Animal Emotions

Do animals think and feel?

Grief, Mourning, and Broken Hearted Animals

There's no doubt many animals grieve the loss of family and friends

Over the past couple of years I've written about various aspects of the rich and complex emotional lives of animals, including essays on grief and mourning. I began one of those essays by writing,
"There is no doubt that many animals experience rich and deep emotions. It's not a matter of if emotions have evolved in animals but why they have evolved as they have. We must never forget that our emotions are the gifts of our ancestors, our animal kin. We have feelings and so do other animals." 

From time to time it's worth revisiting the how's and why's of animal grief and mourning because more and more data have shown clearly that it's arrogant and wrong to argue that we're the only species in which grief and mourning have evolved. And grief crosses species barriers. The most obvious example is how we grieve the loss of our companion animals, a topic that will receive attention in Psychology Today by Dr. Jessica Pierce. Renowned anthropologist Barbara King, who is writing a book on grieving in animals, notes no one who has lived with a companion animal can doubt they grieve. I agree.

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Of course our nonhuman companions also grieve the loss of their human friends. Many show such deep and enduring loyalty and devotion that they continue to follow the same routines in which they took part with their human friend for years after the human died or they choose to live out their lives where their human is buried. Among the most famous stories are those of Hachiko, an Akita who for ten years after his human companion's death looked for him at the same train station in Tokyo, Japan, and of Bobby, a Skye Terrier, who took up residence for 14 years near the grave of his human companion, John Gray. When Greyfriar's Bobby died in 1872 he was buried in the churchyard close to his master.

A statue of Greyfriar's Bobby

Many other animals display grief and mourning. A moving picture of chimpanzees grieving the loss of a group member, Dorothy, that went viral on the worldwide web can be seen here and a moving video of a chimpanzee mother's grief can be seen here. I've literally felt the grief elephants feel for the loss of an other elephant. About 6 years ago I had the opportunity to observe elephants with renowned elephant researcher Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save The Elephants. Iain and I were driving into the field in Samburu National Reserve in northern Kenya where he and his team of researchers have conducted groundbreaking fieldwork for many years and I saw a group of elephants who formed a very loose group. Their heads were down, ears drooping, tails hanging listlessly, and they were just walking here and there, moping around, apparently broken-hearted. I asked ian if there was something wrong because not only could I see it but i could feel it and he told me the herd's matriarch had died recently and it wasn't clear if these individuals would get together again as they had been a tightly bonded group before she died. Just a few kilometers down the road I saw a group of elephants, each of whom was walking tall,heads up, ears up, and tails up. I could feel their happiness, clearly they were close friends, and they looked as content as could be. (For more on elephants see also.)

Perhaps one of the most well-known descriptions of the deep grief that animals feel when they lose a loved one is Jane Goodall's observations of Flint, a young chimpanzee who withdrew from his group, stopped eating, and died of a broken heart soon after the death of his mother, Flo. Here is Goodall's description from her book Through a Window:

"Never shall I forget watching as, three days after Flo's death, Flint climbed slowly into a tall tree near the stream. He walked along one of the branches, then stopped and stood motionless, staring down at an empty nest. After about two minutes he turned away and, with the movements of an old man, climbed down, walked a few steps, then lay, wide eyes staring ahead. The nest was one which he and Flo had shared a short while before Flo died. . . . in the presence of his big brother [Figan], [Flint] had seemed to shake off a little of his depression. But then he suddenly left the group and raced back to the place where Flo had died and there sank into ever deeper depression. . . . Flint became increasingly lethargic, refused food and, with his immune system thus weakened, fell sick. The last time I saw him alive, he was hollow-eyed, gaunt and utterly depressed, huddled in the vegetation close to where Flo had died. . . . the last short journey he made, pausing to rest every few feet, was to the very place where Flo's body had lain. There he stayed for several hours, sometimes staring and staring into the water. He struggled on a little further, then curled up- and never moved again."

There's no doubt Flint was grieving and feeling totally lost in the world. Life was no longer worth living. 

We really don't need more data to know other animals grieve and mourn the loss of family and friends and I'm sure as time goes on more and more species will be added to the list of animals who grieve. But for those who do want more, a book called Animal Grief: How Animals Mourn was recently published that contains new information on how a wide variety of animals respond to death. Accompanied by striking photographs of a wide range of animals is a text filled with new information about animal grief. Topics covered include animal souls, self-awareness, the neurobiology of grief and mourning, mourning rituals, stages of grief, and numerous examples of grief in a wide variety of animals, including elephants, chimpanzees, cats, dogs, and various birds. A large amount of information is packed in its 80 pages and it's an easy read. 

A big question still remains, namely, why has grief evolved? The functions of grief (why it has evolved) remain a topic for discussion. I ended my earlier essay on grief in animals as follows, and these explanations still seem to hold.

"Why do animals grieve and why do we see grief in different species of animals? It's been suggested that grief reactions may allow for the reshuffling of status relationships or the filling the reproductive vacancy left by the deceased, or for fostering continuity of the group. Some theorize that perhaps mourning strengthens social bonds among the survivors who band together to pay their last respects. This may enhance group cohesion at a time when it's likely to be weakened. Grief itself is something of a mystery, for there doesn't seem to be any obvious adaptive value to it in an evolutionary sense. It does not appear to increase an individual's reproductive success. Whatever its value is, grief is the price of commitment, that wellspring of both happiness and sorrow."

Grieving and mourning clearly show that nonhuman animals are socially aware of what is happening in their worlds and that they feel deep emotions when family and friends die. Clearly we're not the only animals who possess the cognitive and emotional capacities for suffering the loss of others.

(The teaser image if from here.)

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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