They may look very different from us, but a wide range of other animals outwardly express grief and react to death, especially with regard to relatives or longstanding companions, in ways that are extraordinarily - even, on occasion, eerily - similar to our own responses.
THE SORROW OF FAMILY BEREAVEMENT
It should come as no surprise that our nearest relatives, the apes and monkeys, experience grief when confronted with the death of a close relative, but what is startling is just how profound such sorrow can sometimes be. Dr Jane Goodall recorded one harrowingly moving case during her classic researches into the behaviour of wild chimpanzees.
In 1972, while Goodall was studying a community of common chimpanzees Pan troglodytes in Tanzania's Gombe National Park, its matriarch, an elderly female called Flo, died. Flo had been in the company of her 8½-year-old son, Flint, who, unlike most adult chimps, had always remained with his mother rather than becoming independent. Flint initially appeared bemused by her death, sitting alongside her throughout that first day, sometimes inspecting her body, grooming her, and even pulling her hand towards him, hoping that she would groom him in return. When evening came, he constructed a small nest for himself in a tree. Here he passed the night - the very first that he had ever spent alone. Although distracted for a time the next day by his brother's chimp group, it was not long before Flint had returned to the place where Flo had died, and just sat there, staring. Later, he climbed a tree to visit a large nest where he and Flo had slept a week earlier, then he climbed down again, and continued staring.
As the days passed, it was evident that Flint was sinking ever further into a state of deep depression, showing no interest in anything or any other chimp in his community, and not eating, just lying huddled on the ground. His eyes had sunk back into their sockets, and when he did move it was as if he had prematurely aged, shambling like an old chimp. Three weeks after Flo's death, Flint returned once more to the place where she had died, and lay down there, staring out vacantly. Shortly afterwards, he died - of grief, in Goodall's opinion. And certainly, in view of how very closely Flint's behaviour had mirrored the grieving of a bereaved human, it would be difficult indeed to draw any other conclusion.
Similarly, while television wildlife producer George Page was filming a group of Japanese macaques Macaca fuscata for a TV documentary, one of the macaques gave birth to a stillborn infant. Instead of abandoning it, however, its mother carried its body everywhere with her. And each night, after climbing one specific tree with it in her arms, she would give voice to a series of heart-rending screams. Not until three full days and nights of what can only be described as mourning had passed did she finally place her baby's body on the ground and leave it.
Grief and mourning are not confined to primates either. While studying baboons in Kenya, Michigan University behaviourist Dr Barbara Smuts once witnessed four baboons chasing an infant impala Aepyceros melampus. Despite its mother's attempts to protect it, one of the baboons succeeded in seizing the baby antelope, killing it, and eating it in front of its mother. After the baboons left, she remained there, staring down motionless at her calf's devoured remains. And when Smuts revisited the site several hours later, the female impala was still there, and was still gazing fixedly at her dead calf. Moreover, exactly the same scene met Smuts's eyes when she returned there the next morning. It was as if the mother impala had been turned to stone, or had been physically rooted to the spot where her offspring had been so brutally killed. Later that day, she finally departed, but - whether through shock, genuine grief, or both - for over a day she had ignored the world and all of its dangers that she would normally have been so intent upon monitoring, to pay silent homage to her dead calf.
Even birds, especially species that mate for life, exhibit unmistakable signs of grief when their partner dies, as revealed by eminent animal behaviourist Prof. Konrad Lorenz:
"A greylag goose that has lost its partner shows all the symptoms that John Bowlby has described in young human children in his famous book Infant Grief. The eyes sink deep into their sockets, and the individual has an overall drooping experience, literally letting the head hang."
Indeed, with swans it is not unknown, if one member of a longstanding pair should die, for the surviving member to stop eating and die within a short time afterwards.
GRIEVING FOR DEPARTED FRIENDS
The grief experienced by pet dogs, cats, and other higher species following their owner's death is often plain for all to see. Moreover, emotional responses have also been documented with animals confronted by the death of an unrelated but familiar animal companion.
In the 1960s, animal rescuers Ken and Mary Jones of Cornwall received a young seal for care, one of many coated with oil spilling forth at that time from the beached oil tanker Torrey Canyon. Naming him Simon, they nursed him back to health at their wildlife sanctuary, and while he was there they received another young seal, this time a female, dubbed Sally, who had been blinded by the oil. Simon and Sally soon became firm friends, and Simon patiently acted as Sally's eyes. Sadly, however, a year later Simon fell ill, and despite the Jones' best efforts to save him, he died. Sally was very distraught at the loss of Simon, lying next to his body and refusing to move from the spot, even after his body had been taken away. Sally rejected all enticements by the Joneses to eat, and in under a week she too had died - not from physical illness, however, but wholly from grief.
