Posted on: July 23, 2020 at 4:41 pm

Grief is often regarded as more of a human emotion, but there have been many examples of animals in the wild- like elephants, monkeys, and whales- who appear to be mourning the death of one of their family members. 

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There is debate among scientists as to whether or not animals actually experience grief the way humans do, but many animal lovers will argue that animals do understand death, and are impacted emotionally by it.

Sarah Simmons of the UK believes they do, and shared a heartbreaking video in 2018 of a herd of grieving ponies after one of their family members was struck and killed by a passing vehicle.

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Read: When Animals Fight Back, The Hunters Become The Hunted.

Grieving Ponies

Sarah Simmons shared images of the family of horses to Facebook in January 2018. The scene took place in New Forest, England, where ponies are allowed to roam freely.

“Broke my heart this morning seeing another pony killed on the Forest Road. Even more that her friends were looking on,” she wrote [1].

The pony that died was named Hazelhill Scrap, and was part of a very tight-knit herd. The pony’s owner, Cathay Stride, said that they were unable to remove the dead animal that night because it was too dark, so they had to wait until the following morning. The rest of the herd then stood vigil all night long, including Hazelhill’s mother and half-sister. The animals were definitely showing signs of distress.

herd grieving ponies
Credit: Facebook/sarahsimmons

“That photograph shows those ponies weeping for their companion to get up and come with them,” said Stride [1].

Barbara King, emerita professor in anthropology at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, and author of How Animals Grieve, said that Stride was correct in believing that the herd was in distress.

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“In this case, Hazelhill’s mother and stepsister stood especially close vigil, and that makes sense as they were quite likely to have been emotionally close to Hazelhill,” she explained [1].

King explained that horses feel both joy and grief, and that they think about their lives. 

HazelHill Scrap
Hazelhill Scarp
Credit: Facebook/sarahsimmons

Hazelhill was the third of Stride’s ponies to be killed on the same road, and she and Simmons hoped that the images and videos shared would serve as a reminder to drivers to slow down when they are driving on forest roads.

“I don’t know what the answer is apart from to keep trying to educate the drivers,” Ms Stride said, adding: “They do grieve, and maybe that might make the drivers think.” [1]

Read: 5 Myths About Dying That Too Many People Believe

Do Animals Experience Grief?

If you ask Stride, Simmons, or King, the answer is yes, but the scientific community doesn’t agree quite so readily.

There is a growing number of examples of animals in the wild grieving over the loss of a companion, such as the mother orca who carried her dead infant with her for seventeen days, or the group of chimpanzees who cleaned the fur of one of their members who had died, and then refused to return to the place where she had died for several days [2].

Elephants have also shown to mourn the death of a group member, as have magpies, wild pigs, and even crows [2].

Not all scientists are convinced that these displays are a sign that the animals are actually experiencing grief. Zoologist Jules Howard, for instance, does not believe that the mother orca, known to scientists as J35, was carrying her dead calf around as a type of mourning ritual.

“If you believe J35 was displaying evidence of mourning or grief, you are making a case that rests on faith, not on scientific endeavor,” he said [2].

The truth is, scientists don’t know much about death-related behaviours, including grief, in animals, and very few of them have explored how animals might think or feel about either their own death or the death of others.

Bioethicist Jessica Pierce refers to this as “comparative thanatology”. Thanatology is the scientific study of death and dying, and it includes biological, medical, forensic, psychological and social perspectives on the end of individuals’ lives [3].

Thanatology has often been restricted to the study of humans, but there is growing interest in the scientific community on the effect death has on the emotions and behaviours of other animals. Some are now asking the following questions:

  • How do other animals respond behaviorally and psychologically to dead or dying individuals?
  •  How are their responses influenced by the identity of the individual — for example, a same group-member or a relative — or by the cause of death?
  • To what extent do other species share aspects of humans’ concept of death?
  •  Do they grieve?

All of these questions fall under the umbrella of comparative thanatology. While not all topics of thanatology apply to non-human species, such as post-death rituals like washing and adornment, or religious observances, there is an increasing amount of evidence demonstrating that many animals do, in fact, have a concept of death [3].

Read: Study: Horses Are Able To Understand Human Emotions

One reason why it is so difficult to understand animals’ understanding of death is because there is a communication barrier. In humans, researchers can ask questions and people can respond and explain. We cannot, of course, communicate in the same way with animals, so we must rely on physical ques and body language.

This leaves the idea that animals have a human-like concept of death up to interpretation, which for many scientists, is not strong enough evidence. Skeptics argue that assuming the behavior we see in animals is due to grief is simply us projecting human-like emotions onto them.

“We don’t have evidence that there is an internal first-person experience that leads the animal to do it,” said Alex Kacelnik, a behavioral ecologist. “Do they experience any emotion when helping a partner? It may as well be, but we don’t know” [4].

Kacelnik was speaking in response to a study in which researchers claimed that rats showed empathy toward each other by helping each other escape from cages [5].

Basically, those who are skeptical of the research say that science can observe animal behaviour, but that it is nearly impossible to determine what motivated that behaviour. For this reason, some scientists insist that we should not label these behaviours with human emotions like grief or mourning, because we don’t know if that’s exactly what it is.

We’re Asking the Wrong Question

Pierce believes that this uncertainty simply points out that humans have a lot to learn about animal behaviour. She argues that the question is not “do animals grieve?” but instead “how do animals grieve?”

Keep Reading: “Keeping My Son’s Memory Alive Helps Me Grieve”

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Brittany Hambleton
Team Writer
Brittany is a freelance writer and editor with a Bachelor of Science in Foods and Nutrition and a writer’s certificate from the University of Western Ontario. She enjoyed a stint as a personal trainer and is an avid runner. Brittany loves to combine running and traveling, and has run numerous races across North America and Europe. She also loves chocolate more than anything else… the darker, the better!

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