Have you ever looked at an animal and wondered, “What are they thinking?”

We create personalities for them, attribute voices we believe they would have if they could talk, and wonder if they experience the emotions that come with the ups and downs of our human lives. 

It is common for us to anthropomorphize, or give human qualities to, our non-human friends in an effort to make sense of parts of the world we do not have clear-cut answers for. However, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to animals and the inner workings of their minds. 

Juvenile Chinook salmon. USFWS/Ryan Hagerty photo.

Over time, there has been more research surrounding the topic of animal cognition, and more specifically their ability to demonstrate an emotional capacity. Scientists have observed a mounting list of evidence across various species in which they can confirm that there is, at the very least, marked differences in animal behavior when faced with events such as the loss of a mate, friend, or offspring. Just like humans, some animals change their social behavior, eating and sleeping patterns, and expressions after experiencing loss. From apes to farm animals to domesticated pets — animals have been documented as fitting the criteria for creatures other than humans experiencing grief.

The connection between humans and wildlife goes beyond our interactions watching them, and for some wildlife lovers and cultures, it’s deeply emotional and spiritual. Recently, I was lucky enough to tag along for a two-day event put on by Idaho Conservation League’s Youth Salmon Protectors (YSP). In an effort to raise awareness and demand action from our elected leaders to save our wild salmon populations by breaching four dams on the lower Snake River, YSP headed to camp overnight at Hood Park in Burbank, WA — just down the road from Ice Harbor Lock and Dam, one of the dams that needs to be breached to save our fish.

That night, about 25 high school and college students sat around a campfire and shared stories about why this issue is so important to them. Among the incredible personal accounts that were shared, a young man named Henry talked about his connection to the issue through Orcas. He spoke about how meaningful this majestic creature is to him and how deeply he feels for orcas’ connection not just to people who are awestruck by their beauty, but also for orcas’ connections to the ocean, to the salmon who provide them a major food source, and to all the land that salmon pass on their 900+ mile journey from Idaho to the Pacific Ocean. That’s right — Idaho is connected to the sea, and one of the sea’s most iconic species. And it’s all thanks to our fish.

Southern Resident orcas. NOAA photo.

The killer whale population that can be observed in the Puget Sound, also known as Southern Resident Killer Whales (orcas), has been struggling for decades. From 98 whales documented in 1995, to a population of 74 today, multiple factors play a role in the decline of Southern Residents. These factors include boat traffic, noise pollution, toxic waste being dumped into the water, and an issue closely tied to Idaho — not enough food for the orcas. 

Southern Residents rely on Chinook salmon for up to 80% of their diet — so a decline in Wild Snake River Chinook salmon from Idaho also means a decline in orcas. Research has shown that the death rate for Southern Resident orcas correlates with declines in Chinook salmon abundance. 

Chinook salmon. USFWS/Ryan Hagerty photo.

While fish returns are a vital piece of the story, Henry’s story went far beyond the numbers — the emotion is what stayed with me most. Henry recounted the story of Tahlequah, a female orca whose heartbreaking journey grabbed the attention of the world in 2018.

Henry remembers the excitement when Tahlequah, a female Southern Resident orca, had a calf. The entire region celebrated the new addition to the pod. But the story took a sad turn when the calf died, with whale experts pointing to a lack of food as the culprit. 

The calf’s death was heartbreaking to all in the region, but no more than it was to Tahlequah. She carried her dead calf for 17 days and 1,000 miles off the Pacific Northwest coast. Her journey drew attention and news coverage from all over the world, as people watched a mother mourn the loss of her baby — and grieve alongside her. In this case, an animal’s grief looked the same to what a human’s does, inspiring people to think about the emotional capacity of these wild creatures.

Tahlequah pushing her calf. David Ellifrit/Center for Whale Research photo.

An animal’s behavior is often examined as merely a byproduct of conditioning or response to external stimuli. Not much merit is put in its ability to reason or understand, meaning, in the context of loss and grief, changed behavior in an animal is chalked up to a disruption in routine. But stories like Tahlequah’s show a different narrative, and entertain the thought that humans and wildlife may have more in common than we think. That connection is worth protecting.

Now more than ever, we need to strengthen our bond with the natural world. It is a part of us and we are a part of it. As ecosystems continue to change due to human causes, we need to find creative solutions that leave room for our wildlife friends — ensuring they have a future and we have the opportunities to admire them.

ICL is stepping up to this challenge by renewing our focus on wildlife conservation. We work together with all Idahoans to plan ahead and keep all Idaho’s wildlife abundant for people to enjoy.

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