How Animals Grieve: Saying Goodbye to Family and Friends

A new book called "How Animals Grieve" is a must read for all

Posted Apr 01, 2013

I've written a number of previous essays about grief in animals (see also and) and now a new book called How Animals Grieve (for more details please see) by Dr. Barbara J. King of the College of William and Mary has been published that admirably, carefully, and cautiously reviews and synthesizes a topic that is of great interest to numerous people, including those who are fortunate enough to live with nonhuman companions, those who are lucky enough to study them, and those who are interested in other animals for a wide variety of reasons. Note the title of Dr. King's book is called How Animals Grieve, not Do Animals Grieve? This is an important distinction because she wants to know how and why various animals grieve - why it has evolved - not if it has evolved. This line of thinking applies to studies of animal emotions in general


Animal grief is widespread and the depth with which many nonhuman animals (animals) grieve and mourn the loss of family and friends is heart wrenching. Dr. King's book covers all of the important topics centering on animal grief and leaves no room for the very few remaining skeptics to argue otherwise. She begins by recognizing that other animals have rich and deep emotional lives but that humans are unique because "we alone fully anticipate the inevitability of death. We grasp that, one day, our minds will fade, our breathing stop -- whether gently or with horrifying suddeness, we can't know." (page 7) She also writes, "only our species turns mourning into art." (page 159)

Dr. King also rightly notes that grief among animals can and will differ. Thus, "Goat grief, then, is not chicken grief. And chicken grief is not chimpanzee grief or elephant grief or human grief." (page 7) I agree and emphasize that just because our grief or other emotions might differ from those of other animals this does not mean that we have them and they do not. Of course, one could easily argue just the reverse. And, there is no reason at all to believe that the way in which various emotions are felt and acted upon among individuals of different species or even within the same species will be the same. 

Love and grief

Dr. King offers a very interesting discussion of love to frame her ideas about grief. Her central idea is, "When an animal feels love for another, she will go out of her way to be near to, and positively interact with, the loved one, for reasons that may include but also go beyond such survival-based purposes as foraging, predator defense, mating, and reproduction." (page 8) And, furthermore, "Should the animals no longer be able to spend time together -- the death of one partner being one possible reason -- the animal who loves will suffer in some visible way. She may refuse to eat, lose weight, become ill, act out, grow listless, or exhibit body language that conveys sadness or depression." (page 9) Thus, "Grief can be said to occur when a survivor animal acts in ways that are visibly distressed or altered from the usual routine, in the aftermath of the death of a companion animal who had mattered emotionally to him or her." (page 163)

Love and grief go hand in hand but we must be careful because separation or death won't always be observed and this might lead us to underestimate the presence of love. And, an animal who doesn't love another may still feel grief and there might be varieties of love that we don't understand or appreciate. 

Dr. King clearly comes down on the side that grief is widespread among diverse animals and there may be "a common biological underpinning to the grief that animals -- horses, goats, rabbits, cats, dogs, elephants, chimpanzees, and people -- feel." (page 50) Available data surely support this idea. 

She also keeps the door open on the possibility that animals commit suicide (Chapter 11), a controversial topic on which I've written previously in an essay called "Did a Female Burro Commit Suicide?". 

Where to from here?

Surely, the plethora of stories and the wealth of scientific data (ethological, psychological, and neurobiological) to which Dr. King appeals consisting of strong, moderate, or weak evidence (page 163) makes for an enthusiastic and well informed argument about the pervasiveness and depth of animal grief. She writes, "maybe not too long from now ... the fact of animal mourning across diverse species will be taken as common knowledge." (page 51) And, concerning an unlikely candidate for the arena of grief despite an anecdote about a grieving Hawaiian sea turtle, Dr. King writes about turtles, "We won't have a hope of finding turtle grief until we look for it." (page 105) Amen. Nothing is lost by taking a broad view of animal grief. 

As some of my colleagues and I have stressedwe must pay attention to stories and hope they will stimulate more research in a given area. Dr. King clearly knows that the field is wide open for refining working definitions of grief and for expanding the spectrum of animals in which we look for it. How exciting it is not only to study animal grief but also to learn about how it is expressed and which animals experience it and why. 

The teaser image of gorilla mother Gana carrying her dead baby at the zoo in Muenster, Germany can be seen here. (Photo: AP) You can read an interview with Dr. King about a mother dolphin coping with the death of her calf here

Note: Subscribers to Tme magazine can read a newly published essay by Jeffrey Kluger called "The Mystery of Animal Grief".