The Agony of Grief
The Agony of Grief
Abstract and Keywords
Humans and animals grieve our losses in similar ways because the neurobiology of attachment and grief are the same.
GRIEF, ONE OF THE MOST unpleasant emotional states, is the response to loss. This is not to be confused with depression or plain old sadness. Grief specifically refers to the emotional pain suffered upon experiencing a profound loss. It is most associated with the loss of a loved one, but it could also be the loss of a job, home, health or bodily ability, valued possession, or a relationship. For simplicity, in this chapter I will focus almost exclusively on the grief caused by the loss of a loved one. That is usually the deepest grief that we experience and is the most easily observed in animals.
Grief is a highly personal emotion, experienced very differently among individuals. No two people experience grief the same way or with the same intensity. Some people are able to dust them themselves off and get on with their lives relatively quickly, while others wallow in misery for months or even years. Psychologists have not fully figured out the factors that lead to this high degree of variability. Regardless, every one experiences an intense period of sadness and despair upon the loss of a loved one.
Before we consider the existence of grief in animals, we should admit up front that, at first glance, grief does not serve to perform any obvious biological function or provide any readily identifiable benefit to the individual or the human race. How is it good for humanity that we feel so (p.161) lousy when someone dies? Perhaps it would be better if we were built to simply move on after a death in our family. It does no one any good to be despondent for an extended period of time. This is going to be a tough one to explain.
As with every thing else, I think the best way to discover how and why humans experience grief is to explore how and why animals experience it.
Do Animals Grieve?
One of the most famous examples of animal grief is the story of a wild chimpanzee named Flint, observed and documented by pioneering primatologist Jane Goodall. Flint was the third child of Flo, the highest-ranking female of a chimpanzee troop in Tanzania. As Professor Goodall describes it, Flint had all the trappings of a spoiled youngest child (something I am a bit familiar with myself). He clung to his mother incessantly and refused to do things for himself. He threw tantrums and acted much younger and more helpless than his true age of four years old. He preferred the constant company of his mother and played very little with his peers.
Flint even had trouble weaning, breastfeeding far longer than normal. Flo was in her forties when Flint was born and perhaps she just did not have the energy to struggle and acquiesced instead. What ever the reason, Flint was a mama’s boy if there ever was one.
When Flo had yet another child, Flame, Flint was displaced as the baby in the family and suffered what can only be described as emotional trauma. He regularly threw tantrums in an attempt to nurse, especially when Flo held Flame in her arms. Flo was not able to support both children and pushed Flint aside. He became socially withdrawn and depressed, and he lost considerable weight. In other words, he appeared to be in a state of grief.
However, his poor fortune was short-lived when Flame suddenly dis appeared. Professor Goodall never fully determined Flame’s whereabouts, but it seems that she somehow died at the tender young age of just six months. No longer in competition for his mother’s attention, Flint regained (p.162) his energy and enthusiasm. He eagerly went back to his mother and began nursing and eating again. He regained his health and vitality.
Interestingly, Flo took her spoiled child back into her close care with less resistance than she had shown in the time leading up to Flame’s death. Perhaps she was comforted in her loss by caring for Flint in the infantile fashion that he preferred, which was more age appropriate for the lost child than for Flint himself. Flo gave up trying to force him to be independent and let her five-year-old child act (and breastfeed) like an infant.
Three years later, Flo died at an estimated age of well over fifty. Flint was devastated. He completely withdrew socially and stopped eating. Other chimps tried to coax him back into the fold, but he refused. He would often sit, awake but unmoving, for hours. At the age of eight-and-one-half years, Flint died. Physiologically speaking, he likely died of dehydration or undernourishment. Here is an excerpt from Professor Goodall’s book, Through a Window:1
Three days after Flo’s death, Flint climbed slowly into a tall tree near the stream. He walked along one of the branches, then stopped and stood motionless, staring down at an empty nest … one which he and Flo had shared a short while before Flo died…. Then he suddenly … raced back to the place where Flo had died and there sank into ever deeper depression…. Flint became increasingly lethargic, refused most food and … fell sick. 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…. He struggled on a little further, then curled up and never moved again.
You may want to have some tissues handy while reading this chapter.
Other examples of animals grieving come from owners of multiple pets. As an example of countless such anecdotes from pet owners, I offer a story told by Barbara King, author of How Animals Grieve, about two Siamese cat sisters, Willa and Carson.2 These two sisters lived together with their (p.163) owners for fourteen years with no other pets in the house. They were inseparable, sleeping and sunbathing together, sticking tightly together when uneasy about unfamiliar guests visiting the home, and taking their meals together.
When Carson died after a short illness, Willa reacted immediately. She showed the typical agitation and searching behaviors that she had exhibited when the pair had experienced temporary separation for vet or grooming visits. This time, however, Willa was different. She searched and researched the entire house, especially the places where she and Carson had passed so much time together. She showed no interest in food or play, and, perhaps most disturbing of all, she let out incessant and haunting wails that her owners had never heard her make before. She was visibly agitated and found no comfort from physical affection from her owners, and the behavior went on for several weeks.
To anyone who has experienced the death of a pet with other pets remaining, that story will prob ably ring familiar. When we have multiple pets, they form a pack of sorts, even sometimes a mixed-species one. The loss or temporary absence of one member of the pack is felt keenly by the other members. Even cats and dogs that do not normally get along with each other will often react to each other’s deaths with sadness and anxiety. This is undoubtedly made worse if and when some pets sense and “catch” the sadness of their owners (see chapter 3 on empathy), which prob ably helps to signal the finality of death, compared with a temporary absence for what ever reason.
Dolphins are known as one of the most intelligent, most socially complex, and, yes, one of the most emotional of animals. It has even been shown that they recognize themselves in mirrors, a phenomenon previously thought to be unique to humans and some apes.3 Not surprisingly, they have been known to display various behaviors that appear to be grief.4 Dolphins will carry lost loved ones, particularly juveniles, on their backs, sometimes for days. During these days of grief, they will not eat or sleep, remaining steadfastly dedicated to the dead dolphin they are carrying. Various species of ocean dolphins have been spotted doing this. Because these instances are observed in the wild, scientists have not confirmed (p.164) what we all suspect: that these heartbreaking scenes are mothers carrying their dead children. There are many heartbreaking images and videos that can be on the internet by searching for “dolphin carries dead calf.”
In one such video from China, onlookers watch as an adult dolphin swims and battles the waves while carrying the dead juvenile on its snout or back. The dolphin drops the carcass no less than five times and swims to retrieve it. It is unclear where he or she is headed with the body, but she struggles in the surf for an extended period to arrive there. The adult dolphin surfaces often and swims for extended lengths of time with her head and the lifeless body above the surface of the water. Wild dolphins do not frequently swim with their heads above water; they usually surface by swimming in an arc-shaped motion so only their dorsal fins and blow-holes are exposed for an instant. Occasionally they jump, but this particular dolphin appears to be lifting the lifeless body almost completely out of the water for as long as possible before it slides off. Could this have been a desperate attempt to revive the dead child by bringing it to the surface to breathe?
It is not entirely clear that this dolphin was grieving, but this incident is not unique. Scientists and others have documented many such stories of dolphins carrying carcasses, sometimes for days at a time.5 Especially because the bodies are always those of juveniles, it seems plausible that a mother dolphin is experiencing the trauma of losing a child that she recently bonded with. Remember our friend oxytocin? Never is it more active than in a nursing mother, which helps create the vicelike grip of attachment in mammals. It seems that these poor dolphin mothers refuse to let go.
Wolf packs have notoriously strong bonds among members. The social structure is so organized that some members of a pack will forgo sex and reproduction and instead contribute to the survival of relatives’ children. This degree of cooperation requires very strong social bonding, which is prob ably why wolves were chosen as the ultimate companion animal for early humans. As wolves evolved into dogs, the instincts for social bonding were exploited so that the dogs came to see their human families as their packs. However, it is important to keep in mind that the impressive social bonding of dogs preexisted in their wolf ancestors.
