For the longest time, both the philosophical and scientific communities believed that humankind’s awareness of mortality was what made us unique, separating us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Until recently, scientists have remained prejudice against the idea that animals are capable of feeling grief, arguing that such claims weren’t based in science but instead on emotion.
However, there is an increasing amount of evidence that animals are aware of death, feel grief, and mourn their dead.
In her book, “How Animals Grieve,” Barbara J. King, defines grief as “some visible response to death that goes beyond curiosity or exploration to include altered daily routines plus signs of emotional distress.” She claims that a horse that simply inspects the body of deceased loved one shouldn’t be considered as grieving; however, should a group of horses stand watch for hours over a corpse or should a horse refuse to eat, socialize or follow its normal routine for days after losing a companion, then we have no choice but to see this as animals feeling grief.
Many scientists are skeptical regarding whether or not animals feel in a way similar to humans. An awareness of mortality is considered to be exclusive to humans, as we are conscious of our impending demise.
As humans, we tend to subscribe to the idea of anthropocentrism, which is the belief that we are superior to and more important than all other species. This belief leads to the assumption that animals can not be conscious of their feelings or thoughts, such as the ability to grasp their own mortality, as these things are considered to be solely human.
This skepticism likely results from preconceived notions in the scientific community, such as that of anthropocentrism. We are conscious of our feelings, including grief, and our anthropocentrism leads us to believe that, as the most superior species, animals cannot experience similar things. These ideas have prevented many researchers from admitting even the possibility that animals can feel grief, let alone putting time into researching it.
For over 100 years, researchers have argued that animals are only capable of living in the present and focusing on survival, and as such, don’t experience feelings. Animals have been viewed as merely reactive beings who respond to stimuli out of instinct, without any thoughts or feelings involved. Any scientist who claimed to have proof of emotionality in animals was dismissed as sentimental and their researched deemed purely anecdotal.
The famous naturalist, Charles Darwin, was ahead of his time concerning his belief that animals are capable of experiencing emotions. In his 1871 book, “The Descent of Man,” Darwin wrote: “The lower animals, like man, manifestly feel pleasure and pain, happiness and misery. Happiness is never better exhibited than by young animals, such as puppies, kittens, lambs, etc, when playing together, like our own children.” If Darwin is right, animals experience more than just grief, and why wouldn’t they? It’s absurd to think that, just because grief is the most easily observed emotion in animals, that it’s the only thing they feel.
Research Into Grief in Animals
It wasn’t until the latter part of the 20th century that scientists began to take seriously the idea that animals can feel grief. Part of the reason views began to change is thanks to improvements in brain imaging technology. These advanced imaging studies showed that humans experienced emotions in the primitive, or reptilian, parts of the brain, which is an area we share with all mammals; our neurochemistries are quite similar as well. These similarities left researchers asking why wouldn’t animals experience the same grief as humans following a loss?
Social animals form bonds with relatives and members of their pack that are critical for survival in the wild. These relationships are not at all unsimilar to the bonds humans form. Researchers have identified grief-like behavior in a wide variety of animals, including chimpanzees, cetaceans (dolphins and whales), elephants, giraffes, birds, titles, bison, dogs, cats, horses and rabbits. These animals, especially the more intelligent species such as chimpanzees, elephants, and dolphins, have been shown to exhibit empathy as well.
Jane Goodall and Flint the Chimpanzee
Primates, specifically chimpanzees, are one of the most highly intelligent animal species we’ve observed to exhibit grief. In the early 1970s, the famous primatologist, Jane Goodall, observed the behavior of a young chimpanzee named Flint, who had just lost his mother, Flo. The young primate quickly became lethargic and refused to eat. Goodall said that, while he was old enough to survive on his own, he had visibly lost his will to live. She said that the last time she saw him, he was “hollow-eyed, gaunt, and utterly depressed, huddled in the vegetation close to where Flo has died.” Sadly, Flint never bounced back after his loss and died three weeks later.
(Pic of Flo, Flint, and Jane)
Queen Victoria, The Elephant Matriarch from Kenya
In 2013, Shifra Goldenberg, a doctoral student at Colorado State University, was able to document the final days of one of the last living matriarchs in Kenya’s Samburu National Elephant Reserve. Known as Queen Victoria, the mother elephant died from natural causes and was surrounded by her family. Upon returning to the site several weeks later, Goldenberg found elephants from other families inspecting the bones of Queen Victoria.
While the behavior of her family demonstrated obvious distress right after Queen Victoria passed, as she was no longer moving, it’s even more interesting to note how non-relatives were also paying homage to the body after her death. The elephants would carefully inspect the body, especially the bones, along with circling it and smelling it.
These observations are important, yet perplexing. They go to show just how complex elephant grieving can be, including how they perceive, respond to, and ritualize death. African elephants are the only species to show such interest in the bodies of their deceased. Researchers have documented elephants repeatedly pushing and pulling at the body of a dead elephant for an entire week. The bones of their dead hold particular value and elephants can tell their relatives bones apart from those of other species and even other elephants. They spend time with these bones, touching, rolling, stroking and even picking them up to take them away.
