Feeling of grief in Animals


Maneka Gandhi


(Bihar Times) Imagine your child dead or lost. The shock, horror, the feeling of helplessness and grief. 

Grief is a reaction to the absence of something or someone who caused happiness, comfort. The continued absence of that person or thing can lead to stress. In the context of bereavement, this stress is termed grief. Charles Darwin, the great scientist, wrote that animals share our emotions including grief.

People like to believe that animals have no sense of their mortality and are unable to comprehend the concept of death. This allows us not to feel remorse when we eat them, hunt them, separate their families, massacre thousands in the name of preventing pandemics, keep them in cages or kill them in slaughterhouses. 

Grief is something that those with a memory feel.  An animal’s memory is like yours. If you an animal can love or fear, he/she can certainly grieve for the same reasons - following the death of an owner, relative or friend.

How do animals express it ? Many vocalize pain or distress and show changes in their behaviour. Some, like elephants, even shed tears. When my dog Milly’s puppy was killed in front of her by another dog she howled and ran round the house for 3 days, refusing to eat. It took months to get her to interact with us.

The most obvious example of grief in animals has been observed in elephants. If an elephant dies, the troupes who knew her/him will go to where the body is and touch or pass around the bones. They will stay in the area for days to mourn returning to the grave time and time again. Even the calves in the herd will limit their play to show the same respect as adults.

Kenyan elephant expert, Joyce Poole describes the griefstricken expressions in their eyes, the way they carry their ears, their bodies. They pause for several minutes when walking past a place where a companion died. They stand guard over a stillborn baby for days with their head and ears hung down. Young elephants who witness the death of their mothers often wake up screaming. In one incident, a female having lost a calf stayed next to the corpse for several days and left reluctantly with a herd and fifty kilometers away, turned back and went back to her calf.

In Lucknow Zoo Damini befriended a younger elephant called Champakali. who was brought in pregnant from Dudhwa National Park. The two elephants became inseparable. When Champakali died in child birth, Damini stopped eating. She cried over her friend's body, and then stood in her enclosure for days. Over the next month she nibbled her food until she collapsed. She lay still, crying, and gradually stopped drinking water. Vets tried to save her by pumping gallons of glucose and vitamins into her veins but could not save her. “In the face of Damini's intense grief, all our treatment failed," said Dr Utkarsh Shukla, the zoo vet.
When the elephant Kaveri died in Chandigarh’s Chhatbir Zoo, a trumpeting of other elephants filled the air. Defying their mahouts, the elephants repeatedly turned and moved towards Kaveri’s shed whenever taken for a walk.
The story of Hoku and Kiko, a pair of Pacific spotted dolphins at Sea Life Park is well known. Kiko died of a kidney ailment. Hoku swam for days with both eyes shut. The keepers gave him a young spotted dolphin female named Lei, who  immediately liked Hoku. Hoku was polite; he allowed her to swim with him, he was not aggressive and he even began to look around again. But he kept one eye shut on whichever side Lei was swimming on.

When a dolphin passes away, the others of the group mourn by stopping eating and swim around with loud whistles. If a child dies, the grief of the mother dolphin is intense. She weaves round the body, propping it up to the surface and trying to revive it for hours.  Dolphins keep the bodies of their dead afloat by supporting them with their own until all members of the group have shared in the grieving process.

A French documentary film showed a crocodile killing a female hippo and dragging it onto a sand dune. Soon after, hippos are seen coming out of the river to lick the body.  They lie down in a circle around the cow as if it's a fallen friend, and stay there for hours before wading back into the water .
Every dog owner knows that they mourn the death of loved ones - companion or master. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals conducted a project entitled Companion Animal Mourning .The study found that 36% percent of dogs ate less after the death of a  companion; 11% stopped eating completely; 63% of dogs vocalized more than normal or became quieter. The study found that dogs changed their sleep patterns and location of their sleep. 55% became more affectionate and clingy with their caregivers. And 66% exhibited four or more behavioral changes after their loss.

