We have long since passed the point where we have to wonder, “Do animals think?” We know they do. Do animals feel pain? Absolutely. So, do animals grieve when one of their own dies? Yes. Animals who lose animal friends can become anxious or depressed and may lose their appetites and their interest in playing. They may have trouble sleeping. Anyone who has companion animals may have seen such behavior when one companion dies, leaving the other(s) bereft.
While some animals show signs of distress when a companion of theirs dies, some hold actual funerals for their dead. According to an article in BBC Nature, “When western scrub jays encounter a dead bird, they call out to one another and stop foraging…The jays then often fly down to the dead body and gather around it….”
In another article, we learn that Yellow-billed Magpies often descend on the carcass of one of their own, “hopping and making loud squawking noises for prolonged periods. Some biologists have described these reactions as ‘funeral behaviors,’….”
Marc Bekoff, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in an essay on animal emotions, notes that animals display grief at the loss or absence of a close friend or loved one. “Among the best examples are grieving rituals of elephants in the wild observed by such renowned researchers as Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Cynthia Moss and Joyce Poole…To quote Joyce Poole: ‘As I watched Tonie´s vigil over her dead newborn, I got my first very strong feeling that elephants grieve. I will never forget the expression on her face, her eyes, her mouth, the way she carried her ears, her head, and her body. Every part of her spelled grief.’ Young elephants who saw their mothers being killed often wake up screaming.”
Mothers grieve the loss of their babies and babies grieve the loss of their mothers. Flint, a young chimpanzee, died of a broken heart after his mother Flo’s death. Conrad Lorenz, Nobel-wining zoologist, observed grief in geese. And, recently, at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, a mother panda lost her 6-day old infant. Mei Xiang was heard making “distressed vocalizations,” which alerted zoo staff to the death.
When you think about it, animals grieve the loss of loved ones, experience depression, create rituals, hold wakes, and generally act like us when a companion, friend, partner has died.