(p.165) So strong are the bonds among wolves that the animals actually miss each other when they are separated. This has been recorded anecdotally for some time, but recently, a group of scientists in Austria found a way to explore and document it experimentally.6 In this study, wolves from a social pack living in a wild animal preserve were subjected to temporary separations by the removal of individual wolves from the pack for short periods. During the separation, the scientists observed and documented how the remaining wolves reacted—their howling, in particular.
First of all, it was clear that the overall degree of howling increased in the pack when one member was missing. No surprise there; this is just another example of the social cohesion of the wolf pack. The really interesting thing that scientists found was that the wolves that did most of the howling were those that were the most closely bonded to the missing member. In a wolf pack, just like a human social group, not all relationships are the same. A given wolf will be more closely bonded to some wolves than she is to others. Some wolves are outright rivals, and dominance challenges are frequent. Other pairs of wolves are closely bonded to each other as siblings, parent-child, mates, or even just friends. This can be measured by simply documenting how much time individual wolves spend with each of the other wolves in all of the pair-wise combinations. This phenomenon can also be shown by documenting aggression events, which then reveals instances of reduced bonding among a given pair.
The study found that when a wolf is missing, the wolves that are closely bonded to that wolf will howl at regular intervals. As the separation endures, the howls become more frequent and the wolves become more distressed. We could describe this behavior in various ways that deemphasize the emotional nature of the bond between the missing wolf and her friend/mate/sibling, but must we? It seems more reasonable to conclude that the wolves are concerned for their lost companion. The wolves suffer the withdrawal of a social bond and react by trying to reestablish it. While this is not grief, per se, it captures one of the essential components of grief: loss. This study confirms that wolves are keenly aware of the loss of a member of their group, and, even more important, they feel it much more deeply when it is someone they are close to.
(p.166) The likely explanation for this behavior is that the wolf brain is built to sense the sudden loss of a social bond and respond by calling out to the lost member. This behavior conveys obvious biological benefits by promoting group cohesion: the howler gains by reconnecting with a social ally, and the separate wolf gains by finding its way back to the group. Many dog breeds are known to suffer from separation anxiety when left alone, which is prob ably due to the same brain event—a response to deprivation of a social bond.
Lessons from Elephants
Elephants are usually gentle animals, mainstays in zoos and circuses, and beloved of wildlife activists due to their intelligence, adaptability, apparent emotional complexity, and exceptional memories. Biologists have long appreciated the incredibly complex social interactions of elephant herds. Herd mates bond with each other in a tightly knit community and, given the long life span of elephants, develop decades-long attachments. This combination of traits seems to be the perfect cocktail for the experience of grief. Indeed, elephants are the animals that serve as perhaps the most striking examples of animal grief. I will share just a few stories to illustrate.
Rennie Bere, a game warden in Africa, tells many stories of elephants grieving for their dead, including one in which a grieving mother carried her dead child with her migrating clan for days.7 She had to set the child down periodically to eat and drink; she sometimes needed to adjust her stance and method of carrying. All of this slowed her down considerably. What did the rest of the clan do while this burdensome member trailed behind while she was grieving or was possibly even in denial? They slowed down and accommodated her.
In her book, Coming of Age with Elephants, Joyce Poole tells several stories of elephant grief.8 She describes a mother mourning over a stillborn child. She remained with the body for two whole days until lionesses grabbed the carcass and took it away for their meal. During her vigil, she (p.167) repeatedly nudged her dead child with her trunk and made soft and low sounds that can only be described as sobs. Tears ran down her face.
This “crying” behavior has been documented in elephants many times before and since. Many scientists and zoo and nature preserve workers believe that elephants cry. In response to tragedy, they emit soft moans, and their tear glands begin to produce so excessively that the tear ducts cannot absorb it all and the tears spill out onto their faces. That sure sounds like crying to me.
In elephants, it is not only parents of dead children that weep. In early 2013, a baby elephant was born in a nature preserve in China. For some reason, the child was rejected by its mother, who attacked him not once, but twice. Animals can be disturbed psychologically, just like humans. Unfortunately, rare cases of child abandonment and rejection are something that humans have in common with other animals. In the case of this unfortunate young elephant, however, employees of the nature preserve had the rare and terrible opportunity to witness the elephant child’s reaction to the abandonment. It was not pretty. The young elephant cried inconsolably for hours and hours. He was not hungry; he did not need shelter or warmth. He needed the love of his mother, and he did not get it. In response, he wept. The article has pictures and I encourage you to find it on-line. You can see the tears streaming down his face. You can almost hear his whimpers.9
A young pygmy elephant named Borneo grieved the death of his mother in a preserve in Malaysia. The young calf continually nudged his mother’s body and let out cries of frustration and stress that were much different than the typical cries for attention we hear from young elephants. Workers in the preserve offered water and milk, but little could distract the young calf. Eventually, they had to forcibly take the calf away so that they could remove the corpse of his mother.
The strong bond between elephant parents and children can even form in situations of adoption. In 1999, a young pregnant elephant, later named Champakali, was moved from a national park in south India to a nearby zoo in a city called Lucknow to protect her from poachers and other dangers of life in the wild. At the zoo, a middle-aged female elephant named (p.168) Damini almost immediately bonded with the new addition. She cared for Champakali and doted on her constantly. The handlers had never seen anything quite like it. Damini had previously been something of a loner with only weaker bonding to the other elephants in her group. This all changed when Champakali entered the picture and the two became inseparable.
Tragically, despite the care of veterinarians, Champakali died in childbirth, along with her calf. The loss rocked Damini to the core. She immediately stopped eating. She cried visibly and audibly and, over a period of three weeks, reduced her consumption of food and even water. She collapsed and lay on the ground for a week as veterinarians attempted to care for her. She died four weeks after her surrogate daughter and was buried alongside her.10
An elephant named Patience trampled and killed one of her handlers in a Missouri zoo during an outburst of frustration.11 She had been agitated and acting out for three days. What was causing her to be so out of sorts? The matriarch of her group had recently been euthanized due to severe kidney disease. Because it seems pretty unlikely that elephants understand the concept of merciful euthanasia, murder would be the more likely interpretation by the elephants. It is not clear from news reports if the handlers had “waked” the dead matriarch to allow the rest of the group to understand, grieve, and accept her death, so it is possible that Patience’s act of aggression was less out of grief and simply an attempt to discover what they had done with her beloved leader. Either way, the death of her companion left her in great distress.
Lessons from Primates
In a zoo in Münster, Germany, there is an adult female gorilla named Gana. At the age of eleven, she gave birth to her second child and first son, Claudio, and cared for him dutifully. Suddenly, the caretakers noticed that Claudio was losing weight, not eating much, and showing little energy. (p.169) Before the veterinarians could examine him, he suddenly died. An autopsy later revealed the cause: a congenital heart defect. He was three months old.
Gana did not take this well. As described by many handlers and visitors to the zoo, she was “consumed with grief.”12 Gana frantically stroked the child, pick up his lifeless arms and legs, and stayed with him for several hours, caressing and prodding him to no effect. This, in and of itself, is not uncommon among gorillas and other apes, but what happened next was indeed surprising. Gana finally moved from the spot where her son had died, but she did not leave him behind. She placed him on her back and carried him piggyback, just as she had when he was alive. She went about her business, carrying him around the compound either on her back or in her arms, stopping frequently to probe and prod him, as if to see if he had returned to life.
