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.”

Reading:

Australian Magpie: Animal Dreaming

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The Australian magpie is not really a magpie at all… Instead of belonging to the crow family, they are classified in the butcherbird genus Cracticus.

They are considered one of Australia’s most accomplished songbirds, with a variety of complex calls and have even been heard to mimic human speech.  As well as their song, they are well known for attacking people during breeding season.  They actively guard their territory all year round but obviously this is particularly important when there are vulnerable baby magpies around.

In the post on the Eurasian magpie, I didn’t go into too much detail about their colouring, the black and white and the symbolism that surrounds it.  Because the keyword for this card is balance, I thought I’d focus on it here.  The magpie, with it’s black and white feathers, is a representation of dualities; of yin and yang, of light and dark, of earth and heavens, of the mundane and the spiritual.  And with these opposites, the magpie also represents balance, wholeness and completeness.

With their dual nature, it is perhaps not surprising that they are considered to be portal keepers, guardians of the gates between worlds.  The magpie, with it’s light and dark side, inhabits a strange inbetween place – neither entirely earthly nor entirely heavenly…

 

Eurasian Magpie

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Crow (and Raven): Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck

Raven: Animal Dreaming

The magpies that we know in Britain is related to crows and ravens but the Australian Magpie is actually classified in the butcherbird genus Cracticus and is not related to the magpie as I know it.

So once again, I’m going to do two posts.  One for magpie which is related to the crow (this includes the Eurasian Magpie found in the UK) and one for the Australian magpie.

“I’m told magpies sulk
when they’re upset”
– Birdwatching by Hugo Williams

Perhaps best known for their attraction to shiny objects*, the magpie is very intelligent and very noisy.  They chatter away a lot and in Ireland when evil gossiping women died it was said that magpies would take their souls.  And it’s not just souls that magpies collect.  They show interest in all manner of objects, exploring their surroundings and what they contain.  As they are clever birds, perhaps they also collect knowledge and memories and stories as we do.

They are a jack of all trades; scavengers and predators.  Along with the crow, they are seen as tricksters and it was believed that witches could ride magpies or turn into them and that they were Satan in disguise.  Also associated with magic in ancient rome, these birds are not quite what they seem… Indeed they aren’t even really black and white but instead their black feathers are iridescent greens and purples.

There are a lot of different beliefs attributed to the magpie, although it could be that some are simply about black and white birds which have been labelled magpies.

Simplistically, black birds are seen as bad and white birds as good in European cultures so where does that leave the magpie?  Well, perhaps the old rhyme will help:

One for sorrow,
Two for mirth
Three for a funeral,
Four for birth
Five for heaven
Six for hell
Seven for the devil, his own self

So a bit good and a bit bad seems to be the message about the magpie.  This is echoed in a Korean superstition: if a magpie sits on your roof in the morning and sings you’ll be visited by a friend, if a magpie sits on your roof and sings you’ll be visited in the afternoon by someone who isn’t a friend and will eat a lot of your food and in the evening the visitor will be a thief.

  • In China and Korea, the magpie is a bird of good luck and happiness.
  • In Mongolia, the magpie is a clever creature who can control the weather
  • In Norse mythology, the black and white colouring represented male and female energy in balance as well as sexual union
  • In the bible, the magpie was the only bird that would not enter the ark preferring to stay outside. Perhaps it is this which earnt it a bad reputation in the UK…
  • In Scotland, the magpie was said to carry a drop of the Devil’s blood under its tongue

The magpie is curious and inquisitive, showing us the value of inquiry although be careful, the key to the magpie is balance.  Too much curiosity and you may be accused of meddling and snooping.  Be interested, be eager but don’t be nosy.  We can use this approach when it comes to our emotions – emotions are a flag and curiosity is a way of getting deeper into what’s going on.  Instead of saying to yourself I’m feeling anxious, I shouldn’t be feeling anxious, I hate my anxiety, try gently inquiring, what does this feel like, what might the anxiety be trying to tell me.  Approach it openly, with intrigue and try and get to know it.  The same can be done with our thoughts.

I know I have a tendency to automatically try and shut down intrusive or unpleasant thoughts and that certainly helped me with my recovery from anorexia.  However, gentle enquiry can be, in the long term, a more helpful approach.  Instead of shutting out a thought, you can roll it round in your mind, get to know it better, listen to it’s story and where it’s come from.  With all that information about the thought, you can validate its existence and then hopefully, having heard it’s message, you can move on from it.


*Research suggests that they aren’t especially interested in shiny things, they have a penchant for objects more generally and metal doesn’t seem to be any more appealing than other things.