Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Grief in chimpanzees, self-control in dogs, a drowned Siberian tigress, and a hearing on the educational benefits of captive marine mammals

Animals are more than we give them credit for

Recent news in the world of animals shows us clearly that animals are far more than we give them credit for. Following up on a Psychology Today blog I wrote on grief in animals  two recent papers published in the journal Current Biology   report on the response of chimpanzees to dead individuals. In the first, individuals showed large changes in behavior when encountering dying and dead chimpanzees, including as a female named Pansy, grooming and caressing their friend, being significantly more subdued after her death, changing their nesting behavior so that they didn't nest on the platform where Pansy died although they had regularly used the platform for the month before she died, inspecting her mouth (perhaps testing for breath) and limbs, attacking the corpse (perhaps attempting to rouse her), removing straw from her body (perhaps attempting to clean her), and remaining lethargic, quiet, and eating less for weeks after her death. It is clear that Pansy's friends were feeling something and the authors of this report conclude: "We conclude that chimpanzees' awareness of death has been underestimated ... a thanatology of Pan [the genus of chimpanzees] appears both viable and valuable." They go on to write, "it might be more humane to allow elderly apes to die naturally in their familiar social setting than to attempt to separate them for treatment or euthanasia." The same might be said for elephants and other animals who clearly change their behavior and display grief

In another study also reported in the same issue of Current Biology , researchers report on chimpanzee mothers who carried around the mummified remains of their infants. In one case, a mother provided extensive care to the body of her infant, grooming it regularly, sharing her nests with the corpse, and showing distress when they became separated. Related and unrelated chimpanzees of all ages tried to touch, handle, or poke the bodies and sniffed them and lifted their limbs. 

These researchers wonder if the mothers "understood" that their offspring were dead. This is a fascinating question that is extremely difficult or impossible to answer, but it is clear that the mothers, and in the other study the friends of the dead chimpanzee, changed their behavior suggesting that they knew that something "new" had happened. I've seen grief in magpies and foxes and of course elephants are well-known for displaying grief . Perhaps if we could take blood samples from the survivors in a non-invaasive way we could compare their serological profiles to humans who we know are grieving and know that someone has died. Maybe in the future we could use functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) imaging to see what is happening in their brains. Even if we can't, there can be no doubt that what we see in the chimpanzees and other animals shows clearly that they are feeling something and behaving in novel ways. They do not have to have the same notion of death that we have but they do know that something new and different has happened even if they do not have a concept of death or the same concept of death that we have. 

There are good reasons why animals grieve. I ended my earlier blog on grief in animals as follows, and this still seems 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."

Now for another fascinating study of self-control in dogs . Below is the abstract from this interesting study showing that just as we are not alone in the emotional arena, other animals also show self-control with similar underlying physiological mechanisms. This is what I was referring to above concerning future studies of animal grief and responses to dead and dying individuals - let's see if there are similar physiological correlates as mammals share the same structures in the limbic system that are responsible for their emotional lives. 

"Self-control constitutes a fundamental aspect of human nature. Yet there is reason to believe that human and nonhuman self-control processes rely on the same biological mechanism—the availability of glucose in the bloodstream. Two experiments tested this hypothesis by examining the effect of available blood glucose on the ability of dogs to exert self-control. Experiment 1 showed that dogs that were required to exert self-control on an initial task persisted for a shorter time on a subsequent unsolvable task than did dogs that were not previously required to exert self-control. Experiment 2 demonstrated that providing dogs with a boost of glucose eliminated the negative effects of prior exertion of self-control on persistence; this finding parallels a similar effect in humans. These findings provide the first evidence that self-control relies on the same limited energy resource among humans and nonhumans. Our results have broad implications for the study of self-control processes in human and nonhuman species."

Finally, we need to continue to put pressure on zoos to provide better care for animals and show that they do indeed have some sort of educational or conservation benefits, something that as of now they do not . At the Norfolk Zoo in the UK, a rare Siberian tigress named Malyshka was found drowned in her enclosure . This is a tragedy and many people, including politicians, have called for immediate improvements in the care that animals receive in zoos and even zoo closures.

Along these lines, on April 27, 2010, there will be a public hearing in the United Stares congress on  "Marine Mammals in Captivity: What Constitutes Meaningful Public Education? "

We can always do more to help other animals and to  add compassion to the world , compassion that will them and also us.