The zookeepers were unable to retrieve the dead child from Gana for several days as she fiercely guarded her lost son. She went mostly without food during her days of mourning and did not interact with other members of the group. The only sounds heard from her were whimpers and grunts, unless a handler or another gorilla approached, when she would growl. Only after several days did she finally lay down her decomposing son and move on.
While this scene captivated Germany, it was nothing new to those who study gorillas in the wild. Gorilla parents have been known to mourn dead children and carry them around, sometimes for weeks. Gorilla pregnancy is even longer and more demanding than human pregnancy, and raising children is an exhausting, years-long endeavor. Further, gorillas only typically live for forty to fifty years and do not become sexually mature until they are eight or nine. Altogether, this means that gorilla mothers typically only give birth to singlet children, spaced many years apart. Thus, the mother-child bond is extremely strong in this species. Where there is great love, there is great loss, so these animals grieve hard. It is very difficult for these mothers to let go.
The phenomenon of a mother refusing to part with her dead child has been documented very extensively in baboons as well. Baboon mothers (p.170) will carry their dead children around, sometimes for days. They continue to groom them, stroke them, attempt to nurse them, and shake them gently, as if to wake them. Only when the bodies begin to visibly decompose do the mothers finally leave them behind and move on. There are many heartbreaking videos of baboon mothers carrying their dead children on YouTube. Explore them if you are in the mood for a good cry.
Macaques have also been known to wallow in grief upon the death of a troop member. A worker in the Don Chao Poo Forest Research Center in Thailand captured on video the grief of a mother macaque cradling her dead child. In the video, which is posted on YouTube by the user phanamonkeyproject, the mother continues to offer food to her dead child, which she carries around like a limp doll. At first, she runs away as other monkeys approach, as if to protect her child or her food. Then, she allows one to approach. The visitor is not interested in her food. The other monkey tries to console the mother, stroking her gently, from behind, and caressing the dead baby. The mother seems to accept the comfort for a while, and then runs off again.
In another video available on YouTube, a clip from the television show Wildest India, a baby macaque is killed during a fight between two rival macaque troops. After the fight is over and the troop realizes that they suffered a casualty, the dead child’s mother can be seen gently caressing and rubbing the body. She emits cries of distress and anguish and carries her dead daughter around for hours. The mood throughout the entire troop becomes mellow, somber even, and other members come to offer comfort periodically. After the mother finally lets go and leaves the baby behind, another juvenile of roughly the same age comes over for one final good-bye. He touches her gently, sits quietly next to her for a few seconds, and then lets out a scream before leaving the body behind.
Finally, I turn to our closest relatives, the chimpanzees. We have already discussed the case of Flint grieving himself to death over the loss of his mother. While it is tempting to chalk that case up as an outlier—an extreme case due to an exaggerated mother-son bond and incomplete adolescent development—there are other examples of chimpanzee grief even among nonrelatives.
(p.171) At the Sanaga-Yong Rescue Center in Cameroon, there lived a chimpanzee named Dorothy.13 Before reaching the rescue center, she had lived a hard life for decades at the hands of an amusement park. Despite that, she became an especially gentle and friendly resident of the rescue center for her last eight years, and she was popular with both the humans and her fellow chimps. She never had a child of her own, but “adopted” a young orphan male named Baboule. Her love and attention coaxed Baboule out of a deep sadness and shyness. As he gained confidence and grew strong, he took his place in the social order of the troop and will likely be a candidate for alpha male someday. Dorothy continued her practice of fiercely protecting Baboule until long after he had outgrown her. She also had many friends and would generously groom others while only rarely asking for reciprocal grooming.
Dorothy died of heart failure at an unknown but certainly advanced age. All of the chimps at the facility fell into a state of agitation and lethargy. Her adopted son Baboule, now a large adult, was hit the worst and wallowed around on the ground. There was very little eating in the troop for a few days. Even the alpha male, Jacky, screamed on the ground and had to be comforted by others.
A couple of days after Dorothy’s death, the employees buried her in the animal graveyard near the chimpanzee enclosure. They invited residents of the nearby village to view her body and pay their respects, and many did so. The chimpanzees all lined up at the fence and stared at her body in almost complete silence. (Monica Szczupider snapped a remarkable photo of the scene, which you can find online by searching for “Dorothy’s funeral” and Monica’s name.) Because chimpanzees are not often quiet or still, the memories of that serene mood continue to haunt the workers at the rescue center to this day. After Dorothy’s body had been wheeled past the other chimps, the staff proceeded to the graveyard for the burial. The chimps began to scream and carry on, so they brought Dorothy’s body back to the fence for one last good-bye. After another day or two of mourning, the troop gradually began to return to their normal routines.
Some are hesitant to use the term “grief” when discussing animals. In response to the many stories above, they might offer one of the following explanations. First, they may say that the altered behavior of the animal is actually anxiety and uncertainty that is associated with a sudden change in its social routine. Animals need time to settle into a new routine and will be uneasy until they do. Second, they might say that “grieving” animals are really just suffering from behavioral symptoms caused by the rebalancing of their neurochemistry. Hormones in the brain will be affected by the sudden removal of a conspecific to which they had been attached.
These two things, so goes the reasoning, lead to stress, mediated by neurotransmitters and hormones that we discussed earlier (cortisol, norepinephrine, and so on). The symptoms of stress include reduced energy and appetite, restlessness and disrupted sleep patterns, and loss of interest in play (because, as discussed in chapter 2, play is only something an animal will do when not stressed). In essence, these critics would say that the animals described in this chapter are not grieving; they are simply stressed.
In my opinion, these criticisms are actually nice, concise descriptions of what grief is. I am quite happy with those behavioral descriptions of the animal response to great loss. In fact, I am even comfortable applying those statements to human behaviors that are associated with bereavement. The only thing missing is the account of the tremendous internal pain—the despair associated with grief—only because we cannot ask them to describe how they are feeling.
However, if we were able to know what they were feeling, why would we think that they would not experience emotional pain upon the death of someone with whom they have bonded? They certainly act as if they do. Let me put this another way. As you read about the grief behaviors of animals throughout this chapter, are you struck by how human they seem? If we were to describe the human behaviors—without talking of the emotion, just the behaviors—after a close loved one has died, it might be very similar to what we observe in animals.
(p.173) Grieving humans often eat less and lose weight. They appear lethargic. They lose interest in things they normally enjoy: in other words, they refuse to play. They will withdraw socially from friends and family. They will visit places that remind them of their lost companion—their bedrooms, favorite places, and so on. They will visit the graveyards or places of death of the deceased. These are all reminiscent of what elephants, dolphins, chimps, and gorillas do. If there are stark similarities in our grieving behaviors, perhaps the default assumption should be that the under lying emotional experience is similar also?
The idea that animals experience grief was not controversial in previous eras. Ivan Pavlov stated in 1927: “Different conditions productive of extreme excitation, such as intense grief or bitter insults, often lead, when the natural reactions are inhibited by the necessary restraint, to profound and prolonged loss of balance in nervous and psychic activity.”14 Pavlov was talking about dogs.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the explosion of biological research seemed headed in the right direction of recognizing our close emotional kinship with animals, a movement launched largely by Darwin himself. However, around the middle of the twentieth century, a strong repulsion toward qualitative research and anthropomorphism sprung up in the scientific community, and the serious study of animal emotions was swept away with almost puritanical fervor.15 The stripping away of common sense drastically crippled the study of animal behavior. Thwarted and ridiculed at every turn, biologists interested in animal emotions often simply gave up and shifted their focus to other research matters.
