What happens to animals when other animals die?

Before leaping into how we experience animal death, I wanted to take a quick look through the eyes of non-human animals.

“There is no question that animals grieve.”
– Marc Bekoff

“A growing body of scientific evidence supports the idea that nonhuman animals are aware of death, can experience grief and will sometimes mourn for or ritualize their dead.”
Jessica Pierce

Grieving animals may withdraw, seek time alone and not respond to attempts to draw them out.  They may sit, staring into space.  They may stop eating.  They may lose interest in sex.  They may attempt to revive their lost friend or relative.  In other words, they react to the death of a loved one as we do.

Grief is interesting as there is no evolutionary purpose to it.  In fact it goes against the behaviour we engage in to continue our species; it does not aid reproductive success and it can end up killing the affected individual.  There are cases where it seems an animal has died of a broken heart but even if we take those out of the equation, the behaviour of grief – not eating, not moving etc – opens up the individual to risks which could result in death.

“Some theorize that perhaps mourning strengthens social bonds among survivors who band together to pay their last respects.  This may enhance group cohesion at a time when it’s likely to be weakened.  Whatever its value is, grief is the price of commitment, that wellspring of both happiness and sorrow.”
– Marc Bekoff

In addition to grieving behaviour, we see ritualistic activity that could be described anthropomorphically as a funeral.  We know gorillas hold wakes, baboons seek comfort from friends after a death and there have been numerous cases of elephants showing concern for dead relatives, and even extending this beyond their family to nonrelatives.  Without this become a list of observed displays of what might be grief, I want to add that wolves, foxes and llamas have been seen grieving.

Corvids have been said to hold funerals, and it’s certain there is some prescribed behaviour surrounding death although we cannot know their motivation.  Some suggest it is a grieving process with others suggesting the birds are trying to understand why and how their friend has died.  Either way it suggests an awareness of the concept of death.  Magpies have even been observed laying grass over their dead comrades.

“We can’t know what they were actually thinking or feeling, but reading their action there’s no reason not to believe these birds were saying a magpie farewell to their friend”
– Marc Bekoff


Of course, the easiest animal grief to see is that in pets.  It is not unusual to hear people talk about how a pet grieved for another pet when it died, or there are cases where pets have died after their owners have passed, seemingly not get over their loss.

It is currently impossible to know where the line between accurate understanding of animal behaviour vs anthropomorphism lays but I am inclined to agree with Marc Bekoff and return to where I began in stating that

“There is no question that [at the very least some] animals grieve.”



I wasn’t planning on writing about this powerful primate just yet but then twitter told me that it is World Gorilla Day today and I felt it was only appropriate to get on with it!

This is the first of the animal totem tarot cards I’ve looked on it its own and I think I’ll try writing about the animal in general then focusing a little on the imagery from the deck.  So whilst this is a post about gorillas, it’s also a post about the emperor card.

When you think of gorillas, you may first imagine something like King Kong, an immensely strong figure which dominates and which is a threat to everyone and everything around them.  Whilst it is true they have muscular strength and powerful jaws, they are predominately vegetarian, supplementing their plant diet with the odd insect.  That said, they are also very protective of their group and will see of threats and defend themselves as needed.

Given that they generally live away from humans, most encounters with them will have been threatening – poachers, farmers trying to protect crops etc – and so there will probably be a disproportionate reporting of them being hot blooded, violent beasts with foul tempers.  I think, on the whole, this is also emphasised because then it (seemingly) creates more distance between civilised man and uncivilised animal.  The fact that we share 98% of our DNA, and that gorillas have human like features, could make some people uncomfortable and spinning them into mythical creatures like King Kong eases this.  Despite part of us trying to keep gorillas at arms length, another part of us is fascinated by this creature.  So like us and yet so unlike us.

These forest dwellers live in central west Africa including the Democratic Republic of Conga and thus it is impossible to discuss them without also mentioning the humanitarian crisis and related conflicts of this area.  As well as the human impact, there has been an ecological one and gorillas are threatened because of that, habitat loss, poaching and attacks from farmers protecting crops.  At the end of this post I also look at the impact of mining on gorillas and their homes.

Whilst they can stand and walk on two legs, this is used mostly for posturing, in defensive situations and so that they can carry food.  The rest of the time, they move around on four limbs using their knuckles.  An interesting technique for criminals perhaps as it doesn’t leave fingerprints… And on that note, which I really badly segued into, gorillas have unique fingerprints like us and also have unique nose prints which researchers have been able to use to identify individuals.

The day of a gorilla involves a lot of eating, nesting and attending the social behaviour which maintains the integrity of the group.  Starting with food, gorillas spend a lot of time foraging and as vegetarians, they play a vital role in seed dispersal.  They do also enjoy ants and have been seen using tools to get to this delicious snack!

When it comes to resting, gorillas construct nests for both daytime and night time use.  These nests are made up of branches and leaves and put me in mind of blanket forts and being snuggled up on a sofa with lots of cushions around you.  For me, this comfort is so soothing and grounding and is a necessary part of my self care.  Whilst I have more blankets than anyone really needs, I made the decision to indulge because of how emotionally supportive I find them.  Ditto for my collection of teddy bears.  Whatever it is that makes you feel safe and nurtured, don’t feel guilty about investing in it.

