From the current issue of Lapham's Quarterly, Virgina Morell has written an excellent, captivating, and extensive article on the experience of grief among animals, human and (mostly) otherwise. Brilliant writing and content that reminds me we are simply one animal among many, and little about our experience of life is unique.
Morell mentions two recent books in this section of the article: How Animals Grieve, by anthropologist Barbara J. King, and The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, by primatologist Frans de Waal. Of the two, de Waal is the author I would most trust to get this topic correct.
~ Virginia Morell, a contributor to National Geographic, Science, and Smithsonian, is the author of the books Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings (1996) and Blue Nile: Ethiopia's River of Magic and Mystery (2002). Her most recent book is Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures (2013). She blogs at Animal Wise at Psychology Today.
Read the whole captivating and lengthy article.
Virginia Morell | Lapham's Quarterly
Animals have a great advantage over man: they never hear the clock strike, however intelligent they may be; they die without any idea of death; they have no theologians to instruct them…Their last moments are not disturbed by unwelcome and often objectionable ceremonies; it costs them nothing to be buried; no one starts lawsuits over their wills. — Voltaire
Who can say what cows feel, when they surround and stare intently on a dying or dead companion? — Charles Darwin
It is often said that our understanding and knowledge of death separates the human animal from all other animals. We alone know that we will die—that one day, suddenly or slowly, our life, our loves, our dreams will end. Surely this awareness sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, we say, pointing to some of our greatest art, music, and literature—all inspired by what we know: that death awaits every living being. And yet, how very odd it is that we should be the only animal to know what life ultimately has in store for us. We share biological histories and physiologies DNA, eyes, muscles, nerves, neurons, hormones—with other animals, and these may lead to similar behaviors, thought processes, and emotions—even about death.
Take the case of Thomas, a nine-year-old chimpanzee who died in 2010 at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust in Zambia, home to more than one hundred chimps. Research scientists filmed the reactions of one community of forty-three chimpanzees to Thomas’ corpse; thirty-eight of them gathered around and stayed by his side for almost twenty minutes. During that time, some of the chimps gently touched his body, smelled and studied him closely. One of those visitors was Masya, a mother carrying her dead infant (at the time, there was an outbreak of a respiratory illness among the chimps). A few days earlier, Masya had been seen placing her dead child in a grassy, sunlit patch and retreating to the shade, where she sat watching, her eyes rarely straying from her infant. Every few minutes, she strode back to the clearing to inspect her baby’s body. At times she did so hurriedly, jumping up and rushing forward as if she thought she’d detected a stirring. She studied her child’s face intently, peered into her gaping mouth and wide eyes, and brushed away the flies. Finally, she placed her knuckles softly against her infant’s neck—hoping, it seems, for any sign of life.
The chimpanzees gathered at Thomas’ side also appeared to be trying to come to grips with what had happened. One female smacked his body, hard—while the others paid close attention, looking, perhaps, for a reaction. Their faces were serious, their manner subdued. One adult male appeared even more distraught than the others; the researchers say this chimp had cared for Thomas for over four years and “had a very strong social relationship” with the dead chimp. He left and returned several times to view the body, as if unable to believe what he was seeing. Finally, he stepped between the others to get as close as possible. He scrutinized the body and erupted in frantic screams while walking rapidly over the cadaver.
Was this a chimpanzee wail of grief? Had the male friend and other chimpanzees come together to mourn Thomas? The scientists who recorded these events prefer not to use such words. Yet the chimpanzees’ behaviors—which mirror many of our own when we lose a loved one—suggest that, like us, they have trouble accepting death when it comes to one of their own. As with most emotions in animals, we do not yet understand their reactions with total clarity—but, as Charles Darwin wisely observed, they may very well have meaning. Perhaps we are the only animals with foreknowledge of death, but when it comes to grieving, we are not so unique.
The study of animal grief is a young field, largely because studies of any animal behaviors that one might think of as “human” were ignored for much of the twentieth century. It was commonly held that nonhuman animals were only reactive beings, lacking thoughts and emotions, and responding to stimuli as unthinking, unfeeling robots. Scientists were cautioned about being anthropomorphic, that is, regarding animals as they are often depicted in naive films and storybooks—as if they were people dressed up in fur or feathers. Researchers who thought they detected animal emotions—especially those that we think of as uniquely human, such as love, joy, or grief—were considered to be sentimentalists. And their reports (such as Darwin’s about the grieving cows) were dismissed as anecdotal.
