Grief: It’s Not Just a Human Thing

Grief is a familiar emotion to many people who have experienced loss. However, behaviors associated with grief are not exclusive to our fellow Homo sapiens. In fact, numerous other animal species have been observed to grieve a loss through an assortment of behavioral responses. Emotions like grief are able to connect animals both socially and to their environment1,2. Furthermore, determining what behaviors are connected with grief can help us learn how to relate to other species.

A chimpanzee sitting in isolation. [Source]
In the past, behaviorists were wary of anecdotal evidence of grief, as many assumed that anthropomorphizing other species would lead to irrational conclusions. More recently, Darwin’s idea of evolutionary continuity between species has been associated with the recognition that although emotions may be displayed in varying levels between animals, a spectrum of these emotional abilities is shared with humans2,3. For example, Dr. Jane Goodall (1991) witnessed a chimpanzee grieve by isolating himself, neglecting to eat, and eventually dying after the death of his mother4,5. Similar behaviors have been observed in orphaned gorillas. Other animals show grief by caring for the dead. Magpies and other birds in the corvid family, such as crows, acknowledge the death of a member of their group by nudging the deceased, calling, and then waiting near the body, possibly out of respect, before departing the scene2. Dr. Konrad Lorenz, a Nobel laureate ethologist, noted that a goose who lost its partner exhibited a mournful appearance that was akin to the look that children have after experiencing a loss, as described by the distinguished psychoanalyst Dr. John Bowlby4,6.

An elephant returning to the site of a dead conspecific. [Source]
Throughout a study looking at elephant behavior during the death of a matriarch named Eleanor, a wide range of displays was recorded. Another matriarch, Grace, attempted to help Eleanor walk after she had fallen. Though the attempt was unsuccessful, Grace remained with Eleanor for the following hour. Shortly after, Eleanor died. Maui, an elephant from another tribe, came across the body. She sniffed and touched it, and, subsequently, tasted the trunk and stood over it. Later in the day, Maya, an elephant in Eleanor’s family, found the body. Eleanor’s 6-month-old calf nuzzled the body and acted confused. Grace’s family, along with another, returned to the site to observe the body. Then, Maya and the rest of Eleanor’s family moved the carcass a substantial distance and returned to it in the ensuing days, as did other elephant families. The study concluded that elephants showed compassion, awareness, and curiosity toward the death of a conspecific, even though several were not unrelated to the dead7,8.

Screen Shot 2018-05-20 at 1.14.15 PM
A pilot whale carrying a dead infant. [Source]
Bekoff (2000) elucidates other symptoms of grief. As their pups are devoured by Orca whales, sea lion mothers have been seen wailing in despair. In some situations, dolphins and pilot whales have endeavored to save deceased offspring by carrying the infant while swimming9,10. We even see animal grief at home: anecdotal evidence for grief responses in companion animals is abundant. Although assessing said behaviors scientifically can be a challenge, companion animals provide a perfect opportunity to study non-human grief7.

These observations reveal that animals possess a vast behavioral repertoire associated with grief; moreover, there is more than one way to grieve (cliché, I know). Additionally, spreading scientific knowledge about grief in animals may lead to improved protection for wild species and welfare for species in captive settings. Through education of the public on the emotional capabilities of animals, there could be a push for more compassionate and ethical management practices7. Both as behaviorists and as those of an empathetic species, it is incredibly valuable to identify grief and its implications in regard to behavioral patterns in social animals in order to better understand the processes of sociality and emotion.

This post was written for Mental Health Awareness Month.

Author Lindsey Broadus is a first year PhD student in the UC Davis Animal Biology Graduate Group studying duck reproductive behavior.


1. Animal Grief. (2018, May 15). Retrieved May 15, 2018, from

2. Bekoff, M. (2009). Animal emotions, wild justice and why they matter: Grieving magpies, a pissy baboon, and empathic elephants. Emotion, Space and Society, 2(2), 82–85.

3. Bekoff, M., & Pierce, J. (2009). Wild Justice: the Moral Lives of Animals. University of Chicago Press.

4. Bekoff, M. (2000). Animal Emotions: Exploring Passionate Natures. BioScience, 50(10), 861.[0861:AEEPN]2.0.CO;2

5. Goodall, J. (1990). Through a Window. Boston:Houghton-Mifflin. ______. (2000). Pride goeth before a fall, pp 166–167 in Bekoff, M., ed. The Smile of a Dolphin: Remarkable Accounts of Animal Emotions. New York: Random House/Discovery Books.

6. Lorenz, K. Z. (1991). Here I Am—Where Are You? New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

7. McGrath, N., Walker, J., Nilsson, D., & Phillips, C. (2013). Public attitudes towards grief in animals. Animal Welfare, 22(1), 33–47.

8. Douglas-Hamilton, I., Bhalla, S., Wittemyer, G., & Vollrath, F. (2006). Behavioural reactions of elephants towards a dying and deceased matriarch. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 100, 87-102.

9. Bekoff, M., ed. (2000). The Smile of a Dolphin: Remarkable Accounts of Animal Emotions. New York: Random House/Discovery Books.

10. Blue Planet 2, Series 1, Death of a pilot whale calf. (2017, Nov. 19). Retrieved May 15, 2018, from

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s