s egg. Her wailing still haunts me. There are hundreds of examples that have been caught on film by both amateurs and professionals of animals experiencing loss. If not sadness, what are these animals feeling?

I have trouble watching these “mourning” clips that go viral, the Discovery Channel moments that tug at the heartstrings or make me flat out sob. I get sad when I see roadkill, thinking about how lonely the animal must have been during their last moments and who they left behind. These are the thoughts that fill the crevices and jump out at me when I’m feeling my most desolate. I know that animals are not people. That they do not have our cognitive thoughts or our opposable thumbs. But they certainly “feel”. Although anger is different than sadness, it’s still an emotion and to make my point I’m throwing it in here. I often observe my own cats in the throws of jealousy as they brood watching one of the others receives pets and attention. They might not be able to think, “I feel jealous”, but they’re experiencing something and they prove it by smacking the other cat as he saunters by them.

When it comes to loss, perhaps animals are better off not having to experience it exactly like humans do. I certainly wouldn’t wish my sadness on them. But the concept that people project their emotions on animals and that they have none of their own? I’m just not on board with that theory.

I carefully placed the tiny bird in my garden while I dug a hole. I laid it to rest and covered the mound of earth with my birdbath that the parents might visit. And although it probably won’t effect their grief, if they’re even experiencing any, at least it will help ease mine.


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Filed under mourning, nature, photography

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