Tue
Jun 25 2013 9:00am

When Doves Cry: Scientific American Explores Grief in Animals

Seymour Futurama

As children, the world around us is very clear on one thing: animals have feelings much like our own. Nearly every children’s book, film, cartoon or toy that features animals—features anthropomorphized animals—who love, laugh, cry, sing, have epic adventures on their tiny toy motorcycles, and so on. Bambi is devastated after hunters kill his mother. When Dumbo’s mom is unfairly incarcerated, we are treated to a punch-in-the-heart montage of their love and loss.

At some point—I suppose around the same time we are handed a scalpel and a formaldehyde-soaked fetal pig—the message changes. We go from freely ascribing human feelings to animals, to stripping them entirely of sentiment. We’re told that to be properly scientific (and adult), one needs to believe that animals don’t experience emotions or have feelings. But renewed scientific interest in animal emotion may be changing that ideology.

In her article, “When Animals Mourn,” in this month’s Scientific American, anthropologist Barbara J. King discusses her own experience in studying animal emotion, as well as developments in the scientific community’s perception of it.

Though science has traditionally shunned the anthropomorphizing of animal behavior, pioneers like Jane Goodall and Cynthia Moss helped revive the scientific study of animal emotion. King admits to sharing the traditional school-of-thought regarding emotion in animals, but after spending two years researching her book, How Animals Grieve, her views have dramatically changed.

The first problem scientists encounter when studying animal grief is defining it. Some animal grief behavior is similar to that in humans, but of course, animals could also be expressing grief in ways unrecognizable to us. Since a puppy can’t tell us he’s sad any more than a depressed panda could tweet #somanyfeels, scientists are tasked with defining a set of parameters that constitute “grief” in animals. For now, they’ve settled on a (admittedly imperfect) two-part definition: First, the animals in question should “choose to spend time together beyond survival-oriented behaviors;” and second, “when one animal dies, the survivor alters his or her normal behavioral routine.”

Many animals do indeed exhibit grief as defined above. As King cites in her article, examples are found in a multitude of species: elephants gathering around the body of a deceased matriarch, returning to caress the bones years later; a herd of giraffes protecting the body of a recently deceased infant from scavengers with the mourning mother; a duck laying its head on the body of his dead companion. From house cats to dolphins to gorillas, grief is evident throughout the animal kingdom. King surmises, “Our ways of mourning may be unique, but the human capacity to grieve is something we share with other animals.”

But what is the biological benefit of grief—how could it help us and other animals survive and thrive? What could the evolutionary benefit of grief be, when, as seen in many of King’s examples, the mourning behavior of the grieving animals (separation from the pack, cessation of eating, etc.) puts them at greater risk of illness, injury, and/or death? King says that the adaptive element may not be grief itself, but “instead, the strong positive emotions experienced before grief comes into the picture, shared by two or more living animals whose level of cooperation in nurturing or resource-acquisition is enhanced by these feelings.” In other words, the grief is a symptom of the real evolutionary benefit at work: love. King cites behaviorist Marc Bekoff, who proposes in his book, Animals Matter, that animals experience love as well as grief. That animal grief "results from love lost,” much in the same way it does for human grief.

In fact, the study of animal emotion doesn’t just give us insight to the myriad of other creatures with which we (often poorly) share this planet; it also deepens our understanding of human grief and emotion, and that of our prehistoric ancestors. Furthermore, the impact of animal emotion research could change the way we live.

Temple Grandin has already used research in animal emotion to revolutionize the slaughter process in 90% of the beef industry. As the scientific study of animal emotion advances, how will it transform the ways we interact with them? Will knowing that animals experience love and grief alter how we treat pets or livestock, or the ways in which we produce and consume animal products? Will it modify the handling and care of lab animals, service animals, and those that live in zoos, circuses, or on nature preserves?

Though much of animal emotion is still a mystery, with the work of researchers like King, soon we could know much more about what and how animals feel. Whether or not we’re ready to know is another story.


Nancy Lambert still sobs when Charlotte dies, but is doubtful spiders in her apartment would fare any better if they could read and write. When she doesn’t have her nose buried in a book, Nancy is busy writing, cutting down restless draugrs in Skyrim, or putzing around online.

