Support Provided By
Learn More

The Depths of Animal Grief

ByCarl SafinaNOVA NextNOVA Next
Elephants in Kenya's Amboseli National Park

Elephants die; we all do. In elephants and some others, it matters who has died. It’s why they are “who” animals. The crucial importance of memory, learning, and leadership in a family’s survival is why individuals matter. And so, death matters to the survivors.

A researcher once played a recording of an elephant who had died. The sound was coming from a speaker hidden in a thicket. The family went wild calling, looking all around. The dead elephant’s daughter called for days afterward. The researchers never again did such a thing.

Elephant Burials

Elephants’ response to death has been called, “probably the strangest thing about them.” They almost always react to a dead elephant’s remains. Occasionally they react to a human’s. The remains or bones of other species, they ignore.

Joyce Poole writes, “It is their silence that is most unsettling. The only sound is the slow blowing of air out of their trunks as they investigate their dead companion. It’s as if even the birds have stopped singing.” They cautiously extend their trunks, touching the body gently as if obtaining information. They run their trunk tips along the lower jaw and the tusks and the teeth—the parts that would have been most familiar in life and most touched during greetings—the most individually recognizable parts.

Cynthia Moss, director of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Kenya , told me of a wonderful matriarch named Big Tuskless. She died of natural causes, and a few weeks later Cynthia brought her jawbone to the research camp to determine her age at death. A few days after that, her family passed through the camp. There are several dozen elephant jaws on the ground in the camp, but the family detoured right to hers. They spent some time with it. They all touched it. And then all moved on, except one. After the others left, one stayed a long time, stroking Big Tuskless’s jaw with his trunk, fondling it, turning it. He was Butch, Big Tuskless’s seven-year-old son.

Nowadays humans immediately cart off every tusk. But in 1957, David Sheldrick wrote that elephants have, “a strange habit of removing tusks from their dead comrades.” He noted, “many instances” when elephants took tusks weighing up to 100 pounds up to half a mile. Iain Douglas-Hamilton once moved part of an elephant shot by a farmer to a different location. Soon a familiar family came along. When they caught the scent, they wheeled around and cautiously approached the body, drawing nearer with trunks waving up and down, ears half-forward. Each seemed reluctant to be first to reach the bones. They advanced in a tight huddle, then began their detailed sniffing and close examination of the tusks. Some bones, they rocked and gently rolled with their feet. Others, they clonked together. Some they tasted. Several individuals in turn rolled the skull. Soon all the elephants were investigating, many carrying bones away. George Adamson once shot a male elephant who had chased an official around his own garden. Local people butchered him for meat, then moved the carcass half a mile away. That night, elephants returned a shoulder blade and leg bone to exactly the spot where the elephant had fallen.

Support Provided By
Learn More

Elephants sometimes cover dead elephants with soil and vegetation, making them, as far as I’m aware, the only other animals who sometimes perform simple burials. Elephants have done the same when humans are involved on several recorded occasions. When sport hunters shot a large male elephant his companions surrounded his carcass. The hunters returned hours later to find that the others had not only covered their dead comrade with soil and leaves—they had covered his large head-wound with mud.

In Distress

Do they have a concept of death? Do they anticipate death? One day a few years ago in Kenya’s beautiful Samburu reserve, a matriarch named Eleanor, ailing, collapsed. Another matriarch, Grace, rapidly approached her with facial glands streaming from emotion. Grace lifted Eleanor back fully onto her feet. But Eleanor soon again collapsed. Grace appeared very stressed, and continued trying lifting Eleanor. No success. Grace stayed with Eleanor as night fell. During the night, Eleanor died. The next day an elephant named Maui started rocking Eleanor’s body with her foot. During the third day, Eleanor’s body was attended by her own family, another family, by Eleanor’s closest friend Maya, and again Grace was there. On the fifth day, Maya spent an hour and a half with Eleanor’s body. A week after her death, Eleanor’s family returned, and spent half an hour. Recalling this to me, Iain Douglas-Hamilton used the word “grief.”

Do elephants really grieve; could we really know? After a young elephant dies, its mother sometimes acts depressed for many days, slowly trailing far behind her family. When a female named Tonie gave birth to a stillborn baby, she stayed with her dead child for four days, alone in the heat, guarding it from lions who wanted it. Eventually, she moved on.

Elephants sometimes carry sick or dead babies on their tusks. An Amboseli elephant carried a prematurely born, dying baby about 1,500 feet into the cool seclusion of a grove of thick palms. Similarly, people have seen apes, baboons, and dolphins carrying dead babies for days. But is the mother really sad? Or is she carrying an infant a she would be carrying if it were alive? Answer: elephants and dolphins never carry healthy youngsters. It’s different.

An elephant in Tanzania carrying her stillborn calf.

The same is true with orcas. In September of 2010 off San Juan Island, Washington, people watched as a killer whale pushing a dead newborn for six hours. If this whale understood death purely rationally, she should just leave it. But humans don’t simply leave dead babies either. For us there is a concept of death, but also a feeling of grief. Our bonds are strong. We don’t want to let go. Their bonds, too, are strong. Perhaps they, too, don’t want to let go.

