Two cats, Siamese sisters named Willa and Carson, lived for 14 years with my friends. The sisters’ bond was visibly close; they ate, slept and relaxed together, sun-basking or dozing in favored spots in the house. As she aged, Carson developed some health problems. One day, she urgently needed the vet, who decided to keep her overnight in an incubator for warmth. Carson died in her sleep that night.
At first, Willa acted mildly upset, as she had before when separated for brief periods when one of the pair had visited the vet. Within two or three days, however, matters changed. Willa began to emit sounds that are, my friends say, best compared to Irish keening for the dead. These were outright, otherworldly wails, accompanied by constant searching behavior for the lost Carson.
First learning of Willa’s behavior, I kept the specter of anthropomorphism firmly in mind. The attribution of grief to animals (especially non-apes, non-elephants and non-cetaceans) is controversial because to feel grief requires a memory of the individual who’s missed. Some evolutionary theorists insist that a capacity for sustained remembering is a uniquely human trait. So I asked myself: Could Willa’s mood have been not true grief but instead a sort of felt contagion, picked up from her human caretakers’ own sadness at losing their cat? Or could Willa’s upset primarily have been caused by the change in her own daily routine?