Gorillas and Elephants, Oh My

Gorillas and elephants mourn their dead

Posted Jan 07, 2014

WHEN 30-YEAR-OLD BABS THE GORILLA DIED from a four-month long bout of kidney disease, Bana, her nine-year-old daughter, took her mother’s outstretched hands and held them in her own. She stroked her mother’s stomach and lay down by her side, her head on her mother’s arm. Bana then moved to her mother’s other side, where she tucked her head under Babs’s arm. Koola then arrived with her four-month-old daughter. She held her infant close to Babs, just as she had often done during the several years of Babs’s illness. Babs’s mother was next to visit, followed by the other gorillas in her troop. They looked at the dominant female of the group, then sniffed her body.

Chicago zookeepers had arranged for the other apes to visit Babs when she died. They knew that in the wild when one of its members dies others gather around the corpse, looking, holding and sniffing. The zookeepers decided to allow Babs’s mates similar access to her body.

"We don't know if there is any benefit to the animals for doing this or not," lead keeper Craig Demitros said. "In the wild, gorillas are known to pay respects to their dead in a similar fashion."

The gorillas’ gestures seem oddly familiar. It is recognizable as wake of sorts. Sniffing Babs’s body seemed to be a way of knowing whether she was alive or dead. Perhaps it wasn’t the smell of death but that of life that they checked for. Or at least this is my thought as I am reminded of meeting a Kenyan friend after more than twenty years absence. Motari said how good it was that we were finally together face-to-face so we could smell each other.

The behavior resembles human mourning customs and consolation. (Similar mourning-like behavior has been observed in elephants. According to researchers McComb, Baker and Moss, elephants sniff and feel the skulls of dead elephants and roll and stroke their ivory with their feet. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TjtrdpSwEUY)

Yet I can never be certain what the gorillas feel or what their actions mean to them. Apes don’t tell us why they do what they do, although there can be communication through pointing, gesturing, and grunting. They effectively pass on information and have “conversations” with primatologists and other researchers. But there is no verbal or abstract conversation with our cousins, and the talk is mainly through signs. So we are left to interpret what we see. The same problem exists with understanding human behavior before speech, yet we reach conclusions that seem reasonable enough. 

Felix Warneken, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, studied toddlers and chimps as they return objects dropped “accidentally” by experimenters. Chimps also helped their caretaker when she was reaching for an object, and toddlers helped strangers struggling with complicated tasks such as stacking books or opening doors. Toddlers and chimps were helpful, with no expectation of reward. It is safe to infer that this is incipient altruism, and I think it is also safe to say that the gorillas in Babs’s troop were feeling something akin to loss. The apes’ actions that day fit into a larger pattern of gorilla behavior and mirror human mourning rituals. This leads to the conclusion that gorillas may well possess empathy and its derivative, consolation.

Further evidence of the reality of gorillas’ emotional state is that one of the mourning gorillas, Koola’s mother Binti Jua, had earlier been involved in a rescue of three-year-old child who fell nearly 20 feet into the gorilla exhibit at the same zoo. Binti Jua, with 17-month old Koola on her back “scooped up the boy and carried him to safety,” writes Frans de Waal, professor of primate behavior. “She sat down on a log in a stream, cradling the boy in her lap, giving him a few gentle pats before taking him to the waiting zoo staff.” A similar incident of an ape’s rescuing a child who had fallen into the exhibition pit in an Australian zoo was also captured on video and is widely shown on television.

No doubt empathy, the ability to be affected by the state of another individual or creature (the definition is de Waal’s), is found in animals in addition to humans.