I am so glad we live in a world where stories about animals are a part of our news and our national interest. We care not only about the stories of our pets who grace our homes with love and fun, but we are also interested in the stories of animals who live in our oceans and forests and deserts.
One story of an Orca whale mother whose calf had died caught our collective attention this summer. The mother whale carried her dead calf around for 10 days as a function of her grief. While we will never know what her thoughts were about the loss of her offspring, we could see the visible signs of mourning in her behavior of not being willing to surrender the body of her calf to the sea until she was, apparently, ready to let go.
We can relate. Our anthropomorphism often serves us in interpreting animal behaviors and helping us express compassion for their suffering and grieving. We can empathize with this whale’s broken heart.
As someone trained in hospice care who writes about grief and serves as a Death Cafe facilitator in my community, I am sensitive to the grieving of my fellow human beings. And I find that the grief of animals is equally touching and moving – and inspiring.
I am grateful for the growing body of behavioral and neurobiological animal research studies (called social neuroscience) using MRIs and PET scans that have recorded grief in many kinds of animals, including horses, goats, dolphins, elephants and apes. These studies indicate that animals have a capacity for mourning that is just as profound as our own.
In the animal research world grief is defined as the visible responses to death that go beyond curiosity or simple exploration. For example, some horses may sniff at the body of a deceased companion and nudge it and then walk away; this is not regarded as a display of mourning. But when horses gather in a silent circle around the body of a deceased companion and keep a vigil for hours, ignoring their own need for food, and for other normal routines, then that is assessed as a display of grief.
Just as human beings must feel love in order to grieve, the same is true for animals. Animals are not only sentient beings, they are feeling beings. So, when cats keen for a lost sibling, or elephants take turns standing in vigil, periodically gently touching the body of a fallen member of the family, stroking it, and making mournful sounds, we are witnessing their feelings of grief.
It is time to place our human grief in a larger, more holistic web of life on this planet where life, death, love, and loss are shared experiences of human beings and animal beings. Grief and love do not belong exclusively to us. There is comfort to be drawn from that tender acknowledgement. Compassion and caring are expressions found in the larger world of living creatures.
I love this quote from Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., “Emotions are the gifts of our ancestors. We have them, and so do other animals. We must never forget that.”
(Dr. Bekoff, the author of 31 books, and 1,000 essays, is the co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He has a new book about dogs coming in 2019, titled Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. Unleashing Your Dog (with Jessica Pierce.)