The Nature of Animal Mourning – Part II



In the previous post, we have seen some cases where we got a glimpse of animals showing their nature of mourning during bereavement. We continue in this post the analysis of Barbara J. King about how after her studies of monkeys and apes have led her to examine emotion and intelligence in a wide range of animal species.

A wide range of species do exhibit behaviors that fit the two-part definition of grief, however, elephants among them. A particularly compelling example of elephant mourning comes from Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Save the Elephants and his team at Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve, who in 2003 tracked elephants’ responses to the dying matriarch called Eleanor. When Eleanor collapsed, a matriarch named Grace from another elephant family immediately came to her aid, using her tusks to support Eleanor back onto her feet. When Eleanor fell again, Grace stayed with her, pushing on her body, for at least an hour, even though her own family moved on. Then Eleanor died.

During the course of the week that followed, females from five elephant families, including Eleanor’s own, showed keen interest in the body. Some individuals appeared upset, pulling at and nudging the body with trunk and feet or rocking back and forth while standing over it. Based on the females’ reactions (at no point during this period did a bull elephant visit the carcass), Douglas-Hamilton concluded that elephants show a so-called generalized response to dying and death—grieving not only for the loss of close kin but for individuals in other families.

Wild cetaceans also seem to exhibit a generalized grief response. In the Canary Islands in 2001 Fabian Ritter of Mammal Encounters Education Research observed a rough-toothed dolphin mother pushing and retrieving her dead calf’s body in much the same way that the Amvrakikos dolphin mother had with her baby’s corpse. She was not alone: two adult escorts swam synchronously with her at certain periods, and at other times a group of at least 15 dolphins altered their pace of travel to include the mother and dead baby. The mother’s persistence was remarkable, and when on the fifth day it began to wane, the escorts joined in and supported the infant on their own backs. Giraffes, too, appear to grieve.

In 2010 at the Soysambu Conservancy in Kenya, a female Rothschild’s giraffe gave birth to a baby with a deformed foot. The baby walked less and remained more stationary than most calves. During the youngster’s four weeks of life, wildlife biologist Zoe Muller of the Rothschild’s Giraffe Project, based in Kenya, never saw the mother more than 20 meters away. Although individuals in a giraffe herd often synchronize their activities, foraging together, for example, the mother deviated from this pattern, preferring to stay close to the baby. Like the dolphin mother in the Amvrakikos Gulf, she may have risked her own health in doing so—though in this case for a living offspring.

One day Muller discovered the herd engaged in highly atypical behavior. Seventeen females, including the calf’s mother, were vigilant and restless as they stared into a patch of bush. The calf had died in that spot about an hour before. All 17 females showed keen interest in the body that morning, approaching and then retreating from it. By the afternoon 23 females and four juveniles were involved, and some nudged the carcass with their muzzles. That evening 15 adult females clustered closely around the body— more closely than they had been during the day. Throughout the following day numerous adult giraffes attended the infant’s body. Some adult males approached for the first time, although they showed no interest in the carcass, instead focusing on foraging or inspecting the reproductive status of the females. On day three Muller spotted the mother giraffe alone under a tree about 50 meters from where the calf had died. The body itself, however, was no longer in its resting spot. Following a search, Muller located it, half-devoured, in the spot under the tree where the mother had been earlier. By the next day the body was gone, taken by hyenas.

Giraffes are highly social animals. After caching a newborn out of sight for about the first four weeks of life, the mothers sometimes engage in a crèche system in which one looks after the infants while the others forage. Muller does not use the words “grief” or “mourning” in describing the incident she witnessed. Yet this case is especially instructive. Not only the mother’s behavior but also that of many of the females in her herd changed significantly in the wake of the infant’s death. Although it is impossible to rule out an alternative explanation, the fact that the females had mounted a protective response against predators taking the baby makes it overwhelmingly likely that grief was involved at some level.

Detailed observations of wild populations of animals, such as the ones Muller reported, are still relatively rare, for several reasons. Scientists may not be at the right place at the right time to observe post-death responses by survivors. And even when they are present, no remarkable grief behaviors may ensue. Especially at this early stage of research into animal grief, observations from sanctuaries, zoos, and even our own homes may supply needed clues.

In 2006 three mulard ducks arrived at Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, N.Y. They suffered from hepatic lipidosis, a liver disease caused by force-feeding of the birds at a foie gras farm. Two of the rescued ducks, Kohl and Harper, were in bad shape physically and emotionally. Very afraid of people, Kohl had deformed legs and Harper was blind in one eye. The two forged a fine supportive friendship for four years. Ducks are social birds, but even so, the intensity of their bond was unusual.

When Kohl’s leg pain increased and he could no longer walk, he was euthanized. Harper was allowed to observe the procedure and to approach his friend’s body afterward. After pushing on the body, Harper laid down and put his head and neck over Kohl’s neck. There he stayed for some hours. In effect, Harper never recovered from his loss. Day after day, he snubbed other potential duck friends, preferring to sit near a small pond where he had often gone with Kohl. Two months later Harper died as well.

Such behaviour has been seen normally in humans and to see such strong bonding in animals too clearly indicates that animals too have feelings, a strong sense of emotional bonding which could be at par with human emotions.


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