Ok, so we know that apes share more than 98% of our genes but how much of that synchronicity translates to our emotional triggers?
The age-old argument still stands: do animals grieve or are we just imposing human emotions onto them.
The animal kingdom can be pretty savage. We see animals abandon their young if they’re underdeveloped, we document the clever and intricate ways they hunt for their prey and we notice gang mentality demonstrated throughout many species.
That got us thinking, how do the planet's great creatures react to the loss of their own? Do they fully understand the concept of death? And can you truly die from a broken heart?
Animals experience both joy and sorrow and so it doesn’t seem such a stretch that they suffer from grief too.
We’re going to delve into ten anecdotes of animalistic loss in the hope of gaining a broader understanding of our fellow Earth occupants. We intend to grasp how different species cope with death and if they share the same kind of awareness that we do.
I have to warn you this is going to be an emotional one, so have your tissues at the ready.
Mature chimpanzees follow a specific rule that when their time comes, they take themselves off into the forest to die alone. Although, for juvenile chimps it’s been reported that they show genuine signs of grief when their mothers die.
Dr. Jane Goodall studied the ‘F’ family based in Gombe National Park, Tanzania for the majority of their lives. When matriarch Flo passed away in 1972, her youngest son Flint struggled to cope. For an 8-year-old chimp, Flint was abnormally dependent on his mother and when she passed it was reported he showed signs of clinical depression. He became despondent, staring into space, refusing food, and no longer socialising with others. This lead Flint’s immune system to become weak and within a month of Flo’s passing Flint died too.
Goodall recalls Flint's final moments, “the last time I saw him alive he was hollow-eyed, gaunt and utterly depressed, huddled in the vegetation close to where Flo had died. The last short journey he made, pausing to rest every few feet, was to the very place where Flo’s body had lain. There he stayed for several hours, sometimes staring and staring into the water. He struggled on a little further, then curled up – and never moved again.”
It’s been widely reported that elephants hold vigils when a member of their herd passes. It’s been observed that they stand silently by the remains of their deceased rocking back and forth as well as stroking their sun-bleached remains as if embracing a memory. Elephants have also been recorded to cover their dead with mud and twigs, similar to a human burial.
In the Samburu reserve in Kenya, a weakened matriarch Eleanor suffered from a swollen trunk and bruised body before eventually collapsing. Grace, a matriarch from another family, used her tusks to lift Eleanor back to her feet but Eleanor tumbled and buckled once more. Grace became distressed, vocalising agonising sounds, still, she continued to push Eleanor with her trunk. She stayed by Eleanor’s side even when her own family moved on. The following morning Eleanor was lifeless.
The day after that, another female, Maui, approached the body. She sniffed and touched the body then placed her trunk in her mouth to assess the taste. She moved her right foot so she could hover over Eleanor, then she pulled on Eleanor’s body with her left foot and trunk. When Eleanor still did not wake, Maui stood over her and rocked back and forth.
Elephants continued to come to Eleanor’s body for a full week after her death where they would stay for hours at a time. When Grace returned to Eleanor, she made no attempt to lift her, instead she stood quietly.
Moreover, researcher Joyce Poole saw an elephant mourn their young and reported, “as I watched Tonie’s vigil over her dead newborn, I got my first very strong feeling that elephants grieve. I will never forget the expression on her face, her eyes, her mouth, the way she carried her ears, her head, and her body. Every part of her spelled grief”.
A couple of years ago, an endangered killer whale named Tahlequah was seen off of the coast of Vancouver Island carrying her dead calf. It was the first successful birth her pod had seen within three years. Tahlequah continued to push the carcass of her offspring across 1,000 miles of the Pacific North-western coast for a staggering 17 days.
The prolonged display of grief was the longest ever noted by scientists who explained that orca mothers usually carry their deceased calves for approximately one week before letting go. At the time, researchers were concerned that the extended show of mourning could seriously compromise Tahlequah’s health. Luckily, she survived.
When a member of a wolfpack dies, the remaining members walk with their heads low, ears pinned back, and tails drooped – a signal that typically suggests depression. They forgo howling as a group, instead each crying in their own way.