The same tragic fate almost befell an elderly female donkey named Julie. As recalled by zoologist Dr Maurice Burton in Just Like an Animal (1978), Julie had spent many years in the company of Leonardo, an old Icelandic pony. Finally, however, the day arrived when Leonardo was so ill that the only option for his owners was to have him put to sleep. So Julie was taken into a field some distance away from the shed where she and Leonardo lived together, while Leonardo was euthanased in the shed. When his body had been removed, Julie was released, but despite her own advanced years she galloped straight across the field to the shed where she had last seen Leonardo. After standing inside for a short time, looking down at the spot where he had been lying, Julie came out of the shed again, raised her muzzle skywards, and gave voice to an unearthly, agonised scream, unlike anything normally emitted by donkeys. After that, she stopped eating, and seemed destined to join Leonardo in death before long - until fate intervened, in the form of a Shetland pony, introduced as a companion on the suggestion of one of her owners' friends. Julie and the pony became good friends, her appetite returned, and several years later the two could still be seen together.
MAYBE AN ELEPHANT NEVER DOES FORGET
No less moving is the reverent loyalty and apparent recognition shown by elephants to the mortal remains of other elephants, especially dead relatives, while totally ignoring the bones of other animals. Amboseli-based elephant researcher Cynthia Moss has revealed that an elephant herd will make a considerable detour from their normal route to investigate unearthed elephant skeletons, and will gently run their trunks along the contours of these bones (particularly the skulls and tusks), fondle them, smell them, and even carry them away for quite a distance before finally dropping them again. One seven-year-old elephant in a herd came upon the jaw of his dead mother, brought by Moss into the research camp at Amboseli in the hope of uncovering its age. Long after the others in his herd had moved on, this elephant remained there, touching and turning over his mother's jaw with his trunk and feet. Did he recognise it as his mother's, from its shape or even its scent, perhaps? And if so, what were the thoughts passing through his mind?
DO ANIMALS CRY EMOTIONAL TEARS?
Elephants that have been separated from relatives weep copious tears from their temporal glands when reunited. Moreover, these sizeable mammals weep 'true' tears too, i.e. secreted from their lachrymal glands. Such tears are normally for lubrication purposes - but they are also allegedly wept at times of grief or fear. Young elephants orphaned when their mothers were killed by poachers for their tusks are known to wake screaming in the night, their eyes full of tears. And in their compelling book When Elephants Weep (1994), animal behaviourists Dr Jeffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy include several reports of captive elephants seen weeping when ill-treated by their human masters.
Equally, when researching for their book Crying, the Mystery of Tears (1985), Minnesota-based biochemist Dr William Frey and Muriel Langseth received many letters from dog owners claiming that their pets had wept emotional tears. Among the more thought-provoking examples are: an Irish setter that cried when the family cat died; a Boston terrier that hid under the table and sobbed tears whenever his owner scolded him; several reports of weeping Mexican hairless dogs (this breed is apparently famous among devotees for crying if upset); and, most compelling of all, a pomeranian who, when confined in the bathroom by his owner's mother while looking after him, lay on the floor "...with his head resting on his paws and big tears were rolling down his face. His whole body was shaking as he sobbed; the sounds were coming from deep within".
ARE ANIMAL FUNERALS AND BURIALS MORE THAN A LEGEND?
Traditional folklore throughout the world tells of animals attending funerals for members of their own kind, and also burying their dead. However, some wildlife observers claim that such events sometimes occur in real life too. Elephants are well known for standing around a dead member of their herd in solemn, almost ritualistic manner, noticeably with their heads pointing away from the body, and adult females have sometimes been witnessed placing leaves or branches over the body of a dead calf.
Badgers are said to bury their dead, and naturalist Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald reported how an adult female European badger Meles meles, after emitting a macabre scream at her sett's entrance, had been seen to dig a large hole nearby and then, assisted by an adult male badger, proceed to pull the dead body of another male out of her sett, deposit it in the freshly-dug hole, and cover it with soil, after which the two went off on their separate ways. Sceptics suggest that badgers are merely caching corpses to be eaten later. In February 1996, however, a Daily Telegraph reader from Guildford reported discovering the dead body of one of his pet rabbits inside a tunnel that had been specifically closed-off by his other rabbits within the tunnel system in which they all lived. Yet rabbits don't eat each other!
Most bizarre of all are the various reports on file of alleged bee mourners. These are honeybee swarms that have mysteriously appeared at the funeral of their beekeeper. A recent case featured Shropshire beekeeper Margaret Bell, who died in June 1994. Although she lived in Ludlow, Mrs Bell kept her bees 11 km away in Leintwardine. Nevertheless, shortly after her funeral in Ludlow, a huge swarm of bees suddenly appeared and settled on the corner of the street directly opposite her house, staying there for roughly an hour before flying away again. Just an odd coincidence, or were these insects truly Mrs Bell's bees that had somehow found their way from Leintwardine to pay their last respects to their keeper?
This ShukerNature article is excerpted from my book The Hidden Powers of Animals: Uncovering the Secrets of Nature.