In the last few decades, though, wildlife biologists have amassed so many firsthand accounts of animals caring for and mourning their dead that the idea of animal grief is no longer as suspect as it once was. Two recent books, both published in March of this year, explore the subject. How Animals Grieve, by anthropologist Barbara J. King, collects anecdotal and scientific data on grief in many kinds of animals, even some that most researchers ignore, such as rabbits, goats, and turtles. In The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, primatologist Frans de Waal examines the biological roots of religion and morality. Since our awareness of death is often cited as the reason we developed religion, de Waal investigates whether other animals have a similar sense of their ultimate end. While King doubts that even our close chimpanzee relatives are “aware that death is coming,” de Waal suggests that older apes or elephants may have experienced enough of life to comprehend that they, too, will die. “When an old ape notices that trees are harder and harder to get into or an elephant has ever more trouble keeping up with the herd, might these individuals not apply what they have learned about life and death to their own bodies?” de Waal asks. “It’s hard to know, yet impossible to rule out.”
Scientists grappling with animal grief must find some way of framing their questions into hypotheses they can test. So far, none of them have figured out how to set up an experiment to address de Waal’s question. But they are getting closer to answering what once seemed an equally daunting problem: why do animals grieve? As King points out in her book, there are enough examples of grief in species as varied as goats, baboons, and gorillas that the emotion may be an experience shared by many species. If so, then it must have an evolutionary history and confer some benefit—that is, it must be advantageous in some way, enabling the mourner to survive long enough to reproduce and pass his or her genes to the next generation. Otherwise, natural selection would have weeded out grief long ago.
From a study of twenty-two wild-baboon females who had lost either an infant or other close relative to a predator, scientists know that the animals’ stress hormones flare for four weeks after the attack. They typically act in a “bereaved” manner, too, the researchers say, sitting apart from other baboons and not seeking out grooming (a behavior that has both social and hygienic benefits). In time, the baboons’ stress hormones subside, and they again spend time with their fellows. At first glance, it would seem that grieving would leave baboons—or other mourning animals—at great risk of either falling ill or being taken by a predator themselves. But another study, by neuroscientists Karen Wager-Smith and Athina Markou, which King discusses at length, suggests that the mourning period is actually a neurobiological necessity, particularly for any animal that forms close bonds with another individual. The researchers note that stress can inflict “microdamage” in key areas of the brain, such as the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, both of which are concerned with memory, emotions, personality, and planning. But the brain is not a static organ; it responds dynamically to life’s events by pruning away neurons that are no longer needed and sprouting new ones. Rewiring takes time and energy, and so a period of mourning—of sleeping longer, minimizing social contact, eating less—can ultimately prove beneficial. And, indeed, all of the baboons eventually recovered from their grief, made new friends, or gave birth to new children. Grief for them can have an “adaptive value,” as evolutionary biologists are fond of saying; it enables an animal to recover from what is essentially minor brain trauma and carry on with the purpose of life—reproducing.
But discerning whatever adaptive value or evolutionary benefit grief might confer doesn’t answer another important question: how do animals experience grief? Is it at all like the sorrow we feel when a loved one dies? Can it be so all-consuming that one never recovers?
Apparently so. How else to explain the behavior of Flint, a male chimpanzee whom Jane Goodall observed at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania for the eight and a half years of his short life. Flint could not express in words what he felt about his mother’s death, but no one could misinterpret his actions. Flint’s mother, Flo, was in her early forties when she gave birth to her son. That’s close to old age for chimpanzees, and it may explain why Flo wasn’t the strict mother she’d been to her younger children. For whatever reason, she let Flint do whatever he pleased, nursing at her breast long past the age (four or so) when he should have been weaned, and riding on his old mother’s back until he was eight, an age when he should have been walking everywhere on his own. The pair was inseparable, and then Flo died.
“It seemed,” Goodall wrote in Through a Window, a memoir of her thirty years of chimpanzee research at Gombe, “that [Flint] had no will to survive without her Never shall I forget watching as, three days after Flo’s death, Flint climbed slowly into a tall tree near the stream [where she had died]. He walked along one of the branches, then stopped and stood motionless, staring down at an empty nest. After about two minutes he turned away and, with the movements of an old man, climbed down, walked a few steps, then lay, wide eyes staring ahead. The nest was one which he and Flo had shared a short while before Flo died.”
Flint never recovered from his loss. He grew lethargic, refused food that the researchers set out for him, and fell sick. The last time Goodall saw him alive, he was “hollow-eyed, gaunt, and utterly depressed, huddled in the vegetation close to where Flo had died…The last short journey he made, pausing to rest every few feet, was to the very place where Flo’s body had lain. There he stayed for several hours, sometimes staring and staring into the water. He struggled on a little farther, then curled up—and never moved again.”
Flint’s response was entirely maladaptive. It did not help one whit in terms of fitness; he never reproduced, his genes were not passed to the next generation. So profound was Flint’s love for his mother and his sorrow at her death that he simply gave up the will to live.