Luckily, the study of animal minds and emotions, and thus a more robust and accurate view of animal behavior, has seen a resurgence in the study of biological sciences over the past two decades. To all of those who rejected and continue to reject the view that animals really feel anything in their minds, I retort, yet again, with words from Charles Darwin himself: “Who can say what cows feel, when they surround and stare intently on a dying or dead companion[?]”16
Of course, a purely behavioral look at grief does not capture the full inner experience—the pain of grief—but that is all we can do when it comes (p.174) to studying grief in animals. Further, no one I know of has ever said that the inner experience of grief is the same between humans and other animals. We can fully admit that grief, like all human emotions, is likely much more intense for humans because of our highly evolved and complex cognitive abilities. We have the gift of introspection, which is more like a curse during moments of grief. It seems likely that introspection is what makes our grief so terrible. When we lose someone we love, it would probably be a bit easier if we were less aware, less thinking, and less feeling. If we simply forgot about our loss after a few days, we would prob ably be able to move on with little trouble.
Do animals, especially ones with smaller, simpler brains, experience grief less profoundly than we do? Prob ably. In fact, their more rudimentary experience of the loss of attachment is prob ably closer to how grief first evolved, so of course it would be simpler.
I offer a parallel. The sense of vision first evolved as a small patch of pigmented cells in a small marine invertebrate. Pigments, molecules that absorb specific wavelengths of light, allowed these cells to sense light. These small invertebrates could then respond to that light, and so began the evolution of vision. Yes, earlier animals had a much simpler sense of vision, but they were well on their way. It is the same with grief. Other animals have smaller brains, but they do appear to experience grief. Furthermore, while we can admit that most animals prob ably do not experience grief as intensely as humans do, let us not forget Jane Goodall’s report of Flint, the chimpanzee. When was the last time you heard of a human starving to death from grief?
The Origin and Purpose of Grief
Clearly, the pain of a lost attachment is detrimental to the health of the individual. The pages of this chapter are filled with stories of animals detaching socially and refusing food and sometimes water—even to the point of death. One study even found that grieving sperm whales develop (p.175) measurably weaker teeth attachments to the point of actually losing teeth!17 In humans, the brain activity associated with grief can actually be observed in brain scans. Interestingly, some of the biochemical changes associated with grief in humans are those normally associated with inflammation, such as during infections or allergies. Scientists have even been able to detect and measure this grief-associated inflammation in the saliva of bereaved persons.18 Clearly, grief is not good for you.
So if grief drastically lowers the survival chances of the bereaved, how did it ever evolve in the first place? Currently, the most widely accepted explanation of the biological origin of grief is that it is nothing more than an unavoidable side effect of attachment. As we discussed in chapters 4 and 5, social animals have evolved hormonal mechanisms to promote attachment. Attachment is being drawn to someone and yearning to be in his or her presence as much as possible. Attachment requires that you feel the absence of your loved one (and then try to reestablish contact).
Think about it. When you are actually with the person (or thing) that you are attached to, you may not necessarily feel that attachment super powerfully at every moment. You may even take the loved one for granted while you are actually present with him or her. However, as soon as you are separated from the object of your attachment, even briefly, you feel it. The separation that you feel is often described as anxiety. Being separated from whom or what we love makes us anxious. That is unavoidable because it is part of how the attachment works. The effect of attachment is really expressed when we are not with someone, more so than when we are.
Once again, the hormones in our brain that mediate this attachment can actually be measured. This is not conjecture. While we are still filling in the details, much of the brain chemistry that is under neath attachment, love, and grief has been known for some time.19 The anxiety that we experience as “missing someone” does have a pretty clear biological purpose and an evolutionary benefit: social cohesion. When we talk about social bonding, attachment, and so forth, what we are really talking about is the release of hormones that prime an animal to want to stay with other animal(s) or thing(s). It is like getting “hooked” on being together with our loved ones. In the animal world, these attachment hormones help individuals (p.176) survive by keeping them with their herds and flocks, as well as their parents, children, mates, and friends. The different kinds of relationships likely involve different precise combinations and doses of hormones, but the attachment works nonetheless. It works because when an animal is separated from her child, parent, mate, or group, the resulting anxiety compels her to reestablish the connection. It drives her to stay in the social group, stick by her mother, care for her child, and so on.
So, if being temporarily separated from someone or something that we are attached to causes us anxiety, if and when the ultimate separation, death, occurs, we get an extreme case of anxiety. This exaggerated experience of anxiety is what we know as grief, and it may indeed be an unavoidable consequence of the prosocial evolution of many animals including and especially humans. There is only one surefire way to avoid grief—never get attached—but that is a rather poor reproductive strategy in a social species.
If the above explanation of grief were true, we would predict that grief would be seen most in species with strong social bonding and least, or not at all, in species with little or no bonding. That is exactly what scientists have found.20 Similarly, the mechanism of attachment, through hormones like oxytocin, appears universal as well. Of course there are differences across different species, but the theme is the same: attachment-promoting hormones produce a “drive” to stick with the object of the attachment, and the sudden absence of the attachment leads to hormonal anxiety. In a sense, there was really no other way to evolve sociality. Anxiety and grief may be more than just side effects of love and attachment; they may be part of how attachment works.
Once again, the father of the modern study of biology, Charles Darwin, hit the nail right on the head. It only took the scientific community 150 years to fully understand the wisdom of his words. He wrote a letter in 1843 to his cousin, who happened also to be a priest: “Strong affections have always appeared to me, the most noble part of a man’s character and the absence of them an irreparable failure; you ought to console yourself with thinking that your grief is the necessary price for having been born with … such feelings.”
(p.177) This explanation of grief makes good sense logically, but it leaves me a little unsatisfied. First of all, nature seems better than this—more creative, I mean. If the grief associated with the loss of a loved one is nothing more than a side effect of attachment, it is a very harsh one. It seems to me that Mother Nature has had two or three hundred million years to come up with ways to ameliorate the negative consequences of grief. Instead, such consequences have intensified. As new species have emerged among the social lineages of animals, they have become increasingly more attached and more capable of profound grief.
Alternatively, if Mother Nature cannot dissect the negative consequences from the positive ones for a given evolutionary innovation, she often co-opts the under lying structure for new functions. What I mean is, if nature has not been able to remove grief from attachment, maybe she has provided new functions for grief instead. This way, it is not all bad that animals grieve. In this vein, biologists have suggested a couple of new hypotheses for the social functions of grief.
One such hypothesis is that grieving the loss of a group member allows a reshuffling of the social structure of the group. This is particularly important in species with ranked dominance hierarchies in which reproductive success is closely linked to dominance status. Alpha males and alpha females reproduce more than those further down the pecking order. At the same time, higher-ranking males and females will have more social bonds. They are more “popular,” if you will, and will thus be grieved more broadly and intensely than individuals further down the line.
How, then, does grieving promote social harmony? Imagine if an alpha female suddenly dies. One possible result would be a struggle, possibly violent, among viable contenders for the alpha position. However, that is not often what happens, at least not right away. Instead, the group is thrown into a state of grief—a mourning period, if you will. During mourning, animals lose interest in things like dominance struggles, and they temporarily lose any concern for their place in the group. This is a good thing. Without that mourning period, the resulting struggle and chaos could disrupt social harmony in the group and even cause some members to be injured or killed in the fighting.
(p.178) It is important to keep in mind that the social hierarchy of any group is always in flux. An alpha male or female only reigns for a limited amount of time before he or she is replaced by demotion, death, or expulsion by a stronger contender. Further, there is a pecking order from the alpha down the line to the lowly misfits. However, even the most harmonious social units contain the occasional struggles up and down the ladder as social climbers attempt to claw their way up. In many species, rough-and-tumble play has replaced all-out fighting in these struggles, as discussed in chapter 1. This has preserved healthy competition while removing the survival hazards of true fighting.
Grief, too, could be such a safety measure to keep the peace during a potentially tumultuous time. The tragic or untimely death of a group member, especially a highly ranked one, is a dangerous time for the social order of the group. The resulting grief phase provides a sort of cooling-off period so that the group can slowly ease into the inevitable dominance struggles, so goes the hypothesis.21 If this were true, we would predict more grieving for higher-ranked individuals and less for lower-ranked ones. This turns out to be the case, offering support to this tentative hypothesis.
