News and Tribune

May 10, 2013

STAWAR: Creature discomfort

Local columnist

In the April 15 edition of Time Magazine, senior science editor Jeffrey Kluger has an article titled the “Mystery of Animal Grief” in which he explores the latest evidence that animals grieve. 

He describes a remarkable ritual wherein a multitude of crows gather around a deceased peer and bring tokens of twigs or grass to lay beside or upon the corpse. Personally, I was surprised that crows could express anything approaching sympathy, given their reputation and especially after seeing the miniseries of Stephen King’s apocalyptic novel “The Stand.”

My wife Diane and I often noticed how certain trees would suddenly fill up with hundreds of cawing crows over at Edwardsville Park. It was like a scene out of Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” Diane would call it a “Crow Convention” like C.S. Lewis’ “Parliament of Owls.”

Humans have always been tempted to attribute human feelings, thoughts and motives to the animals about them. In science, this is the “sin” of anthropomorphizing. 

When I look at our cat, Claus, I often wonder what is going through his furry little head. Is his meowing a statement of affection or is he just saying, “That wet cat food can won’t open itself.” 

Sure he can look like an adorable little stuffed animal, but he’s an inveterate killer. I’ve seen him leave a mouse head jammed into our outdoor coffee table with a grill top, like a raptor in “Jurassic Park.” Only recently, he presented me with another dead mouse. Again, I wondered whether this was a tribute or message intended to intimidate me into feeding him every time he comes into the house. This poor mouse didn’t have a mark on him, which in some ways is even more frightening. What did Claus do, chloroform it? I’m keeping our bedroom door shut tighter at night.

In 1872, Charles Darwin published “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals.” In this work, Darwin broke with tradition by attributing emotional expression to the “lower animals.” Up until then, it was generally held that only humans were capable of complex feelings. 

In fact, French philosopher René Descartes argued that since animals had no souls, they were simply automatons — mechanisms made of flesh and bone instead of metal. He even suggested that animals’ cries of pain were simply mechanical phenomenon, like the squealing of a fan belt. 

In 19th Century Britain, a movement to curtail animal cruelty started and the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote that regarding animals, “The question is not can they reason nor can they talk, but, can they suffer?” 

Today, no one seriously questions whether animals can suffer from physical pain, but the question remains can they express emotional pain such as grief? 

The Time article covers the research presented in “How Animals Grieve,” by anthropologist Barbara King from the College of William and Mary. She says that since animals are social creatures that form bonds, they also develop ritualized behaviors to deal with loss, just like people. Animals, however, cannot afford to expend much of their resources on mourning because of nature’s harsh demands. 

Among examples of animal mourning are domestic dogs and cats who languish and refuse to eat. There is a large body of literature about loyal dogs seeking their lost companions. 

Hachiko was an akita in Tokyo who continued going to the train station every day for more than a decade after its owner died. Greyfriars Bobby was a skye terrier who spent 14 years guarding the grave of his late owner. A commemorative statue erected near Bobby’s Edinburgh grave remains a popular tourist attraction today. Similar stories of canine devotion occur around the world. 

Much has also been written about how elephants stand vigil by their dead peers. Elephants also appear to be especially reverential toward elephant bones they may find in their travels. Ian Douglas-Hamilton, author of “Among the Elephants,” has described how one elephant tried to push up a dead herdmate with her tusks, and later made repeated visits to the remains.

Chimps, bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) and other ape mothers have been known to carry around dead infants in a symbolic denial of death. Likewise, dolphins may continue pushing their dead offspring to the surface for a considerable time after death. 

Bonobos have also been observed throwing rocks at dead troopmates and beating their chests in what can look like primitive CPR. Primatologist Frans De Waal from Emory University believes that bonobos have some conception of the permanency of death. 

When one bonobo kills a deadly viper, the rest of the troop seems to understand that the snake is permanently dead and instead of avoiding it, they will then approach it, and even examine its fangs and wear it around their necks. 

In Botswana, University of Pennsylvania zoologist Anne Engh measured biochemical markers in fecal samples of baboons, who witnessed a predator kill a troopmate. These readings, which reflect stress, were higher than average for the baboons who saw the event, but even higher for family members of the victim, suggesting some conception of personal loss.

Skeptics may still question where these behaviors really indicate mourning or if they are fully explained by instinct, evolution or conditioning. Are cats seeking out lost companions, or simply marking their newly expanded territories? Are those depressed and devoted dogs expressing love for departed owners or merely adhering to daily routines created by past conditioning?

In addition to bereavement, altruism is another social behavior, often attributed only to humans, that has been studied extensively in animals. Selfless concern for the well-being of others is something we typically don’t associate with the unforgiving world of nature. Nevertheless, field studies have reported food sharing among animals as diverse as wolves, chimps, ravens and even vampire bats and vicious housecats. The adoption of abandoned orphans has also been frequently observed in the wild.

Scientists see some evolutionary advantage to such altruism. Research by Claudia Rutte from the Swiss University of Berne shows that reciprocity in rats is higher for animals who have received help from others. Altruism is sort of an insurance policy for hard times, since you are more likely to be helped by those who have experienced help in the past. 

In 2007, Peggy Mason and researchers from the University of Chicago found that rats will work diligently, without reward, to free a peer from a confined chamber. They would even spring their pal from the tiny slammer if it meant they had to share their favorite treat — chocolate chips.

In 1963, Yale University social psychologist Stanley Milgram published the first report of his famous “obedience to authority” experiments. Milgram was interested in how average people, such as in Nazi Germany, could commit horrible atrocities, later using the excuse “I was only following orders.”

To his dismay, he found that more than 65 percent of the people he tested were willing to inflict severe bodily harm (electric shock) on another human, just because an experimenter in a white coat (an authority) told them they had to obey.

When I read Milgram’s study, I wondered how animals would fare in similar circumstances. I eventually discovered that a psychiatrist, Jules Masserman, and his colleagues at Northwestern conducted an animal study about the same time as Milgram’s experiment. 

Using food as a reward, Masserman found that rhesus monkeys would endure hunger to the extent of starvation rather than obtain food that involved shocking another monkey. Age, size, sex and dominance were irrelevant, but past personal experience of being shocked was associated with displays of greater “kindness’ toward others. 

It’s arguable whether these experiments were truly comparable, but all in all, monkeys came off looking pretty good in comparison to people.

Perhaps the real question isn’t whether animals can grieve or not, but whether people can be kind?

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at