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Humans do not have a monopoly on grief: death rituals in the world of animals


By Dr Penny Morgan


Penny is a retired zoologist and she now writes thrillers with an animal welfare theme. In this research article, she employs her vast knowledge of animal behaviour to try and answer the question 'Do animals grieve?'




Do animals have emotions?

Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne, which depicts a bear and his animal friends exhibiting human characteristics, emotions, and relationships, is a famous example of our creative ability to anthropomorphise animals. In the past, though, there were heavy cautions against overdoing this. The mathematician René Descartes (17th century) thought of animals merely as material automata without minds. Today, the emotions of animals are being recognised and explored, including their grief for lost companions and mates. How does non-human grief differ from human grief? In what way is it similar? What can we learn about ourselves from observing animals?


What is grief?

There is a lack of an agreed definition of grief, but Colin Murray Parkes, a notable researcher in the field of grief and bereavement, suggests that it is the experience of a loss and a reaction of intense pining and yearning for the object lost, which is linked to separation anxiety. Without these emotions being present, a person cannot be said to be truly grieving.


Anthropologist Barbara J. King provides another definition. To qualify as grief, surviving individuals who knew the deceased must alter their behavioural routine. They might eat or sleep less, or become listless, or agitated. They might attend to the corpse of the deceased person.


‘What is grief if not love persevering?’ This line was spoken by Vision, a character from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in the television series WandaVision. Loss hurts beyond death. You cannot experience grief unless you have loved. You cannot love unless you can form an attachment. And, clearly, if you have loved, you cannot be an automaton.


If you can decentre, standing in another’s shoes, then perhaps you have one basic prerequisite for experiencing grief. This is the basis of empathy, so is there evidence of empathy among non-humans?


Responses to death - dolphins

The most frequently observed thanatological responses (responses to death) in animals include postural changes, sniffing, guarding/keeping vigil, touching, investigating the carcass, epimeletic behaviours (caregiving or nurturant behaviour), supporting behaviours like attempting to lift or nudging, and vocalisations (low grumbles and high-pitched screams). Marine biologists have often observed dolphins supporting their dead offspring at the surface of the water. One was seen carrying her dead baby curled in her dorsal fin.


Dolphin carrying dead body of its baby

In 2018, a female orca dolphin, named Tahlequah, was observed off the coast of Washington holding on to her dead baby for seventeen days. Other female orcas were seen huddled around Tahlequah and her dead new-born in the hours after the baby's death, in what looked like a circle of grief.






Elephant mourning

Elephants may carry dead infants for days or even weeks. Exploratory behaviour, such as touching with trunks, smelling, standing nearby (a sort of vigil?), restlessness, and alertness, may be also be seen. Scientists have observed elephants tossing dust onto the wounds of fellow elephants and helping others climb out of mud and holes. They have even been seen plucking tranquilising darts from each other with their trunks, trying to help dying friends, lifting them with tusks and trunks, and crying out in distress. This suggests empathy for another’s distress.

A picture of a mother elephant carrying the body of her dead calf. She carried the body for two days, only setting it down to eat. Image credit: Mr Philip Shilongo, Local Tour Guide / Twyfelfontein Country Lodgelink@ https://www.newsweek.com/elephant-mother-carrying-dead-calf-days-1756536

They have also been observed tossing soil and vegetation over a dead companion, covering the deceased body with branches and dirt, lifting and manipulating the bones of relatives, and returning to them (Bradshaw, cited in Pribac, 2013). Is this a primitive form of burial?


Two weeks after the death of their matriarch, wild elephants in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya, continued to visit her remains and displayed behaviours seen only in their species, using their trunks to touch and explore her carcass while standing peacefully in place. Though researchers are hesitant to call this behaviour ‘mourning’, they do believe that elephants display a specific reaction in response to the death of one of their own.


Primates

Primate mothers sometimes carry around dead babies for weeks or even months. They have strong social and familial connections, and it is believed that they are well aware that their companions have died. Much as humans come together in mutual bonding when a shared loved one dies so, too, do primates. They gather in groups and hug one another. Like elephants, chimpanzees often become so depressed after a death that they refuse to eat, sometimes even starving to death. A baboon who lost her daughter to a predator, spent weeks apparently in ‘depression’, eating little.


Greyfriars Bobby, Edinburgh.

Dogs and magpies

One of the most famous cases of mourning is commemorated by the statue of Greyfriars Bobby (1855-72), in Edinburgh. The Skye terrier sat guard beside his owner’s grave for fourteen years. And in case we think such behaviour is limited to mammals, magpies have been observed bringing grass and laying it beside a dead conspecific (an organism belonging to the same species) and then standing as if in vigil for a few seconds before flying off (Bekoff). Similar scenes have been witnessed with ravens and crows.


Animal rituals and 'cultural practices'

Nonhuman animals of diverse species have been observed exhibiting emotional behaviour on the death of a proximal subject. Additionally, there are numerous descriptions of nonhuman animals seeming to perform rituals, including burials, on the death of both conspecifics and, remarkably, members of other species. There may even be cultural practices here, as in human societies.


Conclusions

Observations suggest that nonhuman animals have the capacity for grief and that they experience profound feelings of loss. Is attachment and the consequent separation distress enough for us to predict the emergence of grieving behaviour? It seems that separate evidence of altruistic behaviour, present in innumerable species and indicating empathy, should also be a prerequisite. But that’s my personal opinion. What do you think? There is so much we don’t know. The observations tend, necessarily, to be anecdotal but a body of evidence is building up which points towards the existence of non-human grief, at least in social animals with close social bonds, which exhibit altruistic behaviour and empathy. Humans do not have a monopoly on grief.


References

Pribac, T. B. (2013) 'Animal Grief' in Animal Studies Journal

Elephants ‘mourn’ their dead matriarch. YouTube

Marc Bekoff is a well-known biologist, ethologist, and animal behaviour expert.

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