What do animals know of death?

August 21, 2012 • 5:32 am

I doubt there’s an organismal biologist alive who hasn’t wondered if some other species of animals know of their own mortality, and if so which ones.  I’ve always thought it was the great and unique tragedy of the human species that we alone know that our own lives are finite. That of course, has given rise to all sorts of peculiar behaviors, including much religious doctrine.

Not having access to the consciousness of any creature except H. sapiens, we’re not sure.  Certainly some animals act as if they understand death: dying chimps are surrounded by what looks to be caregivers, elephants fondle the bones of other elephants, and mother primates can cling to dead infants for days.  I even  once saw a squirrel dragging the carcass of another squirrel across the quad of my university, but had no idea what that meant.  But none of these acts mean that these creatures conceive of death the way humans do. A piece at New Scientist, discussing the behavior of a mother gorilla and her dead infant, said this:

It could be grief, but it could equally be a morbid fascination with death. Or it could just be confusion.

A lifeless corpse of a conspecific could just engender curiosity, and a gorilla mother’s clinging to her dead baby could reflect maternal instinct gone awry.  And even if animals do feel a kind of mourning, that doesn’t mean that they know that they themselves will one day pass on. In fact, I still think that we’re still the only species aware of our individual finitude.

But Matt Walker, editor of BBC Nature, has just revived this question in a piece called “Curious incident of a dead giraffe,” a summary of a paper by Fred Bercovitch that was just published online in the African Journal of Ecology (reference and link below).  Bercovitch’s paper reports three incidents in which giraffe’s show “mourning behavior” similar to that of elephants and chimpanzees.

Here’s one report from the paper:

At the Soysambu Conservancy, Kenya, Muller (2010) observed a Rothschild’s giraffe, G. c. rothschildii, cow remaining vigilant in proximity to her dead calf over a period of four consecutive days. The neonatal calf had a deformed hind leg and its mother had remained within 20 m of her offspring for the duration of the calf’s life. When little over a month old, the calf apparently died from natural causes. When sighted, the calf carcass was surrounded by 17 extremely vigilant and agitated female giraffe, one of which was the calf’s mother. On the third day following the death, the half-eaten carcass was found about 50 m from the original location, with the mother standing vigilant next to it. On the next day, the carcass was no longer in the vicinity, but the mother was still in the area. Muller (2010) concluded that the extensive vigilance, nuzzling, sniffing and inspection of the carcass by the mother, as well as by other giraffe, indicates that closer family ties characterize giraffe than often assumed.

In a second case, a herd of giraffe stopped to inspect the 3-week-old carcass of a young female Namibian giraffe (G. c. angolensis), bending down in a way giraffes do only when drinking or feeding on soil or bones.  The third case involved a young female giraffe who had just given birth to an infant, apparently stillborn.  She sniffed the dead calf and apparently stayed in the vicinity of the calf for over two hours.  Here’s a photo of her inspecting her infant:

(from the paper): (b) The same female sniffing the carcass of the newborn calf, partially hidden behind the tall grass

The BBC Nature report says that this may imply that animals have a “mental model of death”:

The behaviour is striking for a number of reasons.

Females giraffes rarely spend any time alone, yet this individual spent hours with her dead calf away from other females.

Giraffes rarely splay their legs to bend down, apart from when to drink or feed.

And apart from two other similar incidences, giraffes have not been seen intensively investigating their dead.

But none of that convinces me that this is anything other than simple curiosity (“what is that thing that looks like us lying on the ground?”) or maternal behavior and puzzlement over a newborn not moving.  Indeed, Bercovitch himself urges caution, calling for scientists to collect more data from other species on the reaction of animals to dead conspecifics.  All he concludes from these observations is that “a mother/offspring bond develops from birth and is more pronounced than often presumed.”

Yet I’m not sure that even that collection of data can tell us what we want to know, which is what resides in the consciousness of animals faced with a dead conspecific.  If primates show behavior similar to human mourning, though, one might at least conclude that they feel the loss of an individual they knew well. Whether that means that they know death in the way we do, though, would remain unresolved, as would the question of whether any animals besides us knows that our own lives are finite.  To know that means probing the consciousness of other species, something that’s nearly impossible to do.

I am curious whether readers have experiences with animals that bear on this question.

h/t: Matthew Cobb

Bercovitch, F. B. 2012.  Giraffe cow reaction to the death of her newborn calf.  African J. Ecology. Online: DOI: 10.1111/aje.12016

97 thoughts on “What do animals know of death?

