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.”