Does the same hold for human society? The higher-ranked individuals among us engender more deep and broad mourning than lower-ranked ones. History is filled with stories of tragic deaths of popular leaders, plunging entire peoples into mourning. The streets of America were filled with grief the day that John F. Kennedy was shot, while the homeless and indigent die ungrieved every day. On a more personal scale, imagine how many people would show up to the funeral of a CEO of a medium-sized business who died unexpectedly. Now imagine how many would show at the funeral of a janitor at that same company. Higher rank = more social connections = more grief.
Another hypothesis about the possible biological benefit of grief is that the presence of grief in an animal will elicit sympathy from other animals and allow him or her to form new social bonds to replace the lost one.22 Strong support for this hypothesis recently came from studies of baboons. Compared with gorillas and chimpanzees, baboons have social standards (p.179) of conduct that seem more savage and harsh. They fight a lot and can be downright nasty to humans and each other. Nevertheless, baboons appear to grieve and mourn dead comrades.
Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania recently cataloged the social interactions of a troop of wild baboons in Botswana while measuring the levels of circulating glucocorticoids, a group of stress hormones that includes cortisol. They also observed the social and behavioral changes that occurred upon the death of a group member. Not surprisingly, they measured spikes in stress hormones among the baboons when a member died. As expected, the spikes were highest among the baboons that were most closely bonded to the deceased. The most interesting thing that the researchers found was that grieving baboons would often form new social associations and display bonding behaviors, such as grooming and other friendly contact, with members that they had not been closely affiliated with previously.23
The point was best made using the story of Sylvia, one of the older female baboons in the group. In general, Sylvia was not particularly friendly. She enjoyed a fairly high rank in the group mostly due to her age and dominance. A cranky old bird, Sylvia was overtly hostile to other females when they would try to approach her. The researchers observing the group had even nicknamed her the “Queen of Mean.”24 However, she was closely bonded to her daughter Sierra. They would groom each other frequently and spend lots of time in friendly contact. This all changed when Sierra was eaten by a lion. (I guess such is life in Botswana.)
Sierra’s sudden death plunged Sylvia into a state of depression, and her stress hormone levels soared. She displayed all of the typical grieving behaviors that we have seen throughout this chapter. Most interestingly, she lost her aggression toward the other females in the group. While she previously would hiss and scream at any other female that attempted to be friendly with her, after Sierra’s sudden and tragic death, she accepted the approaches of the other females. Sylvia’s nasty rebuffs were a thing of the past, and the other females were eager to offer consolation as she mourned the loss of her daughter and best friend. Sylvia gradually emerged from the (p.180) funk of her depression with eager new grooming partners, and her stress hormones returned to normal. Life marched on, and Sylvia retained her high rank in the group with more friends and allies to boot.
The story of Sylvia is an example of the kind of social recalibration that helps a grieving animal recover and move on. First, the consolation helps to relieve the suffering and pain of the loss and bring the stress hormones back into balance. Second, it helps the bereaved form new friendships to replace the lost one. Researchers had watched Sylvia for fourteen years. Only in the time of her greatest pain did she soften up and form new friendships. Perhaps that is the silver lining that nature has provided us to cope with our grief. In the case of Sylvia, it is conceivable that, if she had remained nasty and hostile after losing Sierra, she would have been in a precarious place in the social order of the group. Without any friends, she may have lost her position and any hope of future reproductive success. Through her grief, she was able to get exactly what she needed: new friends.
To me, this seems similar to what happens when a human suffers great emotional loss. This loss is not limited to death bereavement—other forms of loss often cause us to shift around our social connections. Enduring a divorce, losing a job, declaring bankruptcy, experiencing a serious illness—during these times of pain and loss, we may lose some friendships, strengthen others, and form new ones altogether. You have prob ably heard the expression, “When times are tough, we discover who our true friends are.” The stress and anxiety of grief causes us to reevaluate a lot of our relationships, even unconsciously. When we emerge from our grief, we often move on in life as a “new person” with new social connections and interests. Perhaps the grief itself is what pushes us to explore these social changes as a coping mechanism. If so, well played, Mother Nature.
Earlier in this chapter, we discussed the fact that, apparently, elephants cry. This raises the issue of the evolutionary value of audible and visible grief—crying, wailing, and so forth. Especially for a young animal that has just lost his main source of protection, it would seem that calling out would be the best way to get the attention of the members of the herd. By (p.181) tugging on their heartstrings, there is hope that others will come to console and provide for the now orphaned child, lest they soon fall victim to nearby predators.
In chapter 3, we saw that social animals are moved by other animals in pain. It stands to reason, then, that emotional pain would be no different. Perhaps by visibly and audibly crying, elephants, dogs, and chimps are really making a desperate attempt for someone to come and offer consolation. I do not mean to say that crying animals are making any conscious efforts, but rather that crying out could be an involuntary expression of grief designed to elicit sympathy. From sympathy comes consolation and attention. From attention comes attachment and social bonding, and—voilà—the orphaned child or now friendless adult has some replacement for his or her loss.
This possible function of visible/audible crying and other biological benefits of grief described here do not necessarily explain how grief evolved in the first place. Those would indeed be very poor attempts to explain where grief came from. Instead, they are possible ways that nature has evolved to “deal with” grief and to use it for some possible advantage, as a silver lining, or to build in some sort of coping mechanisms that will help the animal survive the episode of grief.
For the origin of grief, the only explanation that seems to make any sense is that it is the painful but unavoidable consequence of social attachment.
Do Animals Hold Funerals?
In the summer of 2013, a YouTube video of a dog burying a puppy went viral. In this video, the dog approaches a young puppy that is laying lifeless at the bottom of a large pit in the desert. She briefly smells the dead puppy and then gently uses her nose to push sand on to the puppy. The dog works at this task dutifully for a few minutes until the puppy is well buried. You can search for this video and watch for yourself.
(p.182) There are many reasons to doubt that this video represents a grieving mother burying her dead child. For one, reports of dogs burying their dead do not abound. Second, this dog is clearly a well-trained working dog, which is easily gleaned from other videos posted by the same user, and even the video in question shows an attention to task that speaks of substantial training. Finally, the video description cannot be easily verified. Without more information, we should be careful not to draw too much from this.
Despite these caveats, the video is haunting to watch. The dog appears withdrawn and forlorn. Her tail does not wag, as would normally be expected when a dog performs a trained task. There is a noted absence of the usual spring in the step that is common in working and performance dogs. Even if this is not her puppy, there is a sense that the dog understands the loss of life at hand. There is no joy in this, only a somber sense of duty.
Do animals have funeral rituals? The very question seems absurd to many. Funerals call to mind codified rites with props, incantations, sacred prayers and anointing, or ritual burial or burning. However, in many species, social grieving events have been documented that include a sort of group mourning and consolation. Some animals have even been seen to partially bury or cover one of their fallen peers.
A clan of African elephants was migrating to new territory when one elderly female collapsed and died. When another elephant noticed, she trumpeted to the others. The entire clan stopped and circled back to the fallen elephant. They took turns poking and prodding the deceased in an apparent attempt to rouse her. Some pulled on her trunk, tusks, and legs in an attempt to lift her to her feet. Some males even briefly mounted her, perhaps attempting to wake her. The group needed to move on to their new location, and so, one by one, they left their fallen friend. However, the next day, many of the group returned—from considerable distance—to check on her one last time. This time, they did not attempt to rouse her. They simply wailed, moaned, and cried, circling her slowly, as if in a viewing pro cession at a wake.25
This was not an isolated incident. In his book, Elephant Destiny: Biography of an Endangered Species in Africa, Martin Meredith describes an especially (p.183) touching event that occurred when the matriarch of an elephant clan passed away:26
The entire family … including her young calf, were all gently touching her body with their trunks, trying to lift her. The elephant herd were all rumbling loudly. The calf was observed to be weeping and made sounds that sounded like a scream, but then the entire herd fell incredibly silent. They then began to throw leaves and dirt over the body and broke off tree branches to cover her. They spent the next two days quietly standing over her body. They sometimes had to leave to get water or food, but they would always return.