  1. By a coincidence I was looking at Project Gutenberg’s on-line copy of Wallace’s 1889 book Darwinism. In it he wrote “in the first place, we must remember that animals are entirely spared the pain we suffer in the anticipation of death—a pain far greater, in most cases, than the reality. This leads, probably, to an almost perpetual enjoyment of their lives; since their constant watchfulness against danger, and even their actual flight from an enemy, will be the enjoyable exercise of the powers and faculties they possess, unmixed with any serious dread”

    1. Or not… I am having a hard time agreeing that constantly being watchful against danger is pleasurable. And the flight response to being in prey object of your natural enemy, um that doesn’t strike be as so much fun either.

      Although I will concede that I imagine it is much more fun than we would have in a similar situation where not only would we instinctively be actively avoiding being taken, we also have our metaphysical angst about our impending demise if we fail to evade our murder.

      1. I think there is no great intellectual leap from a prey animal experiencing the flight reflex and the realization that those who don’t run fast enough end up dead to the understanding that if the animal, itself, doesn’t run fast, it too will die.

  2. This is a theory of mind question. Would a person without language be considered to be able to suffer grief? A baby is not able to ‘think’ like that – does that mean it is not fully human until or unless it has self awareness or can understand the pain of loss? Are there hierarchies of ‘mind’?

    1. In fact, are we not just using the wrong terms to discuss what we feel? By trying to pretend that we are not ourselves animals? ‘Grief’ is only a name for an evolved response – why should we think we are so special that we reserve certain terms for what we think or feel?

    2. Fully human… ah now there is a loaded concept… a virtual powder keg.

      For some human = human. Period. Humanity begins at conception and is universal across the entire spectrum of humans.

      For others there are degrees of humanness.

      I would guess that the answer for you lies in the phrasing of your question. As you acknowledge the concept of “fully human”, ergo “yes”, without self awareness of mortality “it” wouldn’t be fully human.

      I can’t help but wonder what those who believe in a heaven/hell afterlife scenario think eternity is like for an individual that never matured to adulthood.

      1. My thinking is based on a couple of things – 1/ the understanding that there is no ‘I’, that is no single controlling thing in our heads, & 2/ as people have cognitive decay or brain damage, they lose many of the layers of personhood that make us up, rather like HAL being shut down.

  3. Dolphins are famous for staying close to their dead, with references in the literature starting when Aristotle describes a case of a couple of dolphins supporting a dead baby dolphin.

    One of the most impressive cases I’ve seen described is:

    Félix, Fernando (1994). A case of epimeletic behaviour in a wild bottlenose dolphin Tursiops truncatus in the Gulf of Guayaquil, Ecuador. Investigations on Cetacea. Ed. by G. Pilleri. Vol. 25:227-234.

    This wasn’t simply curiosity, the dolphin persisted for a long period of time defending the corpse of the 2 year old female that had been dead for days.

    This one is particularly touching

    It’s not necessarily «understanding death,» it might be seen as part of their care-giving behavior: dolphins will support related and sometimes even non-related injured individuals. Dolphins seem to understand suffering in others and feel a compulsion to help them.

    1. There are also records of incidents where dolphins appeared to have actively protected humans from possible harm. In one such incident, in New Zealand if I remember correctly, a large group of dolphins surrounded and constrained the movement of two or three swimming humans for an extended period of time while other dolphins apparently ran interference against a great white shark.

      Some aspects of this encounter are simple and clear. Dolphins prevented the humans from moving where and when they wanted to. There was a great white shark in their immediate vicinity that was seen by the humans during the encounter. The humans were not initially aware of the shark. Dolphins did interact with the shark in an aggressive manner.

      What can’t be known is what the dolphins were thinking. It sure seems possible that the dolphins were knowingly protecting the humans. If that is the case then that would seem to lead to dolphins understanding that harm, or even death, was a possible outcome of the humans encountering the shark. But, maybe their behavior has a quite different explanation.

      1. Reminds of the gorilla group disarming animal traps when a human observer approached.

        “John Ndayambaje, a field data coordinator for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund was working in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda near a group of mountain gorillas known as Kuryama’s group, when he noticed a snare. Snares are illegal (but ubiquitous) in the region and are dangerous, especially to young gorillas. Realizing the animals were moving towards the snare, Ndayambaje decided to deactivate it.