When a low-ranking omega female named Motaki lost her fight to a mountain lion, Jim and Jamie Dutcher noticed changes in the behaviour of her pack. They explain how the pack lost their spirit and playfulness, noting how they no longer howled but instead “sang alone in a slow mournful cry”. They also noticed how their demeanour changed. The pack would walk softly and slowly and when they stumbled upon the place where Motaki was killed, they walked with their ears pinned back and their tails dropped. This often indicates submission. The Dutcher's reveal it took the wolfpack around six weeks to return to normal.
Storm Warning, a dressage horse who due to an unfortunate accident suffered from a bad fracture in his leg and was eventually put down and buried on his farm. The evening of his death his carer and rider walked to his grave to place flowers in remembrance. Six horses from his herd followed suit, circling the heap of fresh ground with their heads bowed, gazing down at Storm Warning’s grave.
The following morning the six horses were found in the same position, standing vigil. Interestingly, other nearby horses who were not part of Storm Warning’s herd did not join.
At Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo, a female gorilla, Bebe, was euthanised to alleviate the pain from advanced cancer. The zookeepers allowed Bebe’s friend of many years, Bobby, to spend some time with her body to bid his final farewell.
It was reported that Bobby first attempted to revive Bebe by touching her and placing her favourite food in her hand. When Bebe didn’t respond, realisation hit, and Bobby began howling and bashing on the bars of his cage.
In the subsequent days, more gorillas in Bebe’s close circle were able to visit her corpse. All three of them attempted to wake Bebe from her sleep but when that failed, they did not react in the same distressing manner as Bobby.
Two Siamese cats, Willa and Carson, were inseparable for 14 years. They spent their days eating, sleeping, and relaxing together, often found lounging intertwined under the sun.
Unfortunately, as they aged Carson developed health complications. As her symptoms worsened, she was kept in an incubator to keep her warm. Sadly, it wasn't enough, and Carson passed away.
Willa showed signs of distress in her sister’s absence. After a couple of days alone, Willa became more distraught, wailing and searching the house looking for Carson. She would continuously check back in particular spots the two cats shared. It took Willa many months to return to her usual state and to take an interest in life once again.
According to researchers, baboons react to death similarly to humans, often looking toward companions for comfort. When they suffer the misfortune of loss, their stress hormones increase. They can lower stress levels by friendly social contact and expanding their social network.
A high-ranking baboon named Sylvia suffered a traumatic loss when she lost her daughter Sierra to a lion. Before the death of Sierra, Sylvia steered away from female company, but with her need for social bonding, Sylvia began grooming with another female of much lower status. Previous to the passing, this kind of behaviour was very much beneath her.
Llamas are known to be particularly perceptive creatures who forge deep bonds with one another. They will often feed in the same area and sleep next to each other. If they lose sight of one another they can appear agitated and they tend to stick close together when encountering an unfamiliar animal or predator.
A woman named Betsy Webb who moved from Colorado to Alaska with her two Colorado llamas gained two more in her new Alaskan home. She reports that both pairs had spent their lives together and upon their initial meeting were wary, but after some time became a friendly foursome.
When Boone the oldest passed away, the very next day his life partner Bridger died in the same manner. She describes how when they buried Boone and Bridger, the remaining pair stood and watched. In the following two days, one of them stood staring at the grave while the other retreated to his barn and cried out.
It's been widely reported by marine biologists that dolphin mothers carry their deceased infants in their mouths or on their backs until the bodies decompose.
Back in 2016, biologist Giovanni Bearzi saw a dolphin emerge from the Mediterranean Sea pushing, nudging, and circling the carcass of its dead female companion for over an hour. In some instances, the live dolphin would place its chin on the corpse and press down whilst looking at the body as if it were waiting for a response.
It seems pretty naïve and somewhat arrogant to believe that grief is uniquely human. Grief is something of a mystery and is a terrible weight for any creature to endure. Although we cannot scientifically prove that animals grieve, based upon the stories above we can draw conclusions that animals feel their lives deeply and the ways in which they deal with loss varies as it does in humans.
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