When Wolves Lose a Pack Member
Jim and Jamie Dutcher, founders of the non-profit organization, Living With Wolves, describe their experience observing the grief of wolf pack after losing one of its female members, Motaki, to a mountain lion. The entire pack became depressed, lost their energy, and walked slowly with lowered heads and tails. Instead of howling as a group, as wolves usually do, they would each bellow mournfully. Whenever they returned to the spot where Motaki was killed, they would drop their tails and pin back their ears, a stance usually taken to convey submission. These behaviors continued for six weeks until the wolf pack finally returned to normal.
Changing our Conceptions of Magpies
While magpies are notoriously known as aggressive predators, there is evidence that there is more to these birds. Dr. Marc Bekoff, ecologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, believes that these animals experience complex emotions, including grief. Magpies are known for holding funerals for their fallen friends, laying bouquets of grass beside their deceased.
Bekoff came across four magpies standing over a magpie corpse and claimed to it be proof that animals are morally intelligent. He stated, “one approached the corpse, gently pecked at it, just as an elephant would nose the carcass of another elephant, and stepped back… another magpie did the same thing.” Then, one of the birds flew away, only to return with grass, which it put next to the body. Another bird did the exact same thing. Finally, they all gathered around the corpse, standing vigil for awhile, before flying off.
How Long do Animals Feel Grief?
As humans, we grieve for extended periods of time. Immediately following a loss, we experience strong emotions and may take days or weeks off work or school. Even after the more intense emotions pass, we continue mourning the loss for years, if not for our entire lives.
If it’s true that animals feel grief, it would be fair to assume that they experience their loss for extended periods of time.
In the case of the chimpanzee, Flint, he felt the loss of his mother so deeply for several weeks that he ultimately quit eating, fell ill, and died.
King observes that grieving animals often sleep less and experience changes in their daily routines. It’s also common for animals to hold vigils by the bodies of their deceased for extended periods of time.
Elephants are known to repeatedly visit the body of a deceased loved one, often to investigate their bones, a tradition specific to elephants and one that scientists find baffling. When a mother elephant loses her baby, she’ll act depressed and lethargic for many days, sometimes staying with her deceased child for days as if guarding it.
What Does This Research Mean?
George Wittemyer, a conservation biologist at Colorado State University, has been studying Elephants from the same reserve in Kenya where Queen Victoria lived since 1997. He states that it’s difficult to understand the fascination that elephants have with death and corpses. Wittemyer says, “Elephants have respect for their dead, but their interaction with their dead is not something we fully understand.” He goes on to comment on how distinctive the behavior is, as it’s not centered on survival but is a product of emotion. In other words, since the elephant’s death-related behaviors aren’t a result of evolution, they must have some deeper meaning that is difficult to study. However, Wittemyer is stop short of calling these behaviors a result of grief, claiming that knowing that would be to know what animals are thinking.
However, some cases are just too uncharacteristic of typical animal behavior not to be related to grief. In 2010, off the coast of Washington, an orca was observed carrying her deceased newborn around for six hours. Whales are known to never carry a healthy child around. So, why didn’t she just leave it? Well, humans wouldn’t just leave a dead child, either. We possess the concept of death, along with the feelings of grief, the latter of which drives our irrational behavior. We don’t want to let go and the mother orca probably didn’t want to, either. The bonds are just too strong.
Despite scientific data and research, scientists are still hesitant to use the term “grief” to describe these observed behaviors in animals. But, it’s hard to deny the similarities between the behavior of an animal experiencing loss and the way humans react in similar situations: we both have problems accepting death. Just because we don’t fully understand the reactions of animals to death doesn’t mean their behavior doesn’t have meaning.
During an interview with NPR, King makes solid objections to the claims scientists make regarding how we can’t know if an animal grieves because we can never know what it’s thinking. Some scientists claim that we are simply anthropomorphizing animals when we claim that they feel grief and King agrees, claiming that we can’t often know what an animal is thinking. However, she says that if the behaviors of an animal are consistent with the definition of grief, there is no need to know what an animal is thinking, just like you don’t need to know what a person is thinking if you observe them exhibiting grief-like behavior. So, the claim that we can’t ascribe feelings to animals because we can never know what they’re thinking is false.
The ability of animals to feel emotions is a subject most people, scientists and laymen alike, don’t want to think about too deeply. If animals are capable of experiencing emotions like grief, what else are they able to feel? Should these ideas be proven true, what will that do to the relationship we have with animals as a source of food? It seems easier for people to ignore the idea that animals can think and feel.
Research and observation has shown that certain species of animals exhibit strange behavior upon losing a relative or member of their community. From the information and videos that have been gathered, it’s hard to deny that these behaviors are anything other than the exhibition of grief.
If you’d like to read more on this topic, there are two books by well-renowned scientists you should check out.
The first book is one that I cited earlier, called “How Animals Grieve,” by anthropologist, Barbara J. King. It is a collection of both scientific data and anecdotal evidence regarding the ability of a wide variety of animals to experience grief.
The second book is by the primatologist, Frans de Waal, titled, “The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates.” This book takes the subject of grief and mortality even deeper. He begins by examining the biological underpinnings of religion and morality in humans. He then extends these questions to primates, exploring whether these animals are capable of grasping death as we do.