        Here is what happened next (from the press release):

        Silverback Vuba pig-grunted at him (a vocalization of warning) and at the same time juveniles Dukore and Rwema together with blackback Tetero ran toward the snare and together pulled the branch used to hold the rope. They saw another snare nearby and as quickly as before they destroyed the second branch and pulled the rope out of the ground.”

        Which leads in to a similar discussion on reasons for dismantling traps, and what that implies for gorilla mind behavior.

        At least it turns out is is another example of (tragically motivated) culture, whether or not they were protecting other hominins:

        “Over the past 40 years, the knowledge of how to disable a snare has been passed from silverback to silverback. Now we know that it also passed down from generation to generation. No matter how or why it’s done, the mountain gorillas of Volcanoes National Park have made snare removal part of their culture.”

        1. Hominines I suppose, though the word does not seem to be much used.

          Of course, most uses of both ‘hominid’ and ‘hominin’ refer to australopithecines and their descendants only, so the intermediate term has been squeezed out.

    2. Suffering is a complex emotional abstract concept that requires self-awareness of the mortality of ones own conscience and the same of another who has the same understanding.

      To understand “suffering” as in the context that you have used here, that of a human suffering, requires a very high level of cognition and self reflection that can deepen the emotional context beyond that of simply pain and fear. What dolphins are capable of is understanding is pain and fear. That is an appropriate assessment of their level of intelligence based on their demonstrated abilities. In short, they react (or in this case over-react) on a social level based in the instinct of survival of the heard.

      1. How do you figure that suffering requires an understanding of mortality? Any sentient being is capable of experiencing suffering.

  4. In the first sentence, I think you wrote “morality” when you meant “mortality.”

    (Normally I wouldn’t bother pointing out a typo, but it did confuse me for a moment as to what the topic was.)

  5. What poppycock! If the very essence of all life is not the realization that death is just around the corner life would have disappeared 3-1/2 billion years ago. All animals at least have behavior that seems to indicate the fact that there will come a day when the train will leave without them.

    1. Such behavior, struggling to survive, does not require awareness of death. All that requires is that the organism responds to stimuli in ways that result in the organism surviving long enough to reproduce.

      Also, I think what the OP is asking about would require the ability to both model the future and have an awareness of death.

  6. This YouTube video, if it is legit, appears to show a captive gorilla mourning the loss, not even of another gorilla, but of a pet cat:


    This video of two stray cats makes me well up everytime I watch it:


    This is an interesting video of a squirrel chasing carion crows away from a dead squirrel we might surmise was known to the valiant squirrel:


    And there was also a high-profile story of a dog going out into a busy highway, apparently in a conscious attempt to rescue another dog – who unfortunately died anyway. But you may surmise that the valiant dog had some comprehension of the situation, of the consequences that the other dog was likely to face, and that it was motivated enough to risk its own life to try to help the other dog:


    Also – in arguing a slightly more complex train of thought – gorillas have been found dismantling poachers’ traps in Rwanda, and researchers believe that this purposeful behaviour is a direct response to gorilla youngsters being accidentally snared and dying in these traps (when the poachers themselves have little interest in poaching gorillas). They not only seem aware of the nasty correlation of those traps to dead gorilla youngsters – but they have actively learned from somewhere, and taught each other, how to spot and dismantle the traps – which is really fascinating:


    1. Thanks for posting these videos even if I have seen most of them anyway they need all of the exposure they can get.

        1. It’s probably a bit of both. This type of comfort-seeking “kneading” is done by both sexes and the object can be another cat, a human, or even a blanket. Some sexual interest is usually involved but it seems to be primarily a way for the cat to calm itself.
          I have a female who regularly does it to the older male with whom she bonded as a kitten, a male who sometimes does it to me at night (but quickly shifts his attention to my other female cat once she arrives), and a neurologically-impaired cat who does it to his blanket (he’s not capable of interacting with the other cats).

          The video is hard to watch because even the live cat is in terrible shape. Think of that cat’s environment – injured/ill (look at its face), danger all around, no companionship, and very little food. What little comfort it can find is precious indeed.

  7. This whole anti-anthromorphism thing really bugs me. It puts humans in some sort of different category than other animals. I would think that our emotions different by a matter of degrees, not a matter of kind. How can we assume that our emotions aren’t just the same as other animals?

    1. At what point did humans evolve these special emotions and this special awareness that is somehow absent from all other animals?

