Anyone who has been through a period of grief will tell you that grief is a very human experience, but does that mean it’s an experience that is unique to humans? If you’ve ever wondered if dogs show the same symptoms of grief as we do when they lose their owners, or if cats mourn other cats when they pass away, then you’re not alone. All around the world, curious scientists are researching how different animals deal with losing those closest to them, and some of what they have found out might surprise you. Today, we’d like to share with you just a few stories of how animals grieve just like we do.
When looking for examples of animals grieving, the easiest place to look is to our evolutionary next-door neighbours. Chimpanzees and other primates are some of our closest relatives, so it is no surprise that they go through many of the same emotions and experiences as we do. But chimpanzees actually go further than just feeling the same emotions we do, they also memorialise and say goodbye to their loved ones in a way that anyone who’s ever lost a loved one will find familiar.
Any scientist who works with chimpanzees will tell you that they are some of the liveliest, busiest creatures in the animal kingdom. Like any group of friends, there’s never a dull moment in a group of chimpanzees, but when one sadly passes away primatologists have recognised behaviour that surprises them; the other chimpanzees will sit in silence together to mourn the loss of their loved one. This has been seen in the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust in Zambia, where a group of 43 chimpanzees sat silently and lost their appetite after one of their family died. In Cameroon, the family of chimpanzee Dorothy formed a silent line along their fence as she was taken away, saying goodbye as they wrapped their arms around each other for comfort.
Although we will never be able to ask a chimpanzee how they feel, seeing the similarities between how they process the loss of others close to them and our own grieving process, it is clear that their grief is as real as our own. While it is sad to think of these playful animals mourning, the fact that Dorothy’s family supported each other through this difficult time reminds us how important it is to have a group of people around us to share our own experiences with.
Birds might not be the first animal to come to mind when we think about animals that grieve, but crows and magpies are highly intelligent, social animals. In fact, magpies have been seen to go as far as to hold burials and funerals for other magpies, with researchers at the University of Colorado having observed a group of four magpies gathering grass to bury one of their group, before standing in a quiet vigil overlooking their lost loved one.
Understanding exactly what a bird feels is even more difficult than understanding a chimp’s experiences, but scientists observing these funerals have every reason to believe the magpies are doing exactly the same thing as we do: saying goodbye to their loved ones. It may be a strange image to imagine a group of birds holding a funeral, but it serves as a reminder that taking the time to say goodbye and come to terms with a loss are important whether you have feathers or not.
Dogs are famously man’s best friend and, much like their human friends, dogs can sometimes struggle emotionally when they lose someone close to them. Unable to hold ceremonies like chimpanzees or magpies, dogs can sometimes find it hard to come to terms with the loss of another dog or human.
Because of this, vets see many of the same symptoms of grief in dogs as they do in humans. Dogs in mourning often lose their appetite, struggle to sleep and lose interest in some of their favourite hobbies.
While it can be sad to think of such sweet animals struggling with grief, it is important not to forget that dogs showing these symptoms of grief can start to feel better when they are shown love, attention and support by their human companions. What our best animal friends can teach us is that it is okay to feel sad or to struggle after losing a loved one, and that if we behave differently after a loss it doesn’t mean we will be any less loved by those around us. Dogs wear their hearts on their sleeves, and by not hiding or ignoring their symptoms of grief they are able to get the help and comfort they need from their companions.
Part of what fascinates us about animals is how different they are to humans. There are animals that can live underwater, fly high up in the sky or climb the thinnest branches of trees. But human beings are animals too, and we share more with our close relatives in the animal kingdom than we like to admit. Watching how animals grieve and memorialise their loved ones and turn to each other for support, all without being able to say a word, can teach us a lot about how we can share our struggles with those we love and trust, that we don’t need to have the ‘right words’, and that grief is a totally natural part of being a living creature on planet Earth.