Grief in animals

Charles 17 Comments

Posted by Vale

The photo shows a swallow grieving for its mate who had been killed in collision with a car. In a series of shots (see them here) we see him first try to feed his mate and then, when he realises that she is dead, seems to cry out. But how can an animal ‘realise’ that another bird has died? can it know itself; can it comprehend death?

Rooting around I came across this on a site called Animalwise. It’s a description of a dolphin and a calf that has died:

‘…it was quite clear that the mother was mourning. She seemed to be unable to accept the death, and was behaving as if there was any hope of rescuing her calf. She lifted the little corpse above the surface, in an apparent late attempt to let the calf breath. She also pushed the calf underwater, perhaps hoping that the baby could dive again. These behaviours were repeated over and over again, and sometimes frantically, during two days of observation.

The mother did never separate from her calf. From the boat, researchers and volunteers could hear heartbreaking cries while she touched her offspring with the rostrum and pectoral fins. Witnessing such desperate behaviour was a shocking experience for those on board the research boat.’

In truth there is a huge amount of evidence that animals know death and grieve when it touches them. It’s not just the obvious ‘intelligent’ animals – the elephants, the dolphins or the primates – either. Conrad Lorenz, the naturalist, noted that:

A greylag goose that has lost its partner shows all the symptoms that [developmental psychologist] 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 …”

A fascinating and very moving article in Psychology Today asks – with descriptions of grief amongst elephants and seals, magpies, llamas and wolves – not whether animals grieve, but why they should. I know it’s unscientific of me, but I find the question shocking. It springs, I suppose, from the view of animal behaviour that assumes that every action must have an evolutionary (selfish?) purpose.

I was relieved and comforted when in the end no explanation was offered, only the reflection that for all us animals:

“grief is the price of commitment, that wellspring of both happiness and sorrow.”

Worth reading the whole article.


  1. Charles

    What a lovely post, Vale – thank you. Oh, if we could talk to the animals…or perhaps it should be ‘listen’? These animals experience loss and grieve for that loss, and so do we.

  2. Charles

    A consortium of scientists from various disciplines have recently signed a declaration in Cambridge to the effect that animals experience consciousness in a way that is comparable with humans. By animals they mean all mammals and birds and many other creatures such as octopus. This despite the fact that many of these creatures lack the part of the brain configuration which is generally associated with higher consciousness in humans. One of the comments on facebook (where I first saw this) which particularly amused me was from someone who said that they looked forward with interest to excited statements from Cambridge that the sun is quite hot and that water is wet.

    It amazes me that science has such a problem with this. Once you dump the idea of a Biblical style creation which makes human beings qualitatively different to animals, then it surely makes sense that whatever occurs in humans, including language, emotion and ‘personhood’ has its origins elsewhere and is not the exclusive preserve of humans.

    Its just sad that one of the clearest ways we see this is of the expression of deep grief.

    With regard to the post on animal funerals, ritual (as we have discussed elsewhere) is something that is so deeply hardwired into the human psyche that it too is something that I feel must have its origins elsewhere. It is, not surprisingly, at its most developed and self-aware in humans but that it should be apparent elsewhere in the animal kingdom seems to me inherrently more probable than not.

    1. Charles

      Thanks for the link to this awesome dwelling: I read the whole note and was fascinated. I have sent it to a young architect friend.

  3. Charles

    Brilliant Vale. Of course, anyone who has an animal knows this, but this realisation is at the heart of Animism, beautifully explained by Dr Graham Harvey in the book of essays Writing on Death that accompanies the fifth Natural Death Handbook.
    Disclaimer: I edited it.

  4. Charles

    Vale, many thanks for your animal posts today.

    Did you see the recent news item about gorillas Kesho and Alf, brothers recently reunited at Longleat Safari Park after three years apart, who greeted each other instantly with hugs and backslaps.

    Other less joyous instances of human-like emotions among apes include a mother gorilla at Munster zoo carrying the corpse of her baby son around with her for three days, apparently unable to accept his death.

    Charles Darwin, in his book The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, looked for similarities between human and animal facial expressions and behaviour, and concluded all the benefits we gain from fearing danger, enjoying food and loving our kin would be gained by any evolved animal.

    Modern science’s brain scanning has also revealed many emotions to be found in all mammals.

    The question we still cannot answer is how animals think in any philosophical sense about mortality and immortality.

    1. Charles

      Thanks for the link Richard. I hadn’t come across it before – but the more you look for it the more evidence there is, isn’t there.

      There’s a really interesting challenge here. Up till now we’ve thought of feelings of friendship and affection, grief and and family attachments as distinctively human. It seems likely that we are simply sharing in a much wider experience of the world. How should that affect the way we live and behave? And what does it suggest about the answer to your final question?

  5. Charles

    A few weeks ago a family member (aged almost 80) decided that the puppy she thought she wanted and could properly look after – was after all a little too much. She had looked after the poor thing very well for several months – but felt unable to offer it the long term future she had envisaged. Deciding to consult the (reputable) breeder, it was quickly agreed that she would return it. The relative has owned several dogs in her lifetime – she really knows dogs. She told me that despite her sadness on the journey – what really choked and stunned her was the reaction of both the puppy and its Mum on being reunited! She describes sheer delight from both that she’s never previously witnessed with animals. Thankfully they will now stay together. My obvious thought was that had the new home worked out – Mum and pup would never have met again. Makes you think eh.

  6. Charles

    Good questions, Vale. Humans and the other animals sharing our world experience misery and joy. We all fear danger, enjoy food and love our kin, and Man at least has been absorbed in trying to understand what emotions and behaviour patterns are just natural survival instincts, and what imply a higher consciousness that sets us apart from other animals. Is it just greater intelligence or something more? I don’t know. But whatever the reasons for our metaphysical yearnings, there’s no question we should treat other creatures with respect and kindness. Does sensitivity to animal welfare mean we should stop cruel farming methods? Yes. Does it mean we should all become vegetarians? Many meat-eaters must have wondered why we can slaughter some animals but love our domestic pets as part of the family. Hunting in the wild is brutal for all animals.

    1. Charles

      Sorry for having taken so long to respond Richard – but I do think you are right to start asking if knowing about the complex feelings of animals will prompt us to change the way we live alongside them. Buddhists already refuse to eat meat from creatures they regards as sentient (most of them anyway), and Jains go even further.

      I am not sure if that is the necessary conclusion though. We have to live and eat and I am not at all sure that we can avoid hurting some living thing in the process. What it does suggest, perhaps, is that we shouldn’t be greedy or cruel, treating the creatures who sustain and live alongside us with honour and respect.

  7. Charles

    ‘…what emotions and behaviour patterns are just natural survival instincts, and what imply a higher consciousness that sets us apart from other animals.’

    ‘Hunting in the wild is brutal for all animals.’

    Do you ever wonder, Richard, whether unquestioned assumptions and assertions such as these two quoted may justifiably contribute to much of the controversy that erupts in the wake of many of your (otherwise excellent) posts??

  8. Charles

    I hadn’t thought about it, Jonathan, but I will now! Please note that the comment was written at 5.35am after a poor night’s sleep. Thanks for keeping me on my toes!

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