Penguin Death and the Wild Scope of Grief

The recent catastrophic death of thousands of baby emperor penguins and subsequent decline in emperor penguin births sends my mind in multiple directions at once. I think about the surprisingly emotional experience I (Will) had watching The March of the Penguins around my birthday in July 2005; I hear the voices of the many people who have expressed deep grief for the death of animals in the years since Joanne and I have delved into grief work; I sense the elemental force of grief, the extent to which it deserves comparison to other natural forces like gravity and electromagnetism; I think about communication between species and the increasingly important work of those who are exploring the empathetic connection between human and non-/more-than-human animals. Basically, I am swamped by the report of these penguins’ deaths. More than that, however, I understand this news as an opportunity to open to the grief on this planet and to affirm the full, wild spectrum of grief, a spectrum that also houses love and light. As part of my practice of active grieving following the in the wake of my son’s death, I am motivated by this mass penguin death to include the active grieving of animals on this planet.


For my twenty-fifth birthday, I went to see March of the Penguins. This choice was motivated partially by a long-running joke and partially by a sincere connection. Since childhood, everybody in my family understood that penguins were my favorite animal. I received penguin-themed cards and stuffed animals and emails and newspaper clippings for years, even up through my mid-20s. But sometime around age 20, I started wondering whether the penguin craze was authentic or whether it was created by my family. I raised this question to my mother at some point, but it was received as a covert request for more penguin things. And so the penguins kept coming. By the time March of the Penguins came out in theatres, I had been on a soul-searching roller coaster ride motivated by an existential question: What do penguins mean to me? I decided that, if they were to mean anything, I had to get to know them better. Instead of seeing them through the eyes of childhood adoration and fascination, I would need to learn about their lives and think them anew, think them as living beings with their own lives.

Grieving elephant. Image taken from blog by MIREIA QUEROL ROVIRA. Click the image to read the blog.

Grieving elephant. Image taken from blog by MIREIA QUEROL ROVIRA. Click the image to read the blog.

 To my surprise, March of the Penguins provided an eye-opening introduction to the hardships faced by these animals. Yes: the movie succumbs to the typical flaw of all nature documentaries by suturing a familiar (and all-too-human) emotional storyline to the footage of this penguin colony. As some critics pointed out, this strategy is responsible in equal parts for raking in cash at the box office and ensuring that people continue to project human emotional frameworks on animals of all kind. Yet, none of that mattered to me when I saw the film because the sole thought filling my head when I left the theatre was beyond the scope of anthropomorphic sympathy.

I had a barrage of big questions: How do they do it? How do those penguins endure the freezing cold and protect their chicks and press up closer and closer to the brink of starvation every single year? When they are huddled in their protective circle, shielding each other from the frigid winds, what are they thinking about? Are they thinking? What does “penguin thinking” mean? If they are only surviving, what does “only surviving” actually mean for them? What does it mean for me? I stepped out of the theatre and slumped into a depression, which, I suppose, revealed the extent to which I did fall prey to the film’s narrative tactics. Aren’t we all like these penguins? How much can we take?

A grieving Orca mother carries her dead calf for days. Click the image to read the story in the Seattle Times.

A grieving Orca mother carries her dead calf for days. Click the image to read the story in the Seattle Times.

 Since 2005, I have learned of the various ways that animals grieve their dead. Culminating in this traumatizing video footage from 2014 (truly, make sure you have the emotional bandwidth to process this video before clicking the link), in which we watch a penguin mourn the death of its chick and a second penguin apparently comfort the grieving parent, I encountered, and continue to discover, a range of grief expression performed by animals across the planet. Last year’s coverage of the grieving orca mother is a prime example of popular culture’s slow recognition that animals of all kinds grieve their dead. Between March of the Penguins and the present suffering of emperor penguins, I have come to learn that grief is a part of life, all life. The questions I had when I left the theatre in 2005 have shifted and become more focused. I now wonder: what can we learn from this wild spectrum of grief?

 A number of lessons come to mind. First, every time we grieve the death of a pet, I think we should take care to acknowledge the grief felt by that animal and its kind. For example, our current pet cat, Ollie, certainly suffers some kind of grief. We adopted her from the animal shelter where she spent nine months of her life, and it seems like those nine months created some kind of emotional pain. When she dies, I will surely think about her time with us but I will also encourage myself to think about her grief as a once-abandoned animal and about the number of cats that are killed in shelters each year, the tactics taken by the Australian government to kill millions of wild cats, and the long history of cat-human relations. I will do this so as to nudge my consciousness out beyond its comfort zone toward the much more nebulous realm of inter-species understanding with the hope that I will glimpse something of the feline worldview.


 Second, by acknowledging the fact that many (if not all) animals grieve, we can re-think our daily habits and readjust our actions to align more fully with our convictions. Where do you stand on eating animals? Do you have a clear answer to this question and a rationale for your answer? If you eat animals and also experience sadness when your pet dies or when you read about the death of animals, how do you understand the co-existence of those two things? I am not issuing a judgement through these questions. I am, rather, pointing out the necessity of confronting the questions. I have two suggestions for further reading: 1.) Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals; 2.) David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster.” I also strongly suggest you listen to the podcast with English artists Fevered Sleep that I referenced at the start of this blogpost.

Third, we can remember that We Are Animals. Watching PBS Kids the other day with my son, I was pleased to see that their segment “Animal Alphabet” linked the letter “H” to “Humans.” Animals aren’t some other thing on the planet. We are animals. When we read about the grieving of wild horses, there is something about the horse experience that we, as animals and mammals, share. What is that thing? What precisely do we share? The pursuit of an answer is more important than a definitive understanding.

Ultimately, the news of this penguin catastrophe has the ability to force us to pause and feel, if only for a few moments, the scope of grief on this planet. It may be true that active forgetting is key to being human. If we allowed ourselves to visualize and sense the sadness and pain across the planet, we likely wouldn’t be able to move. But this ability to bracket and side-step the magnitude of world suffering does not mean that active forgetting is crucial to wellbeing. To the contrary, I suspect that active forgetting is a survival mechanism. Surviving is, however, not the same as living a meaningful life. Breathe in some of the world’s pain for a few minutes each day and see how your interaction with the world changes. Breathe in pain, and breath out compassion. This is a simple activity that may in fact change the world.

I’ll practice right here. I breathe in these emperor penguins. I breathe out a hope—beyond my rational knowledge—for the penguins to come together and heal in their own way.

Related Blog Posts: written by Will: Death Literacy & Celebrating the Departed and How 9/11 Helped Prepare Me for Life as a Grieving Father (in Still Standing Magazine); written by Joanne: Celebrating (with) Our Dead: Samhain & Dia de Los Muertos and Six Herbs for Grieving and Healing (on Mindfulness & Grief)