When Animals Grieve

March 2, 2010

Do animals grieve? Do they feel a distinct loss when they lose—whether from age or predators—a member of their herd or tribe? According to Marc Bekoff, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, it’s arrogant to think we’re the only animals who mourn [see his blog]. 
Charles Darwin, in such works as, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, expressed his belief that animals feel and exhibit emotions including grief. Numerous studies since have shown that animals mourn and react to loss in different ways. Elephants perform grieving rituals, baboons in mourning seek the support of friends, gorillas hold wakes for their deceased and wolf packs howl mournfully. Cats and dogs reportedly show signs of mourning after losing animal companions or being separated from an owner. 
My dog Bunker, who passed away in 2008, expressed grief over the loss of his horse friend Tootsie when we lived next door to her.  He was outside when the neighbors euthanized and buried the horse, and I was not home.  When I arrived home, he was very anxious and wanted to show me something outside.  He led me outside and around the house and I discovered a freshly dug grave.  I did not know that the horse was buried there at first.  I quickly figured things out as Bunker demonstrated to me through his howling and barking that he couldn't understand why the horse's scent ended at the grave.  I couldn't calm him down or move him away from the grave.  Some wild daisies were growing along the fence line next to the grave, so I instinctively picked a handful and placed them on the grave.  With that gesture, Bunker was satisfied and we walked away together in sadness.