Many other such instances of elephant death rituals have been observed. There is even a section called Death Ritual in the Wikipedia page on elephant cognition.
Elephants have long been known to recognize and respond to the dead bodies of other elephants, even if they are skeletonized. That is a fairly remarkable feat of memory and cognitive processing. No other animals, not even chimpanzees or dolphins, appear able to recognize skeletal remains of their own species. When elephants come upon the bones of a fallen member of their species, they will pause with immediate recognition. They will sniff the bones extensively, nudge them with their trunks, and often pick them up and carry them away with them. Again, being able to differentiate bones of your own species from those of other species is a surprisingly advanced ability. I would never believe the anecdotes if they were not also accompanied by scientific studies.27
Elephants are not the only animals that have a “death ritual.” In an episode of a PBS show called Clever Monkeys, you can watch how a troop of toque macaques surrounds the body of their dead leader. The various troop members gather around the body in a circle and stare at it in silence. Macaques are not a species that often sit still and quiet. The macaques touch the body of the leader gently, while also stroking, caressing, and grooming each other. Like any pack leader, the dead monkey had rivals and enemies that were constantly nipping at his heels, eager to depose him (p.184) as the leader. Nevertheless, even those rivals come to pay their respects while he lies dead.
I would be remiss if I did not also mention the death ritual of corvids, a family of birds that includes crows, ravens, and magpies. This will be discussed in detail in the next section.
Is it so farfetched that animals have evolved certain behavioral tendencies in response to the death of a conspecific? After all, funerals are a universal feature of the human response to death. All cultures of humanity have certain rituals that accompany the death of a member of the society. These customs date very far back into human history. Ancient hunter-gatherer cultures were known to build funeral pyres for cremation, ritually bury their dead, or send the bodies downstream in a small boat built especially for that purpose.28 In all cases, the deceased were adorned in various ways specific to the death ritual.
There is evidence that Neanderthals buried their dead as well, at least on occasion.29 Earlier claims that Neanderthals included trinkets or rituals in their burials have been strongly disputed, and now most anthropologists believe the burials were purely practical in nature. Nevertheless, burial of the dead may have been a cultural practice that was brewing in the Pleistocene era among Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, and possibly other hominins.
While most modern funeral rituals are dominated by prayers and practices that center around the theme of afterlife, there is some evidence that the central actions of human funerals—burial, cremation, or other means of body removal—actually predate spiritual belief.30 Initially, body removal was likely more about sanitation and the avoidance of attracting predators, scavengers, vermin, and pestilence. This would have become increasingly more important as human cultures began to settle in one place for longer periods due to the innovations of livestock and agriculture. The shift from nomadic hunting and gathering to farming and stable villages did not happen overnight, and so the need to dispose of decomposing bodies prob ably inserted itself slowly into human prehistory.
The invention of graves, graveyards, and rudimentary crematoria likely gave rise to the ritualism associated with burial and cremation. It was not long before these inventions and customs merged with developing religious (p.185) beliefs. Given that grief is the suffering due to the loss of an attachment, it seems rather probable that beliefs about afterlife stemmed, at least in part, from a desire to preserve the lost attachment as a comfort to the bereaved.
According to many psychologists, it is healthy to hold funerals because they function to help the bereaved manage their loss. First, funerals are designed to bring closure by helping those left behind to accept the finality of the person’s death and, in so doing, help them move on with their lives. In addition, most experience a surge of grieving during funerals, especially if we have been “bottling it up inside” prior to that. It seems to me that certain aspects of the services are practically designed to ensure that we bawl at least once.
With these two items in mind, it seems plausible that animals might have something to gain from funerals as well. They, too, have a need to accept the permanency of their loss so that they can be open to forming new social connections; and they, too, can benefit from releasing a “grief valve” so as to allow quicker recovery from the spike in stress hormones that are associated with grieving. Thus, it stands to reason that some form of simple funeral ritual might be a good thing for animals.
This notion has not been lost on zookeepers. It has been known for some time that, both in the wild and in captivity, gorillas tend to mourn their dead and “hold vigil” with the dead bodies for a time before leaving them.31 As with so many other species, the gorillas that were the most closely attached to the deceased are usually the most bereaved. During the collective mourning, members of the group can be seen comforting each other, and stressful cries are common. A grieving band of gorillas in captivity will actively resist the removal of a dead body, becoming agitated and combative, if the handlers attempt to remove the body before the mourning ritual is completed and the gorillas have left the body on their own schedule.
This has led many zoos to hold “wakes” for gorillas when they pass in an attempt to facilitate the grieving process of the rest of the band. In 2004, a female gorilla named Babs died in the veterinary hospital of the Brook-field Zoo outside of Chicago after a long battle with kidney disease. Because (p.186) she died while away from the gorilla enclosure, the handlers thought that it might help the remaining gorillas reestablish their social hierarchy to know that she had died. They wanted to give them a chance to properly mourn her passing. After they laid Babs’s body in the paddock, the gorillas came to view it. Babs’s daughter was the first to approach and her mother was the second. As the gorillas sat next to her cold body, they stroked it gently. One gorilla even brought her young daughter, a youngster that had formed a strong bond with Babs, to view the body with her. The young one played with Babs’s mouth, just as she did so often when Babs was alive, and laid her head on Babs’s chest. Zookeeper Betty Green said: “It was like they used to do in the exhibit, lying side by side on the mountain. [Babs’s daughter] rose up and looked at us and moved to Babs’s other side, tucked her head under the other arm, and stroked Babs’s stomach.”32 As you can imagine, Babs’s handlers were moved to tears.
The zoo staff thought that the wake was especially important for this band of gorillas because Babs had been the dominant female. Although the silverback male is the ultimate leader of a gorilla band, the female leaders are far more social than the males. Babs had been the disciplinarian and arbiter of day-to-day operations. If the silverback is the president of the group, the dominant female is the chief of staff, whose daily actions are far more crucial to the social harmony of the band. Babs died well before her time and with no heir apparent. By holding the funeral, the zoo staff hoped to avoid violent clashes to fill the power vacuum. The mood of mourning and mutual comfort helped to soothe the transition.
This was not the first such wake for a gorilla. The Brookfield Zoo got the idea from a zoo in Columbus, Ohio, which in turn got the idea from watching gorillas in the wild. This idea is now spreading to zoos throughout the world, and not just for gorillas. Another example is the story of the funeral for Dorothy, the chimpanzee from a rescue center in Cameroon, which was discussed earlier in this chapter.
Most of what we can say about grief in animals comes from the study of mammals, especially the big-brained ones: apes, elephants, and cetaceans (whales and dolphins). This is expected for two reasons. First, grief is a result of the loss of something that we are attached to through sociobio-logical bonding. This kind of hormone-influenced sociality is most pronounced in mammals, and only where there is attachment can there be grief. Second, grief requires more emotional sophistication than most nonmammals show. While some emotional states are so simple that they appear purely instinctual, such as fear, lust, anger, stress, and calm, the more complex emotions require a more developed cerebral cortex and more intricate cognitive processing.
Nevertheless, there are a few hints that a simple form of grief, or something like it, may exist in some nonmammal species, most especially birds. Birds would be the most likely group of animals after mammals to exhibit grief because of their extensive social living and the formation of bonds and attachments.
