Can Animals Feel Grief?

Barbara J. King, anthropologist and author of How Animals Grieve, on when, how and why animals experience grief.

Posted in , Mar 16, 2018

A grieving dog peeks out from behind a door

How and why do animals grieve? Mysterious Ways talked to anthropologist Barbara J. King, author of How Animals Grieve, to find out more.   

Do animals really grieve?
Without a doubt, yes, some animals grieve. That dolphins, elephants and chimpanzees show grief when a loved one dies is not surprising news to many of us. But farmed animals too, like pigs, cows and chickens, may mourn, as well as our companion animals like cats, dogs, birds and bunnies.

But not all animals necessarily do?
No, I don’t believe that all animals grieve. For one thing, the world is teeming with tiny invertebrate animals and we shouldn’t forget them! They’re important to our ecology in their own right. But to say that worms and clams grieve? I think that’s unlikely. And “no” in another sense too. Even in a species where we know, to a certainty, that animals show sustained distress at the loss of a loved one, not every single individual will necessarily grieve. It all depends on the relationship between the survivor and the deceased. And on the survivor’s personality too.

Here at home, where my husband and I live with rescued cats, we don’t always see a grief response when a cat dies, even though house cats may definitely grieve. On a whole, though, I do think that a species with emotional bonds—whether in mated pairs or in larger groups—are where you’re most likely to see a grief response.

How do animals typically show their grief?
When it comes to nuanced emotional behavior, there really isn’t much in the way of “typically” that we can identify. (The same is true for humans, after all.) At the species level, habitat matters of course. Some dolphins may work hard to keep their dead calves near them, buoyant in the water and escorted by other pod members. Some monkeys socially withdraw when a relative or friend dies and prefer, for a time, to be alone. But not every dolphin or monkey acts the same way.

Some survivors may grieve differently, and others may not grieve at all in a way we can recognize. What is broadly common to grieving animals is a major, observable change in their routine, one that is consistent with feelings of distress.

Do they grieve the same way for their own species as they do for humans?
Many wild animals are indifferent to us! And that’s a good thing—they’re wild, after all. When I watch bison in the American Southwest or the pair of beautiful swans I’ve come to know near my home in Virginia, I recognize that I would grieve if they died. By contrast, they wouldn’t care a bit if I vanished!

With domesticated animals, it’s different. Animals from horses to house cats may grieve both when one of their own dies or when their closest human person dies. I don’t know of any studies directly comparing these different profiles of grief, but I’d expect them to be quite similar. Dogs and cats often alter their eating, sleeping and social behavior drastically when someone in their human family dies.

Is there one example of an animal grieving for a human or a different species that sticks out?
Yes, in How Animals Grieve I write about a sanctuary elephant named Tarra and her friend a small white dog named Bella. The two had formed a fast friendship and for eight years took walks together and enjoyed each other’s company. Then Bella went missing, and Tarra went into a depression. Bella’s body was then found; apparently she had been killed by coyotes. Tarra watched from afar as sanctuary workers buried her friend. Later, all alone, she visited Bella’s burial site and stood atop it.

Skeptics argue that animals don’t grieve. Rather, we anthropomorphize animals, i.e. give them human qualities. Is that true?
Oh the “A” word! I have a sense of humor about anthropomorphism because it is the main criticism aimed at scientists like myself who say that many animals feel love and grief. Well, sure, we do sometimes ascribe human qualities to our pets, which is the definition of “anthropomorphism.” That would include, for example, jumping to the conclusion that our dog is jealous in some situation only because we’d be jealous in that same situation—that is, without any real evidence. It’s natural for us to do that.

But I maintain that looking for and finding love and grief in animals—including our pets—is not anthropomorphism when we do it through careful observation. After all, love and grief don’t belong to us. These are not human-only emotions.

Do animals have a concept of mortality?
It’s very hard to test scientifically. My work is based firmly in the observations of visible behavior, since we can’t get into the heads of animals to figure out what they’re thinking—or, alas, interview them! Once in a while, though, we may see a hint that animals grasp the finality of death when it happens to others. In How Animals Grieve, I write about a gorilla silverback who seemed to have a very sad “aha” moment at the death of his longtime female friend. At first, when she died, he tried to revive her. Then, suddenly, he stopped and let out a terrible wail.

What was he thinking at that moment? We simply don’t know. We shouldn’t expect other animals’ grieving to match humans’ in all respects. And we have no real idea if other animals know that one day they will die.

You mention a story in your book about a dolphin pod that wouldn’t allow a mother dolphin to grieve alone. What does that story say about animal empathy?
Dolphins are super-smart, social animals and, with some frequency, when an infant dolphin dies, as I have mentioned, scientists see the mother keeping the body afloat through great physical effort, as if she isn’t ready to part with her baby. It’s very likely that the pod members are consciously aware of that grief when they step in to help, either in physically supporting the dead body or in offering consolation or both. In many species, animals—from chimpanzees to dogs—show empathy to each other.

Elephants are another fascinating species when it comes to grief. They can pick up on the scent of the bones of their deceased. How is that possible? 
To my knowledge, elephant scientists don’t really understand how the relative of a dead elephant can seemingly recognize bones of the dead many years later. Certainly, it’s very striking to see the stroking of those bones by living elephants—it is a “mysterious way” that elephants have! Elephants are indeed highly social, capable of intense joy and intense suffering too. Like primates, dolphins, whales and some birds like corvids, elephants seem capable of remarkable levels of thinking and feeling. In part, perhaps, this comes about because of the demands of social life.

What’s the most incredible example of animal grief that you’ve witnessed or studied?
In 2016, a report came about explaining what happened when a 9-year-old chimpanzee named Thomas died of a lung infection at an ape orphanage in Zambia. Twenty-two different chimpanzees in the community came to look at Thomas’s body. Two of them, Pan and Noel, had been particularly close to Thomas and they expressed their grief in unique ways: Pan visited the body frequently and Noel, in a remarkable act, cleaned Thomas’s teeth with a grass tool. This is just one of numerous case studies of loving care expressed by grieving animals that have moved me.

You write in your book that “grief is born from love.” What do you mean by that?
Often people ask me why animals grieve. It’s possible there’s a biological explanation, such as benefits that come with a period of withdrawal and relative rest after a deep emotional loss. Yet it’s also possible that grief is a by-product of love. That is, as with our own love—romantic love, parent love, family love and so on—once you love someone, with loss comes grief. To know that we are surrounded by other beings on this planet who also experience love and grief is a profound thing.

Read more: Do Animals Grieve Like Humans Do?

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