LOVING ANIMALS by Eugenia Anastassiou
From the legend of Androcles and the Lion, to Kipling’s Jungle Book, through the moving story of social alienation and redemption in Paul Gallico’s Snow Goose the theme of the deep bonds and devotion between animals and humans has been explored many times in literature.
Yet last week, in Helmand in Afghanistan, life seemed very poignantly to imitate literature. Twenty-eight year old Lance Corporal Liam Tasker, an Arms and Explosives Search dog-handler in the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, was shot on mission. As his body was being taken back to Camp Bastion, a comrade-in-arms, his own search dog Theo, who witnessed Lance Corporal Tasker’s death, died from a seizure. Reports from battle-hardened soldiers in the field mentioned that Theo had ‘died from a broken heart’. Today the soldier-master and his dog are being repatriated together, making their final journey back home, as a team. Lance Corporal Liam Tasker and Theo died on Tuesday March 1st 2011. His death brings the total number of UK military personnel to have died in Afghanistan to 358, and Theo is the sixth British military dog killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.
Even as human beings, we often cynically question the theory of people (let alone animals) dying from a broken heart. How does Shakespeare’s Rosalind have it in As You Like It? ‘No one ever died for love’. Certainly art, poetry and literature though go a long way in perpetuating that naturally romantic, idealised form of death. Can animals feel such a thing as heartbreak, or is it just anthropomorphic clap-trap, worthy only of the Daily Mail?
There are undoubtedly many well-known instances where animals, especially dogs it seems, have grieved and mourned the death, both of their own and their owners. Phoenix Ark’s founder told me how, visiting a wolf sanctuary in Colorado, an alpha wolf who had lost his mate, dug a half hole in the sandy ground and lay down to grieve. That night, when the pack usually picked up each other’s haunting evening wolf song, the others stayed eerily silent, as he howled, as if in a mark of respect. Howl, howl, howl. Wild elephants are known to pass around the bones of their dead , as though the touch of their trunks is transferring some deeper pereception of life and death.
As for our emotional relationship with animals though, the touching 19th century tale of the Scottish Skye terrier, Greyfriars Bobby, made into a rather over-sentimentalised movie, a statute and virtual industry, is the true story of a dog whose love for his dead master John Gray, a night watchman for the Edinburgh City Police, meant he spent every day sitting on Jock’s grave in Greyfriars Kirk, for fourteen years until his own death. More recently, in 2002, during Mugabe’s violent attacks on both his own people and white farmers in Zimbabwe, the image of Squeak, a Jack Russell staunchly guarding the mutilated body of his owner and refusing to move, made headlines across the world.
Apart from anecdotal evidence, and the instincts of writers, scientists are now beginning to analyse higher feelings in animals, especially the strong attachment between man and dog. Heading some of this research is neuro-psychiatrist and leading autism specialist Professor Jaak Panksepp, who has attempted to map out animal brains and further confirms emotions such as happiness, even possibly humour, as well as sadness and separation anxiety, as part of their fundamental psychological make-up – just like humans. To many it is quite obvious and rather makes a mockery of supposedly vital research grants being spent on studies that can lead British scientists to the remarkably obvious conclusion that a stag actually feels stress during a hunt!
But at last science bears up a level of anthropomorphism. Indeed, while we perhaps can see everything, and sometimes too much, of ourselves in the great mirror of nature, it would be impossible to understand animals without the intrinsic langauge of emotion, that is so much part of ourselves. Various dog experts, animal psychologists and vets commenting on ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog With A Broken Heart’ find it unusual or impossible, since dogs, like all pack animals, have a strong survival instinct, and eventually adapt to new situations or new owners. But in this case, especially because of the heightened circumstances of Theo being a war-dog and working with Lance Corporal Tasker in such stressful conditions as Afghanistan, the bond would surely become even more intense. Just look at their photograph above.
As for emotion and its destructive effects, Dr. Roger Mugford, an animal psychologist who also happens to treat the Queen’s corgis, offers the explanation that ‘dogs being highly sociable animals, suffer from a form of depression which inhibits not only their appetites but also their immune system. This makes them susceptible to infection and can be fatal’. But isn’t this also the way humans can weaken, and even die of a broken heart, with apologies to Shakespeare?
Other animal experts and behaviouralists will probably put up endless arguments against Theo dying of a broken heart, dismissing it as trite sentimentality, made up to make people feel better about a tragic outcome. Why should humans be so limited and arrogant though, as to presume that Lance Corporal Tasker could not instil such an extraordinary bond, a tribute indeed, and that Theo never sensed, as Anaïs Nin put it: ‘Love (which) never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source…..it dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness’. March 2011 Eugenia Anastassiou. Eugenia has worked in Television and Film on many political and sociological documentaries and is passionately involved in ideas and culture. Her essay is a very welcome edition to a little publisher, that prides itself on its animal stories.