A study of blue jays published in 2012 had the title, “Western scrub-jay funerals: cacophonous aggregations in response to dead conspecifics.”33 This led to some confusion as the authors did not intend to imply any cognitive or emotional response akin to grief. They were using the term “funeral” only to refer to a gathering event that occurs when a fellow bird dies, and the controversial term appears only in the title, not in the paper itself. Nevertheless, the findings of this study are interesting, particularly because the study describes the results of a systematic series of experiments, rather than just the anecdotes that comprise most of our examples of animal grief.
In this study, the scientists laid out various objects and then watched flocks of blue jays as they discovered the objects. Most objects elicited no response, including pieces of wood painted like blue jays. However, when the scientists arranged a scenario where the blue jays happened upon a dead blue jay, they observed, time and again, a distinct behavioral pattern. (p.188) The jays organized into a chorus and sang a song. The other jays seemed to avoid the area for a while, despite the presence of food provided by the researchers.
The study authors suspected that the calls were warnings to fellow jays of danger in the area. This belief was bolstered by another experiment that revealed a similar (but not identical) organized choral reaction when a stuffed owl was introduced. Since owls are regular predators of these jays, this death response may be a sentinel behavior. The blue jays are programmed to respond to the death of another member of their species by warning the others to avoid the area for a while: a predator is about.
Since this is not really an expression of grief, why am I including it here? I find this study thought-provoking because it reveals that the blue jays are capable of identifying a dead member of their own kind. It may seem like simple stimulus-response, but the ability to recognize a dead conspecific is a rather high-level skill for a nonmammal. It means that they have some understanding or at least acknowledgment of what death is. They may not lose sleep thinking about death, but they do know it when they see it.
It turns out that blue jays are not the only birds that have the ability to recognize when one of their own has died. In fact, crows have a so-called death ritual in which members of the flock gather around a dead companion. Vincent Hagel, former president of a local chapter of the Audubon Society, wrote:34
Just a few feet from the house lay an obviously dead crow, and about twelve other crows were hopping in a circle around the body. After a minute or two, one crow flew off for a few seconds, then returned with a small twig or piece of dried grass. It dropped the twig on the body, then flew away. Then, one by one, the other crows each left briefly, one at a time, and returned to drop grass or a twig on the body, then fly off until all were gone, and the body lay alone with twigs lain across it.
This same ritual has been seen in the closely related ravens. In addition, Marc Bekoff recently recorded a slightly different death ritual in magpies:35
(p.189) One approached the corpse, gently pecked at it, just as an elephant would nose the carcass of another elephant, and stepped back. Another magpie did the same thing. Next, one of the magpies flew off, brought back some grass and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then all four stood vigil for a few seconds and one by one flew off.
Apparently, after he published this account, Bekoff was flooded with e-mails from people who had seen this ritual in magpies, as well as in the aforementioned crows and ravens. Magpies, crows, and ravens are all in the same family of birds: the corvids. Guess who else is in the corvid family of birds? Blue jays. While the death-associated behaviors of these corvids may not necessarily indicate grief, it is a social acknowledgment of death, and that is an important first step.
A sanctuary for animals rescued from factory farms reported the tale of Harper and Kohl, two unrelated male ducks rescued from a foie gras production farm.36 These two ducks both suffered irreparable injuries and disabilities and were very frightened of people. They formed a bond very quickly and clung to each other constantly. This inseparable pair lived for four years on the sanctuary before Kohl could no longer walk or eat. Harper was able to witness the euthanasia of Kohl. Following that, he went to the lifeless body of his friend and quacked frantically, poking and prodding with his bill. After getting nowhere with his attempt to revive his friend, he lay down next to his body, remaining there for several hours.
The handlers at the sanctuary removed Kohl’s body and, after a few days, tried to introduce Harper to other potential duck friends. It did not work. Harper spent his time lying in the spots where he and Kohl used to lie, and he was now more afraid of his human handlers than ever. He ate only minimally and avoided contact with all ducks and humans the best he could before finally dying two months after his friend. Did Harper die of grief? What is fair to say is that Harper’s health and wellness were negatively impacted by the loss of his only social bond. Already fragile, the loss of this bond almost certainly contributed to his demise.
(p.190) While most bird species form lifelong pair bonds with social and sometimes sexual monogamy (as discussed in chapter 5), geese are perhaps the most prolific of pair bonders. The marital bonds in these species are truly impressive. Any goose hunter can tell you that after shooting down a goose, very frequently one member of the flock will circle back to the fallen member, despite the terrifying sounds of shots firing, and thus become an easy target. The Nobel Prize–winning scientist Konrad Lorenz spent his life studying these birds and claimed to have only witnessed three instances of a pair-bond dissolution, two of which were “second marriages” that replaced an earlier deceased spouse.37 Not surprisingly, geese show signs of intense grieving upon the loss of their mates. They will lose weight and withdraw socially. The mortality rate for widows and widowers is very high. The only thing that seems to get them moving and thriving again is if they can form another pair bond quickly, most often with a fellow widow or widower.
This has led to some odd consequences for these geese. Stories abound of lovelorn geese attaching to and following around other non-goose birds and even non-birds. One such Canadian goose, after six weeks of depression and loneliness, became attached to employees of a Dollar General store in Nixa, Missouri.38
Grief for Animals of Other Species
The story of the Canadian goose that ended up attempting to pair bond with employees of a Dollar General brings up the issue of cross-species grief. Animals have been observed to exhibit cross-species empathy, as we discussed in chapter 5, so it makes sense that they may actually display grief for members of other species. In fact, if grief is the emotional response to loss, we would expect animals to grieve when they lose anything they are attached to, regardless of species. That is exactly what we see.
In the summer of 2012, a video appeared on YouTube of a dog mourning the death of her friend, a beaver. The video went viral, articles were written about the case, and details began to emerge from the owners of the (p.191) dog. The owners of the dog, named Bella, live out in the country where they keep several dogs with no need for leashes or fences. The beaver, whom they nicknamed Beavis, came around periodically. Since he did not seem to bother the dogs, they did not shoo him away. Bella and Beavis became unlikely friends.
While the other dogs on the ranch were not fans of Beavis, Bella played with him in all the ways that you would expect two dogs to play. They played ball, they wrestled, and they snuggled. Bella’s owner described them as “inseparable,” and Beavis would frequently seek shelter in Bella’s dog house, where he was welcomed freely. Bella, who protectively guarded her food from the other dogs, would even allow Beavis to eat food out of her bowl.
The now-famous YouTube video captures the aftermath of Beavis’s sudden passing. Bella is seen cuddling next to the dead beaver, nosing and licking him, glued to his side. Her cries and whimpers are audible. The other dogs joyfully play in the background in what looks like callous disregard. None of those other dogs were bonded to Beavis; Bella was. Her owners reported that Bella stayed with the body of her dead friend for several hours, periodically laying her head on him and whimpering listlessly the whole time.
Stories of unlikely animal friendships are not hard to find. Animals seem able to readily bond with other animals that they do not feel threatened by, as we discussed in the chapters on love and empathy. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that they would grieve the loss of those bonds. Why not?
One of the most famous tales of interspecies love and loss involves yet another dog named Bella. This Bella, however, had formed a tight bond with an elephant. Yes, an elephant. The fifty- or sixty-pound Bella became inseparable friends with a gigantic, ten-thousand-plus-pound elephant named Tarra. Tarra is the most senior resident of an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, where she retired after a life spent entertaining humans with her painting skills. (Yes, painting. But I do not want to get distracted from the point here.) Bella also lived in the sanctuary.39
Almost immediately after meeting, Tarra and Bella showed affection for each other. Like many dogs, Bella was jittery around animals other (p.192) than dogs and humans, but she warmed up to Tarra almost immediately. Perhaps because her life had been spent in the exclusive company of non-elephant companions, mostly humans, Tarra showed none of the typical elephant skittishness of small animals. As the unlikely pair spent more and more time together, their mutual trust and attachment grew. Bella would roll onto her back and allow Tarra to gently stroke her stomach with her trunk. The two would swim and splash in the pond together. Tarra would squirt water at Bella from her trunk, much to Bella’s delight. Wherever Tarra went, Bella would follow. The two were free to roam the grounds of the sanctuary day and night, and happily did so at each other’s side.
