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.