Companion animal death: who is grievable?

Recent reports of large increases in calls to animal bereavement helplines highlight the impact Covid has had on end-of-life arrangements for companion animals. Social distancing rules have meant that people are not allowed inside veterinary surgeries and pet owners are unable to be with companion animals who are dying or being euthanized. Being absent at the end of their companion animal’s life has, for many people, exacerbated feelings of grief and loss. Despite broad acceptance that animals are ‘part of the family’, there remains little acknowledgment that the grief experienced following companion animal bereavement can be equal to that experienced following the death of a human relative. In addition, press reports about the increased number of calls to pet bereavement services inevitably focus on the grief of the human left behind and the end-of-life experience of the animal in this situation is left unacknowledged.

In a new book Tim Burton’s Bodies: Gothic, animated, creaturely and corporeal edited by Stella Hockenhull and Fran Pheasant-Kelly, I discuss pet death. To be more precise, I discuss how Tim Burton’s experience of the death of Pepe, the family dog, impacted him as a child and later influenced him as an adult and filmmaker. Anyone familiar with Burton’s work will be able to identify the loyal dead dog trope in his films. The theme appears briefly in the stop motion animation Vincent (1982) and is more fully imagined as the relationships between Sparky and Victor in the live action short film Frankenweenie (1984) and the later 2012 feature-length stop motion film of the same title. It also appears as the relationships between Scraps and Victor in The Corpse Bride (2005), Zero and Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas (Selick 1993), and Heraldo and Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) in Batman Returns (1992). Across these films, the bodies of loyal dogs are depicted as reanimated corpses, a skeleton, a ghost, and animal taxidermy, respectively.

The death of Sparky in the 1984 Frankenweenie is a shocking event and the resulting display of grief by the child, Victor, is treated as an appropriate emotional response to the situation within the narrative; this is validated through wider cultural and societal norms that confirm dogs as family members with special moral relevance and status. On the other hand, grief for a companion animal remains socially complex and, despite the familial status of dogs, it is often regarded as a form of marginalised or unacceptable grief for adults. As Burton’s experience suggests, the death of a companion animal is frequently a child’s first significant loss and a life changing event. While children are, in many cases, socially enabled to experience and display grief over the loss of a companion animal, societal pressures maintain the marginalisation of certain types of grief such that there remains a taboo against adults grieving openly for dead animal companions.

In Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, Judith Butler examines at length the conditions that establish what counts as a ‘grievable life’ and suggests that grief can be conceptualised through aspects of irreplaceability, unpredictability and embodied loss. Those who are considered grievable are understood as unique identities by the griever; the unpredictability of loss has a transformative effect on the individual left behind because the relationality they experienced has gone. And, as David Redmalm (2015) highlights, in his article ‘Pet Grief: When Is Non-Human Life Grievable?’ a grievable loss is not only embodied, it is a reminder of the shared precarity of all bodies. Yet, only certain (companion) animals are culturally normalised as ‘grievable’ and therefore remain morally considerable bodies after death. While we might agree that a dog or a cat are grievable lives, what about fish or mice? And if we expand the circle of moral concern to ‘food animals’ what about cows, sheep, pigs? If the life of each animal is acknowledged and understood as individual, relational and embodied, then we must challenge the arbitrary lines that we draw between grievable lives and those who are not grievable.

The impact of Pepe’s death on Tim Burton has been carried through from childhood and into his adult life and work. Burton is far from alone in recognising that the loss of an animal companion can be a life changing event. For many, the loss is devastating and, unlike Burton who is able to express his sense of loss publicly through his films, their grief must remain private. Companion animals are grievable lives and their end-of-life experiences matter. If we agree on this, then the next logical question is surely why are only certain animal bodies culturally normalised as grievable?

Professor Claire Parkinson

Co-Director, Centre for Human-Animal Studies (CfHAS)