Those Who Came Before Us

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During September of 2007, I experienced grief and heartbreak for the first time. I was eight years old, and my favorite show was Meerkat Manor: a beautiful documentary-style show on Animal Planet that followed a family of meerkats living in the Kalahari Desert with drama that rivals that of the Kardashians. The family, the Whiskers, were lead by a fearless leader and loving mother, Flower. At the time, she was my role model. She ran the show, and her commitment to the safety and survival of her family made her the ultimate commander-in-chief. Through bouts of near starvation, rival families starting wars, and several litters of pups, Flower made the tough decisions that allowed the group to survive. In a world full of male heros and stories of patriarchs, Flower was one of my first insights into the world of feminism, into understanding what a badass female looked like. And in September of 2007, as I watched a new episode of Meerkat Manor wrapped in a blanket after school, I learned of Flower’s death, resulting from a snake bite while she was bravely protecting her pups. During that fateful episode, my mom and I sat in silence and tears as one of our beloved sacrificed herself for her babies. As a human child, I felt the same sense of discord that reverberated through the Whiskers family.

For months, Flower’s death haunted me and my mom, who was also an avid Flower fan and watched the show week after week right next to me. I had no idea how the Whiskers would recover after losing their star, and truthfully, neither of us could continue watching to find out. Our hearts were aching for tiny meerkats on the other side of the world. One night, while I was still sinking in an ocean of sadness, my mom gave me a little meerkat plush that I named--of course--Flower, and cherished. As life continued, we would talk about our friend every once in a while, send her spirit warm wishes, and because of her, my mom and I cracked our way into the the complicated conversations about the turmoil and losses of motherhood.

Apparently, loving Animal Planet as a kid has had an important effect on me: I now obsess over the the natural world, its many ways of life, and seek an understanding of the human condition through studying the animal condition. Diving into the wilds of the animal kingdom, mothers can be heartless, invest little to no time in the care for their offspring, or even eat their kids. But in species where parental care is necessary for survival, some non-human animal mothers set incredibly high bars for us humans to reach. Like Flower, many moms will do whatever it takes to ensure the safety of their tiny mini-mes, such as some of our distant relatives, orang-utans. With the longest known mother-offspring relationship, baby orang-utans stay with their mothers for up to ten years, the first two of which the baby is completely dependent on its mother for food and transportation. A semi-solitary species, the mother orang-utan and child are on their own: the mom responsible for twenty-four-seven care and teaching her child “almost everything” it needs to know to survive in the endlessly competitive jungle. Just how I make the trek across the states to see my mom, the babies are known to visit their mothers after they leave her care.

Elephants, who like the meerkats of the Kalahari, live in a matriarchal society and have plenty of help raising their two-hundred pound chunkers. After an astounding twenty-two month gestation period, the women of the herd, known sweetly as allomothers, work together to shield newborns and toddlers from predators and help them learn how to live in an often unforgiving landscape. Despite the communal parental unit working to raise the young, the bond between the mother and her calf remains unparalleled. Due to elephants high capacity for emotion and memory, any relational connection in elephant societies is one of profound trust, but the one between mother and calf remains unbroken, exemplified by the joyous reunions that occur when mother and calf are reunited.

In another world, one of salt and water, spineless, gummy octopi moms-to-be spend their days propelling air over their hundreds or thousands of eggs to keep them alive, never once leaving even to eat. Radically, these mothers can spend up to four and a half years waiting and working for their babies to hatch. Once the little ones break free and propel themselves into the waters of the sea and life, the mother passes away knowing her thankless work has paid off.

Through the vast array of species, mothers of many genuses show a remarkable sense of empathy while caring for their young. What makes mothers special? What gave Flower the courage to lose her life for little bundles of fur who had not yet seen the light of day? Why would my mother spend hours searching through the trash for a toy of mine she accidentally threw out?

Research suggest that in mammals, the hormone and neurotransmitter oxytocin allows such strong bonds to form in animals. The chemical, dubbed “the love drug,” is released during sex, when making eye contact with someone, and especially during labor. Allowing any variety of social bonds to form, oxytocin is believed to be the root of what we call maternal instincts. Although the effects it has in response to children is not limited to just the biological mother, or even just women, it’s unique in how it directly affects the maternal instincts of animals. In one study, non-mother female mice were found to spontaneously begin responding to distressed young after being injected with the chemical, whereas before they either ate the struggling young or were indifferent. Perhaps this chemical is what unifies mothers and females of all species. Maybe with this information, understanding our humanity also means understanding others of the animal kingdom, and maybe we can appreciate the fundamental biology that links us.

In bonding over our shared grief for Flower Whiskers, my mom and I also recognized the value we place in motherhood and in empathy. Sitting on the couch and crying together, we both saw a natural example of what love can make us do and the honorability of such a sacrifice.  Together in solidarity we wondered how we could possibly give homage to the generations of females, human and non-human, who came before us, whose leadership forged our path, whose love serves as our very foundation for being alive. For and because of Flower, for and because of mothers around the planet, we are united.