A few years ago on Long Island, a nursing-age young humpback whale, somehow ailing and alone, still alive, washed into the surf at Bridgehampton. Marge Winski, a lighthouse keeper 25 miles away at Montauk, told me that the night after the young humpback washed ashore, she heard “incredibly mournful whale sounds,” as if from a searching mother. When a free-living Atlantic spotted dolphin named Luna got permanently separated from her days-old infant in murky water in the presence of a large tiger shark, Denise Herzing wrote, “I had never heard a mother more vocally distressed.” When a captive dolphin named Spock suddenly died, his inseparable companion looked bewildered and lay lethargically on the bottom for days, rising only to breathe. After several days she resumed eating and begin socializing. Maddalena Bearzi writes, “A grieving dolphin mother may seek seclusion, away from her group, but in this time of grief, she might be visited by a group of her peers, perhaps coming to check on her, as we humans often do when someone we know is bereaved.”

In Mourning

So— do other animals really grieve? To continue this discussion with intelligence and clarity, we need a more scientific definition of grief. Anthropologist Barbara J. King provides one. To qualify as grief, surviving individuals who knew the deceased must alter their behavioral routine. They might eat or sleep less, or act listless, or agitated. They might attend their friend’s corpse. King’s definition of grief is quite useful. Sadness is not a kilogram lighter than grief, and mourning isn’t two meters shorter than happiness. Yet science thrives best on things that can be measured. In humans, these emotions grade, and sometimes come and go. And they seem to grade in non-humans, too. A person might miss several days of work following the death of a parent or sibling; mourners might attend a wake for a day or two; and an elephant family might for several days return to the body of the deceased. Later, the humans might visit the grave. Ditto the elephants. The trajectory of human lives may be permanently altered by the death of a key family member. Ditto, again, elephants, wolves, and apes.

Receive emails about upcoming NOVA programs and related content, as well as featured reporting about current events through a science lens.

Sadness is not a kilogram lighter than grief, and mourning isn’t two meters shorter than happiness.

In a zoo in Philadelphia in the 1870s lived two inseparable chimpanzees. “After the death of the female,” the keeper wrote, “the remaining one made many attempts to rouse her, and when he found this to be impossible his rage and grief were painful to witness…The ordinary yell of rage…finally changed to a cry which the keeper of the animals assures me he had never heard before…hah-ah-ah-ah-ah, uttered somewhat under the breath, and with a plaintive sound like a moan…He cried for the rest of the day. The day following, he sat still most of the time and moaned continuously.” More than a century later at the Yerkes Research Center, a chimpanzee named Amos remained in his nest while the others went outside. The others kept returning indoors to check on Amos. A female named Daisy gently groomed the soft spot behind his ears, and stuffed soft bedding behind his back as a nurse might arrange a patient’s pillows. Amos died the next day. For days afterward the others acted subdued, eating little. Two male chimpanzees in Uganda had for years been inseparable allies. When one died, the other, who’d been sociable and high-ranking, “just didn’t want to be with anybody for several weeks,” said researcher John Mitani. “He seemed to go into mourning.”

elephant closeup
Researchers have witnessed a range of emotions in elephants, including what appears to be grief.

Patricia Wright studies Madagascar’s primates, called lemurs. Pat says that when a lemur dies, “For the whole family, it’s a tragedy.” She detailed for me what she observed after a cat-like mongoose called a fossa killed a sifaka lemur. “After the fossa left, the family returned. His mate gave the ‘lost’ call over and over. When sifakas are really lost they give it less often and it’s higher and more energetic. But this was a low whistle, mournful, haunting; over and over.” The other members of the group, all sons and daughters of the dead male, also gave “lost” calls while viewing the corpse from just above it, in tree branches 15 to 30 feet off the ground. Over five days, the lemurs returned to the body fourteen times.

Professor and behavioral ecologist Joanna Burger’s Amazon parrot, Tiko, used to spend time in the company of Joanna’s mother-in-law while she was living with them during her final year of life. During the elder woman’s final month, Tiko would try to prevent the hospice people from touching her. If they merely wanted to take her temperature, he’d attack them; he needed to be moved to his room while they were there. In her last week, Tiko spent the days sitting by her head as she lay there sick, guarding her. “He barely wanted to leave to eat,” Joanna explained. The night the woman died, after her body was removed from the house, Joanna says, “Tiko spent a lot of the night screaming from his room where he’d never before made a sound at night, no matter what was going on downstairs.” For months, Tiko would spend hours on the bed that his elderly human acquaintance had used.

Love Lost

Grief is not just a response to death. Sometimes people we know die but we don’t grieve. Sometimes people we love decide to walk out of our lives, and though they remain alive, we grieve. We simply, terribly, miss them. Knowing them changed our lives, and losing them changes our lives. Grief isn’t solely about life or death; it’s mostly about loss of companionship, loss of presence. Barbara J. King says that when two or more animals have shared a life, “Grief results from love lost.”

Is love really the right word? If an elephant sees her sister and calls to maintain contact, or a parrot sees its mate and wants to be nearer, some feeling of the bond makes it seek closeness. One word we use for the feeling behind our desire for closeness is love. Elephants and birds don’t feel their love for one another the way I feel my love, but the same is true of my own friends, my mother, my wife, my step-daughter, and my next-door neighbors. Love isn’t one thing, and human love isn’t all identical in quality or intensity. But I believe that the word that labels ours, labels theirs. Love, as they say, is many splendored. Love probably is the right word.

Excerpted from Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina, to be published July 2015 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Carl Safina. All rights reserved.

Photo credits: Diana Robinson/Flickr (CC BY-ND) , Anna Ritenour/Flickr (CC BY), Glenn Simons/Flickr (CC BY-NC)

Funding for NOVA Next is provided by the Eleanor and Howard Morgan Family Foundation.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.