What Do Animals Feel When Their Offspring Come Home?
As train stations and airports fill and roads clog before Thanksgiving, many families prepare to welcome back home children they dropped off at college two or three months ago.
Complicated mammals that we are, moms, dads, and other family members react to offspring dispersal from home (that’s what we animal-behavior types call it) in a variety of ways. And leaving for college is only one example of dispersal: A child may join the military or cross the country to take up a job. Judging from my own experience two years ago when my daughter left for college, it’s wrenching on the heart for some of us: We veer from feelings of loss and nostalgia to feelings of pride and excitement as our young ones venture out into a wider world.
As an anthropologist who studies the expression of emotion in nonhuman animals, I can’t help but wonder how these events and the emotions that accompany them fit into an evolutionary context. We know from scientists’ observations that other animals, including close kin such as chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas, express emotions ranging from joy to sorrow. In my book How Animals Grieve, I show that these primates and other animals too, ranging from monkeys and elephants to cows and birds, may express deep grief when a friend or relative dies.
We know too that as a rule, in wild mammalian populations, offspring from one sex, or sometimes both, transfer from the natal (birth) group at puberty to live and mate in a new group. The outcome of this pattern of dispersal is a constant and healthy flow of individuals—and their genes—in and out of the social units in which animals live.
In chimpanzees, it’s the daughters who leave. In many monkeys, including baboons and macaques, it’s the sons. In gorillas, it is often both.
Primate kids who leave home, then, are part of an evolutionarily favored pattern. What might our closest relatives feel, I have wondered, when a young family member leaves home?