    2. On the other hand, our visceral connection with our emotions can make us think that they are more universal than they really are. Why should emotions be so special that every animal must have them? There are many things humans are capable of that we don’t mind saying animals aren’t capable of.

      Making a distinction between degrees and kind is unhelpful, I think, as something can be removed by so many degrees that it appears to be of another kind. For example, we can be absolutely certain that no other animals exhibit complex language. And yet we might feel tempted to say that other animals have a different “degree” of language with other forms of communication. But this is just semantics and doesn’t help us understand any better.

      What’s important is the recognition that emotions, just as language and other things, are dependent on the brain, and other animals’ brains differ from humans’ in quite considerable ways. It is not unreasonable to think that many animals’ brains are not sufficiently developed for the kinds of emotions we experience, and the ability to comprehend your own mortality is a highly developed ability.

      1. Interesting points here.
        But, what are emotions, if not more refined versions of instinct? Its difficult to think of an emotion that can’t be linked to an animal instinct, whether it be fear, anger, jealousy, etc. I would think that emotions are probably more universal than the higher cognitive functions that humans possess.

        If you look at Koko in this video, it seems clear that she understands the concept of death at least partially,

        1. I suspect you’re right about emotions being more universal, but I think we have to take a more specific approach, considering individual emotions in turn. For example, the thing in question – recognition of mortality – is most likely a lot rarer than the ability to feel happiness. While happiness is a rudimentary reward system for doing good things, mortality requires some degree of self-awareness (largely lacking in the animal kingdom), a self-image, the ability to contemplate alternate futures – these are complex things that most animals can’t do.

      2. But the “removed by so many degrees” is also semantics. As long as we can’t quantify what we posit may be qualitative differences, they need not be.

    3. “How can we assume that our emotions aren’t just the same as other animals?”

      Our brains, sexual physiology, family structure, and social relations are not just the same as other animals. To the extent that these things influence and are influenced by emotion, we should expect our emotions to be different as well. Similar perhaps in many ways, but not “just the same”.

      1. Perhaps “just the same” went a bit too far, but I don’t think we have evolved physically/mentally from hunter/gathering days as we all seem to think. As another commenter noted, most of our recent advancements/changes come by way of accumulated knowledge afforded to us by language. To assume that we have wildly diverged from our close relatives I think also goes too far.

        1. But the point is that we have diverged in emotionally important ways from our close relatives. We form pair bonds; they don’t. Their females have conspicuous estrus displays; ours don’t. Their females are sexually available only during estrus; ours can choose to have sex pretty much any time — and if you think that has negligible impact on our emotional lives, then you’ve never been young and in love.

          1. There are plenty of animals that form pair bonds. http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/photos/11-animals-that-mate-for-life/old-faithful

            And, no I don’t think that the love 2 people feel for each other is the same thing as what other animals feel, but that doesn’t mean they don’t experience something pretty close. I mean, we share a lot of DNA with other primates, at what point did we start having these emotions and they got left out? Don’t all mammals produce oxytocin?

          2. If by “these emotions” you mean the ones that are unique to our kind of sexuality and our social and family structures, then obviously those developed after we diverged from chimps.

            Going farther back, sure, there are things we have in common with other primates and other mammals. But it seems to me that many of the things that matter most to us — family, society, career, thinking about the future — are areas where our recent evolution has had the greatest impact.

            So no, I would not expect chimps’ and gorillas’ experience of such things to be pretty close to ours. I’d expect it to be fairly different.

            This is not to say they don’t have emotions, just that our intuitions about how those emotions feel to them are likely to be wrong.

          3. Good points again but I think that we shouldn’t confuse the subject of the emotions with the emotions themselves. People can experience similar emotions from different circumstances.

  8. Grief seems the entirely appropriate word for me.

    Any species that cares for its young is likely to have evolved adaptations that put the young’s well-being front and center in the parent’s minds. If not consciously, then via emotion and instinct. The parent feels pain and hurt when their young is injured, in pain, etc… The parent feels a strong compulsion to care for its infants. Sentience isn’t needed to feel that.

    Should we expect these feelings to instantly turn off when the child dies? Well, no. That would be quite an adaptation, that instantly changes brain chemistry and neural pathways the moment another animal’s heartbeat stops! Its far more reasonable to expect that any chemical and neural changes in the parent will take some time to dissipate after they are no longer needed.

    (Even if an instant change was physically possible, it might be maladaptive. Consider cases where an infant is reduced to a comatose or unmoving state by a disease, and then recovers.)