13 comments
William Carter
1. wcarter
Why Why did you have to use the picture of Fry's dog?. That episode of Futurama is just plain soul crushing.
The worst part about it is dogs really do mourn in a way that is recognizable as such.
I've seen dogs hold vigiles for dead dogs or humans on more than one occasion, and it isn't uncommom for them to literally die of a broken heart not long after.
Adam S.
2. MDNY
I find it curious that we always think of mammals when we think of more intelligent or emotionally complex species. Studies have shown that parrots possess a high level of both intelligence and emotion (they have the intelligence of a 5 year old human according to a 2005 article, can't remember the author's name). Bees have a social complexity that is still not understood, but their communications through "dancing" suggest an intelligence and understanding beyond our comprehension. But most people don't find birds, insects, or other non-mammal life forms to be endearing. It is very hard to form an emotional bond with a non-mammal, hence hard to see its intelligence.
Thomas Thatcher
3. StrongDreams
In the promo for the final season of Futurama, there is a quick shot of the dog. So maybe that will get resolved after all.
StarryEyed
4. StarryEyed
Thanks for an interesting read this morning! I have always thought that science would catch up to the inner emotional world of animals and find it more complex and familiar than we have previously allowed ourselves to believe. I do think it will eventually change the way we think of and treat animals. For example, pigs have been shown to be exceedly intelligent, mischievous, and even like to play video games.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
5. Lisamarie
My dad has ferrets and has often told me about how when one ferret dies, you have to allow the surviving ferrets a chance to smell and examine and generally grieve over the body before disposing of it, otherwise they go kind of nuts. And then it results in this never ending cycles of ferrets as they are very social animals and will get depressed if alone.

And in my personal experience I defintiely noticed my cat behaving differently when the other cat we raised along with her died.
George Jong
6. IndependentGeorge
@2 - It's related to domestication. From an evolutionary perspective, domestication implies the ability to read emotions and communicate with them. Birds might possess exceptional intelligence, but our (and their) brains aren't hard-wired to intuitively intuitively understand each other like horses, sheep, or (especially) dogs.

Their particular ecological niche have selected for the ability to read and react to human behaviors; it's not surprising that these would be the easiest for us to do the same.
Alan Brown
7. AlanBrown
I have always felt that the line between animal and human is not a giant quantum leap between intelligent and not, or having souls or not. While we are unique in some ways, we do not have a monopoly on awareness, and feelings, or even intelligence. Humans are part of the fabric of life. Those who attempt to say that animals don't feel pain, or other difficult to justify assertions, are just turning a blind eye to something that is obvious.
Alan Brown
8. AlanBrown
Oh, and I may be unique, but I drew parallels between this article and the recent one on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. People noted how horrifying the world of the movie was if you accepted the fact that the toons were living, thinking beings. Take that thought, and then apply it to the animal world...
StarryEyed
9. wizard clip
I'm not sure if this research will alter the way we treat animals, especially in factory farms and research labs. For these operations to continue, any acknowledgement that animals feel sorrow or fear or anything else akin to human emotions must be rejected out of hand. In other words, compassion and morality must trump profit, and I think we're a long way from that.
Sandra Wilson
10. SandraW
As someone who has raised livestock and had pets for decades (no, we don't eat our livestock), it is apparent from observation that animals do have and show some emotions that even we humans can recognize.
StarryEyed
11. wayfarer
Don't worry about Seymour(Fry's dog) he live with Fry's in the movie Bender's big score for some time. But anyone who has a pet and lost one should not watch Jurassic Bark way way to sad.
Misti Schmidt
12. mmaries
Thanks for covering this. I like to think leavening my usual pulp fantasy and sci-fi fare with some smart science fiction (Heinlein, Le Guin, Tepper, Banks) as a teen helped develop some critical thinking skills, which led to taking a closer look at how the world is here and now. It's hard to read about mistreatment of aliens (or humans by aliens or planets by humans or certain cultures by others...you name it) without questioning the way industry treats animals. King's How Animals Mourn is a pretty fascinating read. Some other great looks at animal emotion, attachment, and interaction:
Linden, The Parrot's Lament
Masson and McCarthy, When Elephants Weep
Jordan, Divorce Among the Gulls
StarryEyed
13. An Interior Forest
Linked from http://aninteriorforest.com/blog/blind-feelings/

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