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Kangaroos – The 100 Days Project: Day 77 [24]

Grieving Kangaroo


Photo © Evan Switzer

Kangaroos are thickly supplied with veins on their forearms, close to the skin’s surface, and cool themselves, on hot days, by licking that surface (and the surface of their legs, belly, tail). Dr E, who asserted so confidently that the kangaroo male in the photograph above, had been licking his forearms in sexual arousal, does not mention that on Monday January 11th, 2016 – the day upon which these photographs were taken – the temperature in River Heads was 30 degrees plus, warm enough for a kangaroo to have been licking his/her forearms for a much more conventional reason.

Photo: Ray Drew

But I have jumped the gun there. Perhaps, on the off-chance that some readers have just joined us, I should reprise. This post builds upon the post for Day 69 [32] (‘Grieving Kangaroo I’), and to a certain extent upon that for Day 63 [38] (on ‘anthropomorphism’). The principal point of the Day 69 post was to introduce a photograph of a young buck kangaroo holding up his dying mate so that she could see her/their joey one last time. Or so, in any case, appeared to be the story, and the photograph, so moving and so powerful, went viral, literally overnight, until, the very next morning, experts stepped in and explained that the photograph had been radically misinterpreted, that what it actually showed was an over-heated alpha male kangaroo who had very likely just killed his mate in the process of having sex with her. The apparently tender way in which he was holding her in the photograph was in fact a position of possessive sexual guarding, designed to ward off other would-be rapist male kangaroos.


It’s true that, in the photograph above, one can see a portion of this male kangaroo’s erect penis – a much more reliable indication of sexual arousal than the licked forearms – but is it conclusive? It’s not inconceivable that distress or threat can cause an erection in some mammals. I have seen chimpanzees in a zoo masturbate when excited or distressed; it has been reported to me that elephant males can develop erections when distressed. In the process of developing these posts I have seen several photographs of kangaroo males, in what I call the ‘guard’ position – guarding their group, not a sexual partner – with erections. Here, from post 24 [77], is one of them:

Photo: Ray Drew

But I’m not interested in splitting hairs (or other things) here. Although it doesn’t seem to me that the presence of an erection, in such a stressed and distressful situation, must necessarily be a sign of sexual arousal, I am nonetheless prepared to concede that it might be. But must we interpret it in the manner that these experts have?


What do we know of the inner workings of a kangaroo’s psyche? I can think of at least one play by Shakespeare in which sexual excitement, murder, and love are deeply confused in the one person and moment. Which is not to imply that the male kangaroo in the photograph has murdered his love. But let us, for the moment, entertain – I do not say accept – the most extreme form of what the experts have here thrust upon us, that the male kangaroo might have accidentally killed the female in the process of a sexual encounter. Would that mean that he could not be dismayed, horrified, confused by what has happened – that he cannot grieve? Why would even this most extreme case mean that this, as the experts say emphatically, is not a photograph of a grieving kangaroo, and that those who think that it is are guilty of ‘naïve anthropomorphism’ (by which, I should probably say, I am taking it they are referring to anthropomorphism generally, rather than implying – a position, ironically, I would share, while still denying that there was anything essentially naïve in seeing this kangaroo as grieving – that there are naïve forms and non-naïve forms: this whole 100 Days project is an attempt to promote a non-naïve form)?


The questions extend. Why must we normatise grief, and then impose that grief-model upon animals, if only in the negative form of denying that that is what they are feeling? Human animals, after all, and whether experts are aware of it or not, do not have the one consistent mode of grieving.


At this point, tired of my own voice, I’d like to reproduce a note just sent to me by Teya Brooks Pribac, researcher in human and nonhuman animal grief:

I don’t know if this kangaroo was grieving or not, and neither (unless they personally knew the parties involved) would any other human. The reproductive hypothesis advanced by the ‘experts’ is possible but it’s not more probable or true than the grief hypothesis. It’s just the usual banal interpretation that stems from the old convention (adopted in a male-dominant setting, the boys’ club) of explaining all nonhuman animal behaviour through the lens of reproduction and dominance/competition, i.e. that’s what animals do: fight and reproduce. There was this theory for a while whereby dominance-hierarchy was the principal social organisation in all primate societies. While that theory was in existence and evidence of it could not be found in a particular primate society, what do you do? Well, call it ‘latent dominance’ of course. Now, it turns out that convivial relations are far more common among nonhuman animals than aggression, and thanks to more sophisticated research methods and a shift in attentional focus, nonhuman animals’ psychological and social complexities are progressively being recognised.


We also know that nonhuman animals can experience grief, and that the feeling itself is no different in human and nonhuman animals. That is, if we stick to the core definition, which Colin Parkes, long time student of (human) grief, came up with in an attempt to rectify the definitional mess that plagued the field and made it difficult to discuss grief in the first place. Parkes proposed that the essential components of grief are: ‘the experience of a loss and a reaction of intense pining and yearning for the object lost (separation anxiety).’ And we know quite a bit about the latter in nonhuman animals.


While the feeling is completely comparable, however, the outer expression of grief varies, not only across animal species but also across human cultures themselves. This often eludes Western commentators (a ‘dominance complex’ perhaps?), who tend to have a very narrow view of what constitutes a human – well, at least when they are discussing nonhuman animals. But just a quick look across human cultures reveals quite a picturesque landscape. Some bury their dead, others don’t, others eat them (out of connection and respect not due to food shortages). On one end of the spectrum we have stoic societies where little or no emotion is displayed, and, on the other end, emotionally extremely expressive societies where everyone is expected to cry and wail. Other societies display aggression, others practice sex-oriented rituals accompanied by wild drinking and dancing, still others store the corpses in rice wine barrels, drain the liquid after a while and save the bones. Then you have cultures that include lying down with the corpse, offering it cigarettes and food, or in which wives may be expected to rub the husband’s decomposing matter onto their own bodies, and so on and so forth.


If a nonhuman animal does something ‘weird’ like this – ‘weird’ according to Western standards – experts are quick to point out that the ‘dumb’ animal doesn’t know her beloved one is dead and hence she can’t be grieving. 


It’s really fascinating material. And that’s just one species: the Anthropos, It suddenly makes the term anthropomorphism sound even more vague, doesn’t it? 

It does indeed, and makes me wonder whether,  in denying this male kangaroo unknown alternatives of motivation, and imposing, if only to deny their presence in this kangaroo, only those motivations they know, given their limited sense of the human, it isn’t, ironically, the ‘experts’ who are being anthropomorphic (or would it be more pertinent to say ego-morphic) here?


And I still haven’t got to a reading of the photograph! – or rather photographs, for there are five: four that the articles, pro and con (largely con), have presented to us, and a fifth that they seem to (strategically?) overlook.


Matters aplenty, then, for ‘Grieving Roo III’…and probably IV and V and VI, but I’ll try to restrain myself.

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