    So IMO it makes sense from both an adaptive and ‘evolution is imperfect’ perspective to expect a parent animal to feel emotions of pain and anguish at a child that appears unmoving and injured (i.e., dead). And what should we call that, other than grief?

  9. I seems to me that behavior such as ‘corpse protection’ that goes on for days indicates that death is *not* understood rather than the reverse.

    1. It seems to me that humans exhibit ‘corpse protection’ behavior so humans must then not understand death.

      1. 1) I know of no account of corpse protection, analogous to what has been described here, among humans. What evidence gives you this impression?

        2) It is quite clear that some humans, indeed, do not understand death.

        There are really three separate questions here. The first concerns similarity of behavior, the second similarity of emotion and the third similarity of cognition. Understanding is cognitive. People who cannot tear themselves away from a loved one’s corpse are not exhibiting an understanding of death, but an emotional reaction to it.

        1. 1) Try eating a christian corpse cracker without the expected respect. And that bugger has been mythological dead for 2000 years.

          Come on now! The animals are protecting their fallen fellows from scavengers. There is huge quantities of evidence that humans would and do the same. There are human cultures that worship the bones of their ancestors, surely you are aware of them?

          1. First of all, I am not moving any goalposts.

            “The animals are protecting their fallen fellows from scavengers.”—You don’t know that. Why animals exhibit this behavior is precisely what is in question. But if they are protecting corpses from scavengers, they obviously don’t understand death. They are, at best, confused as to whether the corpse they are “protecting” is actually a corpse. And if they continue to “protect” when the corpse is half eaten, they are greatly confused about what life and death are.

            Third, a cracker is not a corpse, no matter what some people say they believe, and outrage over the desecration of a sacred object is not anything like standing over a corpse for days and days.

            Fourth, there may be some justification for seeing bone worship as akin to corpse protection (they are not strictly the same). I don’t think those animals were engaged in bone worship, do you? But also, I think that people who worship bones don’t understand death either. Though they may understand something about emotion and memory.

            Finally, I asked for your evidence and you gave some, and I suppose you could give more. I appreciate that. I think your evidence is weak and not very analogous to what was described, but at least it forms the basis for a discussion on the matter, unlike your previous comment.

        2. Huh?

          Mary Baker Eddy had a telephone installed in her coffin, just in case she were buried without actually being dead. This wasn’t uncommon; before the age of electricity bells and strings were used.

          Humans also are obsessed with protecting corpses from decomposition, using embalming and other non-sensical methods. Lady Diana was buried in a lead coffin to delay the incursion of animate and inanimate elements upon her earthly remains.

          1. Yes, well maybe its just semantics, but trying to ensure one is actually dead before one is buried is different, it seems to me, than trying to “protect” a dead body. In the context of whether one understands death or not, this kind of behavior merely highlights how death is not understood. It was, in fact, understood so little that many people where buried alive before embalming became the common practice. I will grant you that this does show some understanding, however… the understanding that the living can sometimes appear to be dead and we can’t always tell the difference.

  10. What would be, well . . . awesome is the only descriptor I can think of, is if we could ask an animal what it thinks about death. I have read of two or three primates and at least one parrot that, after extensive training starting at a young age, were able to communicate at a relatively high level. There are claims that these animals were/are capable of using their large vocabulary in novel ways, and even to invent new words based on their known words to describe things they had not been taught before.

    If those claims are accurate, might it be possible to learn something about what the animals thoughts about death are by talking to it? In one case, an African gray parrot named Alex, Dr. Irene Pepperberg claims the bird’s intelligence was equal to a 3 to 5 year old human child. At 3 my children did not exhibit any real understanding of death. At 5 though, they seemed to have a pretty good grasp of the concept and its ramifications.

    If this were to prove possible and it was discovered that certain other animal species had an awareness of death and its consequences, and could communicate that to us, would that have a serious impact on ethical considerations regarding our relationships with animals?

    What would the RCC have to say about it?

  11. Investigators need to decide what specific behavior, physiological signs, and other indicators that they will accept as proof of an animal’s understanding of death. Otherwise there is an element of faith. If you believe it, are you being rigorous enough to rule out wishful thinking? If you don’t, have you set the bar too high or do you have other reasons for wanting humans to be special? This question is as much about the researchers as it is about the animals.

