When animals grieve

Elephant herd mourning a deceased bull. Photo by Kelly Landen at Elephants Without Borders

Elephant herd mourning a deceased bull. Photo by Kelly Landen at Elephants Without Borders

Recently, a couple of posts have been shared across the Facebook deathly community about how humans mourn the loss of our pets. The ever-fascinating Dr Paul Koudonaris has taken some beautiful photographs of pet cemeteries around the world. Ancient Greek and Roman epitaphs for companion dogs show that this is not a modern phenomenon related to post-Victorian sentimentality, but an innate human need to grieve. Those who have never had pets themselves may not understand that this loss is acute, it really is like losing a family member or friend.

But this got me thinking, we know that humans grieve for animals, but what do we know about how animals grieve?

For many years after Descartes’ assertion that animals were basically automatons and only humans could feel emotion, the idea of animals mourning or even having a concept of death was seen as irrational anthropomorphism. But recent studies, such as those by Barbara J. King at the College of William and Mary in the US, seem to point to many animals sharing deep emotional bonds, and indeed mourning and grieving for their dead relatives and social kin.

King’s book How Animals Grieve, published by the University of Chicago Press, relates tales of  elephants standing vigil by the bodies of dead companions, dolphins refusing to part with the bodies of their young, and chimpanzees who pine away after the death of a close relative or companion, until they die themselves, seemingly of grief. A touching account of elephants mourning the loss of a young bull is recounted at Elephants Without Borders, which shows young elephants ‘hugging’ the body and the herd gathering around in silence.

And it is not only large-brained mammals either who seem to exhibit these emotional behaviours. King writes in an article for the New York Post in 2013 that scientists have observed mourning in cats, dogs, rabbits and even birds. Not only in the wild either, as anyone who has lost a pet and then another a few weeks or months after can attest, our companion animals seem to feel grief just as strongly.

It is not easy to determine whether animals understand death as death, but King’s account of a gorilla in Franklin Park Zoo, Boston, suggests that primates at least might. King writes:

The gorilla female Bebe was euthanized to spare her the pain that accompanied advanced cancer. Her friend of many years, Bobby, was allowed to spend some time with her body. At first, Bobby tried to revive Bebe, by touching her and placing celery — a favorite food of hers — in her hand. It is clear that, at this point, Bobby knew something was amiss, but had no comprehension of the permanent loss he faced.

Then something changed. Bobby seemed to come to a sudden realization and both his mood and his behavior shifted. He began to wail and bang on the bars of his cage. Whether Bobby actually had a concept of death in his mind is impossible to know, but the sequence of his actions strongly suggests that he did recognize death in some way.

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes little sense to me to assume that humans are the only species capable of feeling and expressing emotions. If we share up to 98% of our DNA with other animals, why would we not share concepts of death or mourning? And if animals grieve as we do, then this may suggest that they love as we do, since what is grief ultimately but an expression of profound love?

For me, this reinforces our connection with all of life. While it is (trivially) true that humans grieve in different ways to animals, what unites us may just be greater than that which divides us. Grief then is not an irrational or overly-sentimental behaviour that we need to ‘snap out of’ but a deep, embodied experience that tells us that we are alive, that we have loved.

The following video is a clip from a David Attenborough documentary on the BBC showing what looks like a tender moment of grief in elephants. If dead animals bother you, not only are you probably on the wrong website, but you might not want to watch. Otherwise it is a very interesting and moving bit of footage:



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