Grief in animals: It's arrogant to think we're the only animals who mourn
We're not the only animals who mourn
Posted Oct 29, 2009
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.
Among the different emotions that animals display clearly and unambiguously is grief. Many animals display profound grief at the loss or absence of a close friend or loved one. Nobel laureate ethologist Konrad Lorenz writes: "A greylag goose that has lost its partner shows all the symptoms that [developmental psychologist] John Bowlby has described in young human children in his famous book Infant Grief . . . the eyes sink deep into their sockets, and the individual has an overall drooping experience, literally letting the head hang . . ." Sea lion mothers, watching their babies being eaten by killer whales, wail pitifully, anguishing their loss. Dolphins have been seen struggling to save a dead infant and mourn afterward. Stories about grief stricken companion animals abound; see also).
Wild animals also grieve. Among the best examples are grieving rituals of elephants in the wild observed by such renowned researchers as Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Cynthia Moss and Joyce Poole. Captive elephants also grieve; see also. To quote Joyce Poole: "As I watched Tonie´s vigil over her dead newborn, I got my first very strong feeling that elephants grieve. I will never forget the expression on her face, her eyes, her mouth, the way she carried her ears, her head, and her body. Every part of her spelled grief". Young elephants who saw their mothers being killed often wake up screaming.
Cynthia Moss describes the actions of the members of an elephant family above after a group member had been shot: "Teresia and Trista became frantic and knelt down and tried to lift her up. They worked their tusks under her back and under her head. At one point they succeeded in lifting her into a sitting position but her body flopped back down. Her family tried everything to rouse her, kicking and tusking her, and Tullulah even went off and collected a trunkful of grass and tried to stuff it in her mouth."
Iain Douglas-Hamilton and his colleagues have shown that elephants extend this compassion to nonrelatives, to those who aren't genetically related, and at least one anecdote shows them extending it to humans. A news report told of an elephant in northern Kenya that trampled a human mother and her child and then stopped to bury them before disappearing in the bush. Elephants don't show concern just for their own kin, or their own kind, but rather elephants show a general concern for the plight of others.
Nonhuman primates also grieve the loss of others. Gana, a captive gorilla, clearly grieved the loss of her infant and the image of her carrying her dead baby was shown around the world. Jane Goodall observed Flint, a young chimpanzee, withdraw from his group, stop eating, and die of a broken heart 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."
Another story of grieving chimpanzees recently was reported in the Daily Mail.
Gorillas are known to hold wakes for dead friends, something that some zoos have formalized in a ceremony when one of their gorillas passes away. Donna Fernandes, now president of the Buffalo Zoo, tells the story of being at Boston's Franklin Park Zoo ten years ago during the wake for a female gorilla, Babs, who had died of cancer. She describes seeing the gorilla's longtime mate say good-bye: "He was howling and banging his chest,... and he picked up a piece of her favorite food — celery — and put it in her hand and tried to get her to wake up. I was weeping, it was so emotional." Later, the scene at Babs's December funeral was similarly moving. As reported by local news, gorilla family members "one by one ... filed into" the room where "Babs's body lay," approaching their "beloved leader" and "gently sniffing the body."
When Sylvia, a baboon, lost Sierra, her closest grooming partner and daughter to a lion, she responded in a way that would be considered very human-like: she looked to friends for support. Said Anne Engh, a researcher in he University of Pennsylvania's Department of Biology. "With Sierra gone, Sylvia experienced what could only really be described as depression, corresponding with an increase in her glucocorticoid levels."
Jim and Jamie Dutcher describe the grief and mourning in a wolf pack after the loss of the low-ranking omega female wolf, Motaki, to a mountain lion. The pack lost their spirit and their playfulness. They no longer howled as a group, but rather they "sang alone in a slow mournful cry." They were depressed — tails and heads held low and walking softly and slowly — when they came upon the place where Motaki was killed. They inspected the area and pinned their ears back and dropped their tails, a gesture that usually means submission. It took about six weeks for the pack to return to normal. The Dutchers also tell of a wolf pack in Canada in which one pack member died and the others wandered about in a figure eight as if searching for her. They also howled long and mournfully. Foxes also have been observed performing funeral rituals.
My friend Betsy Webb who lives in Homer, Alaska, told me a moving story about grief in llamas. She wrote:
"Llamas are gregarious by nature, extremely perceptive, and forge deep bonds with one another. In the pasture, our llamas often feed in the same area, sleep next to each other, and stay close together when they face off an unfamiliar animal or predator. On the trail, they become extremely agitated if they lose sight of each other when one stops to rest and falls behind. They vocalize quite a bit. My favorite is their delicate greeting call, which sounds like a miniature bagpipe exhaling. When my family moved from Colorado to Alaska, we brought our two Colorado llamas with us. As fate would have it, we inherited two Alaska llamas with our new house and grounds. Each twosome had spent their lives together. At first, the twosomes were a bit standoffish, but in time, they became fast friends and a foursome. Several years later, the oldest llama, Boone, died quite suddenly at twenty-seven years old. One day, he laid down on his side, too weak to get up. The next day, his life partner, Bridger, died in the same fashion, next to him. It was early spring and the ground was still frozen, so we hired a friend with a backhoe to prepare their grave just across the fence. We carefully hoisted Boone and Bridger over the fence and into the ground, then covered them. The other pair, Taffy and Pumpernickel, stood by and watched the entire process quietly. For the next two days, stoic Taffy stood across the fence from the grave and stared at the hole in the ground. She barely moved from the spot. Excitable Pumpernickel stayed in his little barn and wailed for two days. On the third day, they emerged from their grieving and resumed their normal activities. Did Bridger surrender himself to death following the loss of his lifelong buddy Boone? And Taffy and Pumpernickel, both very distinct personalities, grieved in their own personal ways. For me, the most moving memory of losing two llamas so close together was experiencing the caring and harmonious llama death and grieving process."
Magpies also grieve the loss of other magpies; see also. I recently received this story via email in response to the essays about my observations of magpie grief. "I have a farm in Bolton, UK and we were overrun with Magpies. The reaction from the magpies [to the corpse of another magpie] in the vicinity was akin to a scene from the film 'The Birds', as they surrounded the lifeless bird and tried to reawaken it with their beaks. When they reached the conclusion that it was indeed dead, there was an outpouring of loud cackling noises which reached quite a crescendo (there were around 20 of them); this was echoed by a similar sympathetic chorus from a nearby wood and within a minute, from all surrounding areas giving the impression that hundreds of magpies were being told of the death and simultaneously expressing their grief. It was quite unnerving and I remained within the safe confines of a barn until all was over."
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.