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Mother orca’s grief over dead calf resonates around the world

FILE - In this file photo taken Tuesday, July 24, 2018, provided by the Center for Whale Research, a baby orca whale is being pushed by her mother after being born off the Canada coast near Victoria, British Columbia. Whale researchers are keeping close watch on an endangered orca that has spent the past week carrying and keeping her dead calf afloat in Pacific Northwest waters. The display has struck an emotional chord around the world and highlighted the plight of the declining population of southern resident killer whales that has not seen a successful birth since 2015. (Michael Weiss / AP)
FILE - In this file photo taken Tuesday, July 24, 2018, provided by the Center for Whale Research, a baby orca whale is being pushed by her mother after being born off the Canada coast near Victoria, British Columbia. Whale researchers are keeping close watch on an endangered orca that has spent the past week carrying and keeping her dead calf afloat in Pacific Northwest waters. The display has struck an emotional chord around the world and highlighted the plight of the declining population of southern resident killer whales that has not seen a successful birth since 2015. (Michael Weiss / AP)

SEATTLE – Is it her grief … or ours?

As she carried her dead calf for the ninth straight day, Tahlequah the mother orca whale has captured the world’s attention.

People have responded to her plight with poems. Paintings. Songs. Cascades of phone calls, emails and social media posts – sharing searing, intensely personal moments of grief in their own lives. Miscarriages, bereavement, the bone-deep sadness of loss.

No one should be surprised, say experts who have observed animal behavior and know in their own lives how an animal’s apparent grief can trigger, and even sometimes help us work through, our own.

Barbara King, professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary and author of the book “How Animals Grieve” (University of Chicago, 2013) has for years documented animals and grieving behavior, whether in giraffes, gorillas, dolphins, monkeys or even a human working through grief with an animal.

In Tahlequah, also known as J35, she sees nothing different.

“She is laboring. She is using this incredible energy, she is not acting in a way she normally would in terms of self-care,” she said.

And a human response to her is only to be expected.

“We risk a lot by denying our connection with other animals,” she said.

But some urge caution when projecting human emotions to animals.

“There is this really quick jump to interpreting this behavior as grief,” said Kaeli Swift, a doctoral candidate at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington. “There are lots of things animals do that are easy to understand through the lens of what we do ourselves. … We have to be cautious about not projecting about how this makes us feel as to what is going on with this orca.”

Yet it is only natural that people would, in witnessing Tahlequah’s loss, see not only the peril of a critically endangered species, but relive losses of their own, some experts said.

“I think that is what we are seeing; she is attached and just as when someone dies in our own lives, she is neglecting herself because this is taking precedence over everything,” said Lori Marino, a specialist in marine mammal intelligence for more than 25 years, formerly on the faculty of Emory University in Atlanta.

“It is very familiar to any of us who has lost a family member, and that is why people around the world are feeling sad for her. It is so easy to empathize with her for what she is going through, that is her baby and she carried this baby for 18 months. She had a little bit of time, about 30 minutes with her child, and then she watched her die.”

Taylor Shedd of Soundwatch has been monitoring the whale from a distance since Tahlequah’s calf died on July 24. Shedd searched for her all day Wednesday until finding her in Boundary Pass at 2:45 p.m.

She was still clinging to the calf.

“Rough seas and spread-out whales made finding her challenging,” Shedd wrote in a text. “We stayed back and scanned the horizon and finally saw blows in the distance … J35 looks to be in ok condition.”

John Marzluff, an expert in crow behavior at the UW, has witnessed complex behavior by crows in the presence of dead crows, including alarm calling and gathering.

But it was the sight of bison that struck him, as they shooed him and his students away from the bones and bloody snow of one of their own that had been recently killed by a wolf.

“This was an older female, she had been trapped in there by the wolves, they had her from both sides,” Marzluff said.

After the bison pushed him and the students away, the bison slowly walked by the bones, one by one, in procession.

“It was wild, that suggested much more of a mourning or concerned response than what I had seen with crows,” Marzluff said. “It was powerful; we all still remember it.”

Swift, the UW doctoral student, is studying crow behavior and has documented that the birds gather at the body of a deceased crow, and will touch it – and even, in very few instances, try to engage with it sexually. Crows also will avoid the area where the corpse is found – and scold any person associated with it.

In her experiment, she used stuffed dead crows not associated with the living crows she studied, so she could not come to a conclusion about whether crows mourn a family member. She said she could not say if the orca is grieving and that people should not jump to equate their own reaction with hers.

But, Swift said, it is not necessary to believe animals grieve to be moved by the sight of Tahlequah carrying her dead baby day after day.

If anything, she hopes it galvanizes people to act on the fact that this is a population of whales that has dwindled to only 75 animals and has just lost another calf.

“The sad part of this story should not be that she is sad,” Swift said. “It should be that our critically endangered pod of whales lost another calf, that is the take-home message that people need to be galvanized on.

“The fact that this pod has lost a calf, and that it is coming at such a critical time, that is an objective thing we can agree on, that is an objective fact. My hope would be that we wouldn’t require animals to experience the world like we do to have compassion for them and to want to protect them.”

Tahlequah has brought attention to the plight of orca whales in a way no task force or scientific paper can.

“She has made the most powerful, eloquent statement of any of us by far,” said historian Jason Colby, of the University of Victoria and author of the new book “Orca, How we came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator” (Oxford, 2018).

Whether as a statement of her own grief, or channeling our own, Tahlequah’s struggle shows the problems facing her clan, which has not seen a successful pregnancy in three years. It’s devastating to watch, Colby said.

Particularly from a mother in a culture of animals that are led by mothers, that her actions would be a clarion call reaching beyond her own species is particularly apt, Colby said.

“The mothers are the leaders.”