It can often seem like animals and humans are not so different from one another. When we watch the animals around us – particularly our pets – we sometimes find ourselves relating to certain aspects of their behaviour. A dog displaying happiness at being reunited with an owner, or a cat expressing pleasure by way of an audible purr, are two things that we feel we can understand on an emotional level. But our emotional connection with animals is perhaps most apparent when it comes to the subject of grief and mourning.
It is widely accepted among the scientific community that animals – just like humans – experience emotions. The great naturalist, Charles Darwin, recognised this in the animal kingdom as early as 1871, writing, “The lower animals, like man, manifestly feel pleasure and pain, happiness and misery”. At the time, this was not a popular belief. However, our understanding of animal emotions has significantly evolved since Darwin’s era, with studies showing that a wide range of mammals and birds experience varying degrees of emotion. But when it comes to the idea of mourning, the waters become a little muddied.
It is widely accepted among the scientific community that animals – just like humans – experience emotions.
In August 2018, a female killer whale in the Salish Sea – in the north-west Pacific Ocean – tragically suffered the death of her calf. But far from leaving it and swimming away, the mother orca, known to researchers as Tahlequah, stayed with the dead infant, desperately trying to keep it afloat. To the amazement of the researchers studying her, this didn’t just happen over a few hours. Tahlequah continued to carry her calf around for an additional 17 days, in a display that many took as a clear indication of a mother’s mourning. Images of her and her dead baby made global news, prompting a wealth of discussion on the topic of non-human grief.
The case of Tahlequah is not an isolated incident in the animal world. There are countless examples of animals behaving in a way that shows sadness, heartbreak and mourning. Often, it is most prevalent in intelligent, social species such as elephants. Elephant’s responses to the deaths of their kind have been documented on multiple occasions. Previous research has observed how they react to coming across the skulls of elephants that poachers have killed. The elephants were seen to stop and inspect the skulls, becoming abnormally tense and quiet, clearly recognising them as deceased elephants. Furthermore, there are cases where mother elephants have lost their young and remained beside them for days or even weeks at a time, standing guard and behaving in a way that is akin to a human vigil.
This form of animal mourning has been observed in giraffes as well, and many other species display unusual behaviours when conspecific animals die. Chimpanzees, for example, show some similarities to humans – caring for dying individuals, checking for signs of life when death occurs, staying with the body for extended periods and even cleaning it on some occasions.
What Does Science Say?
Many of these findings are isolated examples and cannot be backed up by rigorous scientific testing. For scientists who dispute the existence of animal mourning (and many do), the problem stems from the fact that we often tend to anthropomorphise, projecting our feelings onto other animals. For it to “seem” like an animal is mourning, it is not good enough evidence to say that the activity is taking place.
However, emotional functioning amongst mammals is mainly reliant on hormonal activity, which can be studied experimentally. For example, this has been done previously with chacma baboons in Botswana, in research published in the journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The deaths of two individuals in a small group of these baboons led to elevations in glucocorticoid stress hormones amongst females who had previously held close relationships with the dead individuals. These stress levels returned to normal again two months later, clearly suggesting that the trauma of grief evoked a strong emotional response.
Research into animal grief and mourning is gaining traction, with studies ongoing. Although questions remain, a growing number of scientists are coming round to the idea that animals – just like humans – may grieve and actively mourn the deaths of loved ones. The findings are yet another indication that we share a surprising number of similarities with our animal cousins.
Anderson, J.R., 2020. Responses to death and dying: primates and other mammals. Primates, 61(1), pp.1-7.
Brooks Pribac, T., 2013. Animal grief. Animal Studies Journal, 2(2), pp.67-90.
Engh, A.L., Beehner, J.C., Bergman, T.J., Whitten, P.L., Hoffmeier, R.R., Seyfarth, R.M. and Cheney, D.L., 2006. Behavioural and hormonal responses to predation in female chacma baboons (Papio hamadryas ursinus). Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 273(1587), pp.707-712.