If a cat loses a friend, they will stop eating and playing for some time and stay near the scent of the lost one.  Mother cats whose kittens are taken away look for them for many days, pacing and crying out. Larry Lachman, author of "Cats on the Counter”, says grieving in cats may last up to three years, with the most visible signs in the first year. They include loss of appetite or overeating, chronic meowing or howling, searching for the person or animal, spray-marking and self- mutilation. A sudden refusal to use the litter box and attacking owners or family members can also signal bereavement. Sometimes cats wait at the window, or sit on a gate-post, waiting for the absent one to return. Some owners have even noticed their surviving cats taking on behaviour patterns of the missing cat. Some fast and became critically ill. Post mortems show no sign of disease except for that caused by failure to eat. Some have repeated nightmares after the death of their owner in the cat's presence waking whimpering and fearful for months until the trauma fades.

Apes and monkeys display the characteristic behaviour we associate with grief. Grieving animals withdraw from their group, sit in one place and stare into space as if paralyzed. They remain unresponsive to attempts by others to interact or console them. They may stop eating, and become obsessed with the dead individual. Some even try to revive the corpse or carry it around until it decomposes.
Jane Goodall, the world famous primatologist narrates the incident of an eight year-old male chimpanzee named Flint in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, who when his mother died, went into deep grief. Flint stopped eating, stopped traveling with the troop. He died shortly where his mother had died.
Koko, the gorilla at the Gorilla Foundation in Northern California was taught sign language and has mastered more than 1,000 signs and English words.  At one point she cried, describing the moment she was taken from the forest. She said, "Men came ... big bang ... mother dead.",describing the poachers shooting her mother and taking her away.

Her keepers gave her a kitten whom she mothered. The kitten died and the keeper had to tell her. As soon as he entered her cage, she asked where the kitten was. The keeper signed that it had died and the gorilla turned away, cuddled herself, dropped her eyes to the floor and wailed loudly in a corner. 

Chimpanzees show great emotion upon the death of one of their group, screaming, charging, and whimpering. A mother will carry for days the limp body of an infant who has died till it becomes a dessicated strip of fur. Only then will she leave it.

Primate babies born in research labs are snatched from their mothers within three days of birth—leaving the babies depressed and unable to develop normal relationships throughout their lives. Laboratory animal caretaker Nancy Megna writes about what they witnessed at the Yerkes Primate Research Center: “The mother emits either lost calls, waiting in vain for a response from her stolen baby, or she makes a mourning type of crying . She does this constantly, sometimes sitting far from the group at the edge of the compound, sometimes sitting near the door to her quarters. If an employee walks by, the mother will often follow along the whole distance of the fence of her enclosure, looking directly at the employee as she emits her lost call. Babies, too, make plaintive calls, in hopes of being reunited with their mother. ” Cows behave the same way when their babies are taken for slaughter.

From horses and rabbits to deer, animals mourn the loss of another. Even rats who play together care for each other and grieve , protecting the body of a loved one that has passed away.

In most animals, symptoms of grieving include  diminished interest and energy , absence of play , listlessness , reduced social interactions , increased daytime sleeping , weight loss/loss of interest in food ,coarsening of fur and loss of sparkle in eyes . Sometimes they die soon after the loss of a companion.

Sharon Crowell-Davis, an animal behaviorist at the University of Georgia, has scientifically proven that animals have emotions just like us, by the use of PET [positron emission tomography] scans. This instrument provides an evaluation of mental states based on brain changes in response to specific stimuli. It was noted that both humans and animals react to a certain stimuli in a similar way.   "When animals are recorded showing the same patterns of brain activity and the same brain chemical changes that correspond to a particular human emotion or mood state, it would not be logical for us to assume that they are not experiencing similar feelings," Crowell-Davis says.

Next time you eat a lamb or a calf, you leave a mother who is crying her heart out.

To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in


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