    I am convinced that cats can understand death (their own and another’s) and grief. I doubt that they all have the same level of understanding, but that’s true of other aspects of their lives, too. Some examples: Three times I have seen my cats gather closely around a seriously ill cat, pressing their bodies against him (dying cats smell different, even to me). Twice I have seen them grieve (stop eating, lose interest in other activities) for a week after the death of a colony member.

  12. Actually, while still tricky, I don’t think it would be all that hard to find out if these animals are grieving (at least in some sense analogously to humans).

    The psychological state of acute grief produces measurable changes in the body. Such markers of “distress” include a rise in the heart rate and blood pressure, a surge of adrenaline (I think!), slowness of movement, transiently decreased appetite, feeding behaviour and sleep – which are all poor proxies for knowing the real thing, but would be strong circumstantial evidence for grieving if measured in the scenarios above (e.g. a female giraffe staring at her deceased calf).

    All of the above changes, and there are many more, are NOT characteristic of simple curiosity or confusion. I think it would be extremely worthwhile to do these tests.

    There would be bucket-loads of objections that would have to still be overcome before we would confidently say that the animals were “grieving”, but this would be a good start.

    And if we could just somehow do a functional MRI scan of them while they were “grieving”…

  13. Some twenty years ago, my black cat Cabu died suddenly from a heart attack. (He probably had undiagnosed hyperthyroidism.) When I found his body sprawled under a hedge and fished it out, I put it on the lawn nearby. His brother Ta came wandering up, sniffed a couple of times, and wandered away with no show of recognition.

    True, they weren’t particularly close in life, bu they’d been together all their lives (16 years at that point).

    Conclusion: cats don’t understand death.

    1. Maybe they were secretly rivals and he was walking away with a smirk recognizing that his poisoning plan had worked perfectly.

    2. One of our two cats died of a cancer in her jaw. Came home to find her lying in the middle of the living room, blood all over the house. She was still barely alive, but we had to have her put down obviously. Our other cat was lying by her side when we came home. For several weeks after that his behavior was markedly different. Normally very playful, he showed no interest in playing. Normally a complete pig for a cat, it was difficult to persuade him to eat at all. Normally a gorgeous coat, he shed hair in patches and became mangy looking. If you wanted to find him all you had to do was look in one of the two or three spots that were the favorites of the cat who died, which he never used when she was alive, and he would be lying there.

      Conclusion: cats are capable of grieving.

      Meta-conclusion: it is possible, but we don’t know enough to conclude one way or the other with any great degree of certainty.

      Another problem is, where do you draw the line? Is that primate’s awareness of death close enough to the human norm to say yes, they understand, but not that parrot? There is not likely to be a concrete line. It is more likely that we will just decide were to draw it.

    3. Humans grieve and react to death in radically different ways, and there are many factors involved in how we react to a particular person’s death. Why shouldn’t our companion animals also show some degree of variation in their reactions? This is why you can’t make generalizations based on one or two (or even ten or twenty) cases.

  14. I believe that animals are sentient beings and for us to call them ‘human emotions’ is only evidence that the human take on anything is arrogant. To think that we are superior beings that are the only species able to feel the pain of loss is the highest level of stupidity. Don’t try to analyze it, accept it.

  15. Well, there are many humans who believe that they, or their souls, will never die. So the question ‘what do humans know of death’ can be asked as well.

    Maybe those giraffes clustered about the dead infant were thinking about how the baby was in heaven. And how grandpa giraffe was watching down on them.

    1. Good points.

      I would also like to add a refinement to this line, “Not having access to the consciousness of any creature except H. sapiens, we’re not sure.” Actually, as far as I know, I only have access to one H. sapien’s consciousness: my own. I can only guess/suppose/infer that other H. sapiens conscious experience of life is in anyway similar to mine.

      me (to another): You do know that when we die, our consciousness ceases?

      other: I don’t know what you mean by consciousness, let alone what it would mean for it to cease.

  16. In Bernd Heinrich’s excellent book “The Mind of the Raven” he talks about leaving a crow corpse in the aviary, upon which the ravens living there got very agitated and hid. They never ate it (though they are happy carrion eaters).

  17. Humans get a huge boost from the accumulated knowledge and efforts of prior generations. In order to compare with other animals we at least must think of us without that accumulated knowledge and the tools that go along with it.

    I don’t think other animals think about death in the same way humans do. I do think though that animals do have some concept of life and death. The christian species doesn’t understand life and death, and they are almost as closely related to humans as other species of primates are.

    We observe animals performing stupid actions while forgetting the humans often do really stupid things as well. There is something different about the way humans think but, to me, it isn’t the huge difference that lots of humans seem to think the difference is.

