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Animal Triste

The saddest scene in movie history isn't Mammy lamenting what's gone in Gone With the Wind or even the choice Sophie is forced to make in Sophie's Choice. It's the agonized bellow that killer whale Kasata lets rips when her calf, Takara, is taken to entertain SeaWorld crowds an ocean away, as featured in Blackfish.

Gabriela Cowpwerthwaite’s documentary unfolds a damning exposé of the multi-billion dollar sea-park industry and the connection between its inhumane treatment of orcas in captivity and the resulting perils for the trainers who work with them. 

Humans may be the only species to crack out the hankies and Häagen-Dazs when things get glum, but evidence is mounting that we have no monopoly on mourning loss. "Every time we've taken a calf away from the mother, we've seen it be a traumatic experience," former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove told Film Festival Traveler following a Blackfish sceening at Lincoln Center's Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center. "The observable behavior that we saw and the vocalizations that we heard when they stripped Takara away from Kasata and transported Takara to Florida [SeaWorld] went on for days."

Not only did SeaWorld ply the wailing whale with meds, per Hargrove, it also brought in a senior research scientist from the independent non-profit Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute to anayze the vocals. Having studied orcas in the wild, the scientist determined that Kasata's cries were "long-range vocals," reported Hargrove. Plainly, she was amping up her vocalizations in oceanic search of her calf. "So if Kasaka had never even used her long-range vocals in 30 years, she knew instinctively how to do it," said Hargrove. 

Dolphins are other cetaceans known for their mournful behavior at the loss of kith or kin. In How Animals Grieve, author and anthropologist Barbara J. King lavishes examples drawn from her research on emotion and intelligence in animals. Her article in the July issue of Scientific American, "When Animals Mourn," gives a full-blooded depiction of a dolphin in a state of grief:

On a research vessel in the waters off Greece's Amvrakikos Gulf, Joan Gonzalvo watched a female bottlenose dolphin in obvious distress. Over and over again, the dolphin pushed a newborn calf, almost certainly her own, away from the observers' boat and against the current with her snout and pectoral fins. It was as if she wanted to nudge her baby into motion—but to no avail. The baby was dead. Floating under direct sunlight on a hot day, its body quickly began to decay; occasionally the mother removed pieces of dead skin and loose tissue from the corpse.

When the female dolphin continued to behave in this way into a second day, Gonzalvo and his colleagues on the boat grew concerned: in addition to fussing with the calf, she was not eating normally, behavior that could be risky for her health, given dolphins' high metabolism. Three other dolphins from the Amvrakikos population of about 150 approached the pair, but none disrupted the mother's behavior or followed suit.

Can't get enough of this fascinating topic? Pick up a copy of King's book, How Animals Grieve.

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