The Nature of Animal Mourning – Part III



In previous posts, we have seen a variety of case studies spanning various animal species which clearly prove that even animals exhibit emotions and even mourn at the loss of their kin. It is logical to think that long-lived species whose members partner most closely with others in tight-knit pairs, family groups or communities may more readily mourn the deaths of loved ones than other species do. But researchers do not yet know enough about animal grief to make such a claim.

We need to test this hypothesis by systematically comparing responses to death in a variety of animal social systems, from gregarious ones to those in which animals come together only seasonally for food or mating. Still, species-level differences in grieving will not be the whole story, because variation in the immediate social contexts and personalities of individual survivors will complicate matters. For instance, whereas the practice of allowing a survivor to view the body, as Harper did with Kohl, sometimes seems to prevent or reduce a period of distressed searching and vocalizing by the surviving animal, other times it seems not to help at all— attesting to the degree of individual variation in death responses within species.

Likewise, evidence for grief in wild monkeys that live in cohesive social units is surprisingly limited so far, whereas, in more solitary species such as domestic cats, bonds may develop between two or more kin or friends such that grief responses rival those of much more social animals. I would predict that field observations will show that some monkeys across varied social systems visibly mourn as much as some domestic cats. Indeed, in Barbara J. King’s book How Animals Grieve, she recounts examples from cats, dogs, rabbits, horses and birds, as well as the other animals discussed here. In each species, there is  a grief continuum, with some individuals seeming indifferent to a companion’s death and other individuals appearing distraught over such a loss. Cognitive differences also play a role in animal grief. Just as there are different levels of empathy expressed by different species and even across individuals within a species, there must be varying levels of comprehension when animals grieve.

Do some animals grasp death’s finality or even have a mental concept of death? We simply don’t know. No evidence suggests that any nonhuman animal anticipates death in the way we humans do, a capacity that underlies so much of our compelling literature, music, art and theater—and that costs our species a great deal in terms of emotional suffering. Indeed, the capacity to mourn may become quite costly for any animal in both physical and emotional terms, especially in the wild where alert high-energy behavior is needed for foraging, predator avoidance, and mating.

Why then did grief evolve in the first place? Perhaps the social withdrawal that often accompanies an animal’s grief, if not taken too far, allows time for rest and thus an emotional recovery that in turn leads to greater success in forging a new close bond. Or, as John Archer writes in The Nature of Grief, it may be that “the costs involved in grief can be viewed as a trade-off with the overall benefits conferred by separation responses” seen when two individuals are keenly attached but forced apart from each other. Under such circumstances, the missing partners may search for each other and thereby reunite and live to see another day.

What is adaptive, then, may not be grief itself but instead the strong positive emotions experienced before grief comes into the picture, shared between two or more living animals whose level of cooperation in nurturing or resource-acquisition tasks is enhanced by these feelings.

From this perspective, we may link grief with love, full stop. That is to say, grief results from love lost. Exploring emotions in a variety of species, ecologist and animal behaviorist Marc Bekoff of the University of Colorado at Boulder embraces the idea that many animals feel “love” as well as “grief,” even as he acknowledges that those concepts are hard to define precisely. We humans, he notes, do not fully understand love, but we do not deny its existence—or its power to shape our emotional responses.

In his book Animals Matter, Bekoff tells the story of a coyote called Mom whom he observed for several years during behavioral studies in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. At one point Mom began to make short journeys on her own away from her pack. Her offspring would rejoice when she returned: they licked Mom and rolled over exuberantly at her feet. Then Mom left for good. Some of the coyotes in her pack paced; others searched for her, setting off in the direction Mom had departed.

“For more than a week some spark seemed to be gone,” Bekoff writes. “Her family missed her.” Discussing animal emotion with me earlier this year, Bekoff attributed the family’s response to its love for Mom. Generally, the potential for love is strong in species such as coyotes, wolves and many birds, including geese, he said, because male and female partners defend territories, feed and raise their young together, and miss each other when they are apart.

Love in the animal world often entwines with grief in an acute mutuality. Perhaps even more than the degree of social cohesion within a species, it is love between individuals that predicts when grief will be expressed. Can there be any real doubt that Willa, a representative of a species (the domestic cat) not known for its social nature, loved her sister, Carson, or that as the sole surviving sister, she suffered grief in the wake of her loss?

In our own species, grief increasingly became expressed through rituals rich in symbolism. By around 100,000 years ago, our Homo sapiens ancestors decorated dead bodies in red ocher, a behavior interpreted by archaeologists to be a kind of symbolic (rather than functional) ornamentation. At a site in Russia called Sunghir, two children younger than 13 years, a boy and a girl, were buried 24,000 years ago, together with elaborate grave goods ranging from mammoth tusks to animals carved from ivory.

Most astonishing were the thousands of ivory beads found in the pair’s grave, probably sewn onto the clothing (long since disintegrated) in which the children were buried. A good portion of this ancient human community at Sunghir must have come together in preparing this funeral ritual—each bead alone took an hour or more to manufacture. Although it is risky to project modern emotions onto past populations, the examples of animal grief reviewed here strengthen an emotion-based interpretation of the archaeological evidence: our ancestors of many thousands of years ago mourned their lost children.

In our modern world, grief is no longer inevitably confined to kin, close social partners or immediate members of one’s own community. Public commemoratives at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima; the genocide memorial center in Kigali, Rwanda; the Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin; or the site of the Twin Towers in Manhattan or Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., all convey visibly the power of agonized global mourning. Our uniquely human capacity for sorrow at the deaths of those who are strangers to us is built on an evolutionary substrate. Our own ways of mourning may be unique, but the human capacity to grieve deeply is something we share with other animals.


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