One night, Bella was attacked and killed, most likely by coyotes. While coyotes would never have dared to approach Tarra, Bella was known to run off from Tarra for short periods, especially when Tarra was sleeping. That seems the likely scenario behind this tragedy.
The most haunting part of this story is that, from the condition and location of Bella’s body, it became clear to those investigating that the attack could not have happened where she was found, nor could she have walked to the location, as the injuries would have been fatal very quickly. Somehow, Bella was moved some distance after she died. Someone brought her broken body back to the home base. The staff went to Tarra and found blood on her trunk. No injuries, just blood. It seems that, after discovering it, Tarra had carried the bloodied body of her friend Bella back to where the sanctuary staff would find it.
Although Tarra eventually recovered from her loss, she was initially plagued by the typical signs of elephant grieving. She avoided social interactions with the staff and other elephants and was withdrawn from activity in general. Normally, she was among the most curious elephants, always exploring new things and poking her trunk into every one’s business. She lost that enthusiasm for a while, but the staff of the sanctuary reports that she has now regained the spring in her step and is forming new social bonds. You can read more about Tarra and Bella at www.elephants.com.
It is prob ably true that dogs are a bit more “susceptible” to cross-species bonding and grieving since they have been bred and heavily selected for (p.193) their companionship with humans. Thus, it is not surprising that dogs would form bonds with animals like beavers and elephants. My own dog, Bruno, is very strongly attached to my better half and me. If either one of us is traveling or stays out late, the remaining person is “not enough” for Bruno when it is time for sleeping. Bruno sleeps in bed with us, usually right in between, and when one of us is not there, he just cannot seem to relax and go to sleep. He’s usually a very lazy dog that loves bedtime snuggling and sleeping, but when the pack is not all there together, he is grieved. He will sit up at the foot of the bed and stare at the door, whining and whimpering periodically. It is a heartbreaking scene.
Nevertheless, it is not just dogs that are capable of bonding with members of other species. Koko, prob ably the most famous gorilla of all, was known to form attachments to her human handlers as well as other animals around her. Koko was most noted for her remarkable use of language, which we will discuss later, but a story that is not told as often is her tendency to adopt pets. In fact, in 1984, Koko signed that she would like a cat for Christmas. Not sure that this was a good idea, the staff of the Gorilla Foundation gave her a stuffed animal cat instead. This did not at all satisfy her, and she repeatedly signed that she was sad.
After she repeated her request, the staff decided to give it a try and arranged to give her a kitten for her birthday in July of the next year. They allowed Koko to pick out the cat from a litter of abandoned Manx kittens. Manx is an odd cat breed for its lack of tail. Koko selected a gray male and named him All Ball. As told in the book Koko’s Kitten, Koko was very dedicated and attached to the kitten.40 She was remarkably gentle and tender with him. She would carry All Ball everywhere, and she even attempted to nurse him in a manner identical to how wild gorillas nurse their young.
Why would she attempt to nurse him? Well, as we know, oxytocin gets released during social bonding. Oxytocin is also the hormone most involved in nursing. It is possible that, given Koko’s very unique and peculiar social setting, surrounded by humans indoors instead of gorillas in the jungle, the social parts of her brain were wired up a little differently. Maybe the oxytocin release was exaggerated or simply misfired and tricked her into feeling as though she were a new mother. Maybe she was play-mothering (p.194) like the vervet monkeys discussed in chapter 1. Who knows? In any event, Koko was very attached to her new pet and cared for him gently and dutifully.
Because we are in the chapter on grief, you may already be braced for where this is going. At some point, All Ball ventured out of Koko’s cage, out of the facility, and was struck and killed by a car. The researchers told Koko that All Ball had gone away. Koko became very distraught and agitated. She continually called for All Ball with signs and vocalization. She signed to her human handlers, sad, bad, sad, bad in rapid succession. This gradually shifted to the signs for frown, sad, and cry. Later that night, Koko made sounds that the handlers had not heard her make before. Her owner and chief handler, Dr. Penny Patterson, described it as weeping.
The next year, Koko was permitted to pick out a new pet. Although her options included several breeds this time, she chose two tailless Manx cats, like All Ball was. She named her new pets Lipstick and Smokey. Koko doted on these kittens the same way she had doted on All Ball and, thankfully, was able to enjoy them for a lot longer.
Pets also grieve for their owners. The Internet is filled with tales of pets, mostly dogs, grieving the deaths of their human companions. There are pictures of dogs clinging to lifeless bodies, sitting under neath coffins, and lying on top of graves. Usually, the details and backstories are scanty, but the stories are too numerous to dismiss.
In summary, I think it is safe to say that animals display many of the same “symptoms” of grief that humans do. They withdraw socially, eat less, and play less. It even appears as if some animals experience a bit of denial. Denial is often the first stage of grief in humans. It is not that someone truly believes that the deceased is still alive. It is more a temporary “suspension” of belief, a defense mechanism because the reality of the death is too painful to acknowledge just yet. Denial is what came to mind when I read about the many kinds of animals that carry around their dead children for a while before letting them go.
(p.195) Social attachments are a feature of the lifestyle of many animals, including almost all mammals. These attachments work, in part, by drawing us back to our companions when we are separated from them. We experience discomfort in their absence as a means to drive us to find them and reunite. This is all controlled by hormonal signaling in the brain, and experiments with animals have shown that. The neurochemistry underpinning grief in humans is, as far as we can tell, identical to that of other mammals. Attachments are formed and strengthened through hormones, and the withdrawal of those social inputs leads to an imbalanced state. The imbalance, if slight and temporary, leads to some mild anxiety. This is “missing someone.” If the withdrawal of the social attachment is permanent, however, the imbalance is much worse. Anxiety spikes, and we call that grief.
As mentioned earlier, grief is most likely a side effect of attachment. It is prob ably unavoidable. If we did not miss people and grieve their loss, the attachment itself would not really work. What is more interesting, I think, is that mammals have adapted to the curse of grief by finding silver linings. As mentioned above, grief brings about changes in social behavior that will actually help us recover from our grief by forming new attachments. That is just as true in animals as it is in humans.
Despite this, some stubborn people may claim that animals are only acting as if they are grieving. Words like “love,” “sadness,” and “grief” seem to irk people when applied to animals. To this, I can offer a compromise. If we substitute the words “social attachment” for “love” and “attachment withdrawal” for “grief,” then I think we would describe the reaction to the death of a mate in almost exactly the same way for elephants as we would for humans, save for descriptions of the inner emotional feelings. Further, the only reason we have to make an exception for the descriptions of emotional feelings is because we do not have access to them, not because we have any evidence that they are different. Further still, in the few animals that can communicate their feelings, what do they tell us? Koko feverishly made the signs for sad, cry, and hurt when her cat died. How else can that be interpreted?
My point here is that humans and animals do the same things when we experience loss, so it is likely that we feel similar things as well. I think (p.196) that should be the default position, and as such, I will give the last word to Barbara King: “Where there is grief, there was love.”
Bekoff, M. “Grieving Animals: Saying Goodbye to Friends and Family.” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animal-emotions/201207/grieving-animals-saying-goodbye-friends-and-family.
King, B. J. “When Animals Mourn.” Scientific American 309 (2013): 62–67.
King, Barbara J. How Animals Grieve. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Masson, Jeffrey M. When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals. New York: Delta, 1995.
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