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Living With Animals: Animals Grieve

The CNN report back a few months ago said it well: “It was a journey of love, driven by a mother’s loss, stretching across a thousand miles of ocean as the world watched and wondered. An apparently grieving female orca whale who swam with the body of her dead calf for more than two weeks has stopped carrying the carcass, environmental officials said.” The baby died just a few hours after birth. The mother refused to let her baby sink, carrying her atop her own head, nudging her towards the surface of the Pacific, perhaps in the effort (or ritual) to allow her child to breathe. That lasted for 17 days.

Our species has no monopoly on grief. Back in 1871, Charles Darwin wrote, “The lower animals, like man, manifestly feel pleasure and pain, happiness and misery. So intense is the grief of female monkeys for the loss of their young that it invariably caused the death of certain kinds.” Nonhuman primates have been observed setting aside food for dead companions even at a time when such generosity risked their own starvation. Mother giraffes have been seen standing guard over dead babies, even after those bodies have been preyed upon. Elephants treat the dead with reverence and often will carefully study the bones of others of their own kind they come upon in their travels, sometimes carrying them when they move on. Unfair, of course, to criticize 19th century Darwin’s words with 21st century sensibilities, but even such “low” animals as turtles and fish exhibit behavior hard to see as anything other than sadness and mourning.  

When our dog Jasper died, his best friend Peaches rested her head on the couch where he’d spent most of his last weeks. She’d stand like that for hours, her pretty face resting on the cushion, her eyes staring at the emptiness, softly moaning, obviously in distress. We could not comfort her. Time eased her signs of grief, her overt mourning. And as she began to let go of that pain, so too did the people around her who loved them both.  

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