Charlie Brown and his human ilk don’t have a monopoly on grieving. While humans have developed elaborate rituals when a loved one dies, we may just be following our instincts.
Emotions lead the way when dealing with death, and some research and observation has shown that we are not alone in our methods of mourning. Animals, too, show signs of sadness.
Giraffes usually stand tall; however, upon death, they will kneel down to the dead. Elephants live large in size and sorrow. They have been known to shed tears and guard the bodies of their fallen friends. In extreme cases, elephants have stopped eating after a death, even so much as to starve themselves.
In sadness, it is not uncommon to lose your appetite. Besides elephants, this has been documented in other species, too. Chimpanzees may refuse food, as do house cats when a loved one has died, and primate pouting can also include moping and tears.
Animals have other unique physiological responses to the death of a family or species member. Bees and some aquatic insects react to chemicals given off by the dead. Baboons will show an increase in the stress hormone glucocoroids after a loss.
Refusing to let go is another common shared trait. Gorilla grief can be powerful. One mother in captivity carried around her dead infant for weeks. And who can forget the images of Hawkeye the dog, who wouldn’t leave the casket of his owner, a fallen Navy SEAL.
Dolphins also can be loyal to their dead. Observations have been made of a female staying with the body of her deceased offspring and adults remaining with a perished pod member for days.
Humans don’t corner the market on loud displays of grief, either. Sea lions sob and cry out when predators take their young. Western scrub jays hold a sort of “funeral,” where many will gather and screech over the body of a dead jay for almost an hour. They call other birds to join them in their community cry. Clearly, in their case, misery loves company.
And just like humans who often come together after a death, so do baboons. Research has shown that they expand their social circles, make more friends and spend time with others, rather than partaking in solitary activities.
Other animals prefer to spend time alone after the death of a mate. Geese, who can mate for life, isolate themselves when their partner passes. They can experience weight loss and will separate themselves from their flock.
The stress of death affects sperm whales in an unusual way, causing somewhat of a dental disaster. Beyond the agitation noticed by scientists after a death, the whale’s teeth become weakened in their prolonged mourning period.
Dealing with death is never easy for any animal, it seems. Humans, even with our intelligence, imagination and insight, share the primal emotions and reactions to grief apparent in many other species. There may be some comfort, at such a time, in realizing that we are not alone.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.