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Animals and the Grieving Process

Updated on March 13, 2012

Do animals grieve? This question has been debated for centuries. Some say animals are soulless and therefore are incapable of feeling grief. Others, such as myself, say animals are not only capable of feeling grief, they are capable of feeling every emotion that we do. The only difference being their lack of ability to express them verbally.

There have been many cases of animals displaying grief in such a manner that it is impossible to attribute their actions to anything other than overwhelming devastation at the loss of a loved one.

One of the most beloved stories of all time is that of Greyfriar's Bobby. Bobby was a Skye terrier owned by John Gray, who was employed by the Edinburgh City Police as a night watchman. For two years, they were inseparable; but then John Gray died of tuberculosis. John was buried in Greyfriar's Kirkyard cemetery. Bobby spent the next 14 years scrounging love, food and the necessities of life from the villagers; but, so great was his grief that he slept every night on top of the grave of his master.

More recently, a display of grief was captured on film. In the picture below, Dorothy, a much-loved member of the troop, has passed on.

Chimpanzees appear to console one another as Dorothy is carried to her final resting place in a wheelbarrow.
Chimpanzees appear to console one another as Dorothy is carried to her final resting place in a wheelbarrow.

Dorothy was in her late 40s and died of heart failure. Her fellow chimps at the Sanga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center in Cameroon, West Africa look on in sorrow as she passes by them for the last time. They all stand together in support of one another.

The chimps at this facility are special with all of them arriving as orphans. Their mothers have all been shot for bushmeat - a thriving, lucrative and illegal trade. The babies have been ripped from their mother's bodies by the hunters to be sold in the pet trade - an equally thriving, lucrative and illegal trade. The lucky ones end up the sanctuary. Local villagers work at the facility and are the chimps' full-time caregivers.

Even with all the evidence of centuries, it is only recently that scientists have even remotely considered the possibility of animals possessing the "higher" emotions usually attributed to humans only. Fortunately, it would now appear that scientists are willing to consider the possibility of animals not only grieving for a lost one; but, having an understanding of what death involves.

More and more scientists are coming forward with what they consider to be evidence that not only primates and/or mammals possess emotions; but, other species do as well. Dr. Marc Bekoff, an ethologist at the University of Colorado, has presented evidence that magpies not only grieve their dead; but, they perform funeral rites for the deceased.

He recites the case of a group of four magpies that approached the body of their dead friend individually. Two birds then flew off and returned with a piece of grass each. The blades of grass were laid beside the corpse and the birds then stood vigil.

Corvids, the group of highly-intelligent birds that includes crows, magpies, rooks and others, have been observed successfully working out problems, using tools and engaging in many sophisticated rituals.

Perhaps the most well-known nonhuman death rituals are those carried out by elephants. Families have been known to spend days guarding a dead body; all the while, running their trunks gently and lovingly over the remains; cradling the bones; and, comforting each other in their grief.

Elephants are highly social and intelligent animals just like dogs, chimps and corvids. It should be no wonder that they have death rituals more recognizable to us as humans. However, this does not mean that lesser-evolved beings do not grieve or have feelings. It means we have not looked hard enough to be able to identify the actions associated with the feelings.

This video is narrated by Sir David Attenborough and shows the grieving process when a family of elephants unexpectedly discover the body of a dead friend.


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    • Angelique Newman profile image

      Angelique Newman 6 years ago from Canada

      Beautiful article pippap; I believe animals have more feelings than some people give credit to.

      One beautiful story was a dog named Hachik? in Tokyo in 1925. I wrote an article on it on another web site. I truly love animals; they give us unconditional love. Voted your article up :)

    • mjfarns profile image

      mjfarns 6 years ago from Bloomington, Illinois USA

      Very unique perspective. I liked this article very much. Thanks!

    • Tusitala Tom profile image

      Tom Ware 7 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      I think we can lay it at the feet of Religionists, this concept that animals feel no emotion. (the "They have no souls" syndrome) That belief results even today in outrageously cruel experimentation with animals in the name of Science. Anyone who has owned a pet dog or cat knows that they have feelings, emotions, and a desire to communicate with their human companions.

      Of course they feel grief!