    If humans didn’t have access to tools and accumulated knowledge regarding the inner workings of body or even if they did, what is so different about what humans do and what

    this elephant
    does when faced with a similar situation. The baby elephant doesn’t move much even after it starts breathing but the mom is clearly calmed by that knowledge. Other animals don’t have the same frame of reference that humans have but what difference does that make when accessing an emotional difference?

    Maybe other animals don’t know that they will die someday but christians don’t know that either so it isn’t a species difference.

  18. Understanding the concept of life and death is very different from reacting to a major change in companionship, habit, and dependance. Hormones take a while to abate. Humans seem to add another dimension to death but are still effected by animal feelings. The difference between animal and human reaction to death seems to be more accurately described as one of degree, depending upon the species of animal.

  19. In at least 2 documented cases I’m aware of, elephants have acted in apparent “revenge” against villagers who had killed a member of the herd. In one case, elephants sought out the hut the villager lived in and destroyed it and its inhabitants with no other damage in the village.

    Recently BoingBoing.com reported on an incident involving a cow killing a man out of what appeared to be revenge.

    It seems to me that if this behavior is vengeful, that would imply some pretty high order understanding of the original insult (the death of a companion).

    1. Agreed. It is hard to make sense of that kind of revenge without some concept of death. One would have to argue that the behavior was not actually vengeful, which seems pretty unreasonable.

  20. I brought up this story before–will relate it again, though it pains. It was one of the few times Butter (our kitteh, pictured) was out of our control. In an extremely rare display of prowess, he snagged a bird (common house wren, luckily) out of the air behind the junipers in front of our house. Also luckily, it was a quick kill, and Butter had no interest in it. (keep those cats indoors, folks).

    Bummed at my lapse, I collected the carcass. Looking up at a nearby electric line — not more than 20 feet away, I saw a collection of house wrens, shoulder to shoulder, silent. Every one facing me, looking down on the spot. This wire never collects birds; I never have noticed one or two hanging out there. For the occasion though, the line was packed. It felt like a scene from “The Birds”.

    Take from that what you will…

  21. It seems to me that if animals were to “know” anything, some concept of death would be one of those things. Perhaps there is a tendency to over anthropomorphize when observing animal behavior, but it seems strange to argue that parent animals are protecting their young for a reason other than preventing their death. Animals exhibit fear, which seems a fairly straightforward response to something they recognize as a situation that can cause them to die (or be hurt and risk death in the long term). Even predators seem to have some inclination as to when they can stop killing and get on to more relaxed eating, indicating that they can recognize when their prey is dead. Animals quite regularly exhibit different behaviors based on a certain ability to realize when other creatures are alive or dead.

    The problem seems to be whether or not animals can “know” things. Knowledge is a fairly murky term even when applied to H. Sapiens, much less to entities that cannot communicate with us. Like many philosophical questions, the answer seems to mostly boil down to what you think knowledge really is.

    1. Animals that protect their young do so primarily out of instinctive compulsion. Some animals (including us) may be able to conceptualize an additional layer of explanatory narrative along the lines of “I protect my children because I don’t want them to die,” but that’s certainly not a requirement.

      Similarly, a “run from predators” heuristic needn’t imply any deeper thought process about the nature of death or one’s own mortality. The running behavior itself is an adequate handle for natural selection to get a grip on and reinforce.

      Bottom line is that the fact that animals exhibit certain behaviors doesn’t mean that they’re able to conceptualize the reasons for those behaviors. In most cases, natural selection has found the reasons and hardwired the behavior into their genes.

      1. Even humans react in a quick and visceral way, without much initial thought process, to danger or harm to their children. Could it not be similarly argued that a human mother is acting on a natural selection heuristic and not on knowledge of death when she sees her small child wander near the edge of a cliff? Is the “knowledge” all that different when a lioness does something similar? Is there not a similar “desire” in both cases?

        The real question seems to be about an animal’s ability to conceptualize. Can a concept really be understood by an entity that has no words for it and cannot communicate it? Is there any way to test for a concept in a being that has no language? I am not convinced there is a way to test for such a thing, so the question may always be impossible to answer and without any real utility.

