We tend to apply human traits to animals, called anthropomorphism, to help us understand in our terms, what the animal kingdom does in response to events or circumstances. Rarely, however, can we so simplistically apply our feelings to those of animals.
So let’s look at this question for a few minutes. Starting small, insects have no brains so it is unlikely that any of them can feel grief. Most small reptiles, fish and amphibians could not miss a lost mate or offspring either. Likewise small mammals and birds, which only live for months or a couple of years and produce a lot of young in a short period of time, likely don’t have any lasting feelings, for either their mates or their offspring. It simply doesn’t make sense for them to waste time and effort missing another of their species.
Witness a robin whose nest gets predated. While the weasel or fox attacks the nest the adults are alarmed, but once it is gone they calm down immediately and find the remaining young. Birds can’t count so they don’t know if they had 2, 3 or 4 young. Clearly they are reacting to the predator not grief in this situation.
But what of Giant Tortoises or other long-lived reptiles? There is ample evidence to show larger animals, particularly captive held or captive bred ones, have ‘relationships’ with their handlers and trust them and miss them when they are gone. Whales, dolphins, great apes, elephants and the like also show these similar responses. Whether this is grief or just a reaction to change or simply a non-emotional response to the loss of the comforting presence of their handler is something we really can’t presume to know.
Larger birds and mammals often mate for life, so clearly their pair bond is strong and they certainly notice the absence of their mate, if for some reason he/she disappears. How long they do this and to what end is uncertain. In fact, although they certainly miss their ‘loved one’, rarely do they grieve forever, and soon they are off searching for a new mate. Not all large mammals have strong affiliations to their mate, and many will breed with several partners, so the size of the animal isn’t the deciding factor. Animals like lions and bears are known to kill their own kind, so to apply human emotion to them is clearly wrong as well.
There are lots of great examples where humans have decided an animal is grieving the loss of an owner. For example, recently in the news, a story was told of a dog that goes to its dead master’s grave every day, many years after his passing. This may actually be a grief-stricken response as the animal is not forgetting the loss of its master. However, witness how easy it is to find a new home for a dog or cat! Soon after they are introduced to their new surroundings, they act and behave as before but with a new owner. Yet, when you show them their former owner they get excited but still stay with the new household. We can teach a parrot to say “I love you” but that is just mimicry and there is clearly no emotion involved.
It seems that the common element here is a long-lived animal, that mates for life and only has one mate at a time, will appear to grieve. So birds, like some swans and eagles, are more likely to ‘grieve’ the loss of their partner. How long they do this is unpredictable, but it surely seems, in some cases, the longing for the return of the mate truly is grief driven. Perhaps our little Blackstock Osprey does miss its Mom …
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, ecotour guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line, at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.