Gorilla troops are made up of an adult male, a number of adult females and their offspring.  The silverback of the adult male is a hallmark of maturity and this silverback gorilla is the leader, the ruler, the centre of the group.   He dominates, he makes all the decisions, mediates conflict, leads the group to feeding sites and takes responsibility for all the members.  This means there are a couple of ways to lean into the gorilla metaphor depending on whether you are leader or being led.  Perhaps you are the over burdened leader who has not yet learnt to delegate?  Maybe you are taking on responsibility for things that you don’t need to.  Maybe you are relying on others to make all the decisions for you and need to step up yourself.  Maybe you are even an emerging leader who is wanting to challenge the silverback for power or are becoming a threat to the silverback, whether you mean to or not.  Have a think about where you are in this troop and where you want to be.

The silverback maintains his bond with his females through grooming and staying close but on the whole, this is the only bonding that takes place.  Whilst a troop sounds like a nice family unit, with the exception of related females, the females aren’t especially friendly to each other.  They are, after all, competing with each other for the attention of the silverback.  And this attention is particularly important once a month as females go into oestrus like humans do and hormonal changes mean the female is keen to mate.  Despite a monthly window for fertilisation, gorillas tend to have babies every 4-6 years and generally only one at a time.  This means the reproduction rate of the species is very slow.

Once a baby has arrived, the mother will use “baby talk” to communicate and she’ll use more tactile and repetitive gestures than she would with adults. Babies are vulnerable and dependant on others for survival with the care giving role provided by mother.  That said, when it comes to socialisation, the father will play a role.  He will also protect his children from aggression in the troop.  Gorillas are weaned by their third year and sleep in a separate nest from their mothers and she will begin to ovulate again. This gap between pregnancies means that the mother gorilla can dedicate her time to tending to her baby and teaching it how to be a gorilla.  She can be an attentive parent and as we’ll see, leadership is an important part of the animal totem tarot card.  Attentiveness can be an excellent, often overlooked, quality of leadership.  Nurture and help those you led to grow and develop so that one day they can become leaders themselves.

In terms of communication within the troop, and to outsiders, there are at least 25 distinct vocalisations which mean they can talk to each other in the dense vegetation.  These comprise of grunts, barks, screams and roars which can indicate where group members are, can signal alarm and can be warnings.  They also have a ritualised display which means conflicts rarely get violent.  This is an excellent example for us to follow!  Whilst you may not get far by exactly copying the gorilla’s ritual, perhaps we should all be better at having a blueprint for difficult conversations and how to resolve conflict.  Maybe we could learn from mediation where there are formal steps which offer both parties chance to speak and be listened to.

Animal Totem Tarot

A key part of the gorilla message is around leadership and it is this that I feel is most portrayed on the animal totem tarot card and this certainly echoes the message of the accompanying book.  On the emperor card we find a solitary gorilla, sitting in what appears to be a defensive pose.  He is clearly a ruler.  And whilst being the leader can bring rewards – financial, status, lots of female gorillas – it also requires dedication and hard work.  The expression and the gorilla having a stick in one hand an a rock in the other certainly suggest the protective nature of this leader.  He seems to exude a don’t mess with me vibe but it’s clear that he’s also confident that no one will try.  He looks to me like this isn’t coming easy either, his face seems wrought with the effort required to be a powerful leader.  He has a lot on his plate – the health and wellbeing of his troop are his responsibility, he must see off threats, resolve conflicts and has to shoulder the worries that come with responsibility.

There are different types of leaders and those which are compassionate, which listen, which connect and which respect those they lead are the most successful.  Build up those you lead with encouragement and positive feedback, don’t crush them with criticism and bullying.

Mineral Mining

Not related to the gorilla animal spirit or tarot card but something that needs awareness raising is the impact that mining for minerals such as coltan is having on habitats, including those of the gorilla.  Coltan is used in mobiles, TVs, computers and many other electronic devices.  As well as endangering the lives of these great animals, it is also polluting water which impacts on humans, a wide range of animals and the environment.  Disputes over who controls the mines has resulted in the death of more than 5 million people in eastern Congo since the mid 1990s.  The miners themselves work in terrible circumstances and a chunk of their meagre wages is taken by soldiers.  Families live on the brink of famine and food that is supposed to help them is also taken by the soldiers.

Each mine, whether legally operated or not, involves a set-up in the forest that requires not only destruction of the land to unearth the minerals, but numerous people to operate the mining sites.  To feed these people, wildlife is hunted from the surrounding forests. This includes gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants, and many other species.”
Gorilla Fund

Reuse, recycle, mend where you can and find out more about the issues.  Use your consumer power and ask corporations to make changes.

As there seems to be no way of ensuring a particular batch of coltan has been ethically extracted and processed, some people are campaigning to end the coltan mining altogether but this would plunge communities into ruin and the violence would still continue.