        Arguing that the giraffe does not know its child is dead and is not sad about it seems remarkably callous, much like the old argument about how fish do not feel pain and do not mind being impaled with hooks. I suppose if you go simple enough it becomes clear that certain living creatures do not understand what death is. I remember ants crawling over their dead companions to get to the poison that attracts and kills them in my yard. I may be over empathetic in some cases, but assuming that at least some mammals have knowledge and desires similar to humans seems to be useful in predicting behavior in many cases.

  22. To add another taxon to the list of anecdotes, I repeated saw what appeared to be mourning behavior in a field mouse. I used to have a colony of Peromyscus californicus, a largely monogamous, relatively long-lived mouse. If a paired mouse died, its mate would spend hours grooming the body and attempting to keep it warm by crouching over it, using the same posture that parents use to warm their pups. After the dead mouse was removed, the surviving mate would be listless and eat very little for at least a few days, and would refuse any new mate until 2-3 weeks had passed.

  23. Yet one more incident. My wife and I still discuss it thirty years later; it’s hard for us to not think that it represented mourning:

    Our female Himalayan’s first kitten was still-born and we quickly removed it. We put the body in a closed box in our service porch overnight before disposing of it. The mother cat sat in that room–something she never did–for several days.

  24. About animals and death: Several years ago, I had a young cat. She used to hang out with another young cat, about the same age, who lived in a nearby house. One day, my cat disappeared. I and my roommates looked for her, but were never able to find her. My cat’s friend came over, for several days after her disappearance and paced back and forth on our porch and our front lawn, crying and crying and crying. We thought maybe she’d seen what happened to our cat, but of course was unable to tell us.

  25. My cat befriended an old dog when he was growing old, too. The dog was a huge beast, and the usually slept together in one basket, the cat on top of the dog. When the dog finally died, my cat refused to eat and died three days later.
    Did he die of grief? Or was it just a coincidence? I prefer the grief-hypothesis – but then it is obvious that I would.
    However, I agree with Matt (#8) that there is evolutionary continuity between humans and animals – and that as a corollary we can empathize (up to a certain degree) with animals.

  26. Is it too optimistic to believe that neuroscientists could see/not see roughly the same brain response in apes? Then again, the experiments would be unethical.

    A conundrum.

  27. Personal experience story (not data):

    When I was a teenager, we had a cat who had a litter of adorable kitties. But one of them grew quite ill and had to be put down; we brought the body back from the vet to let all his brothers and sisters spend some time with him. His mom too.

    Now, I cannot say whether they gave him attention because of his death, smells from the vet, my mom sitting on the floor crying, or what, but they certainly did check on him quite a lot. And it’s the first time Buster (the mom in question) didn’t go around looking, sniffing and crying out for her missing kitty, which she always did when we’d hand off one of her kittens to a new family. So, my guess is that at least my house cats (specialer than other cats no doubt) understand death at some level.

    So, even now, if I have to put a cat down (thankfully, I’ve been quite lucky in being spared this), I bring him/her back home for the others to do whatever it is they do to make peace with the loss of their kitty friend.

    Plus it makes me feel better, so that might be the entire reason. And I could easily be coloring my memory to make it happier.

  28. Good points again but I think that we shouldn’t confuse the subject of the emotions with the emotions themselves. People can experience similar emotions from different circumstances.

  29. If you drag a dead cow out of a barn with a tractor the other cows will generally become very agitated and follow behind the corpse and sniff it. In contrast, a dead cow just lying somewhere in the barn doesn’t seem to elicit much of a response from the rest of the animals.

    It is pretty amazing how agitated, or perhaps curious, the herd can become when removing the dead.

  30. Although I can’t back this up, it is my “take” on this phenomenon that the behavior we’re observing is the result of “instincts gone awry”: In addition to having to have a “sense of self” in order to comprehend death, the animal must also be able to project that sense of self onto others of it own kind; an unlikely scenario. Operating mostly under instinctual “programming”, animals can be “tricked” in many different ways: male turtles attempt to mate with boots; male frogs cling to dead females in a vain attempt to mate; birds will attack their reflections in mirrors or windows, etc., etc. I do not doubt that some animals feel a kind of emotional “pain” at the death of a comrade, mate, or offspring, but I believe the pain is more due to confusion than any recognition of death.

    1. “Confusion” is such a fuzzy term!
      But is it farfetched to envisage the possibility than non-human animals, without having some “recognition of death” , might very well perceive the loss of a fellow animal and sense that it is permanent and irrevocable? And depending on the strength of the prior bonding, that this perceiving puts into motion in the brain might be to some extend comparable or even identical to what happens to human animals in similar circumstances? The big difference being that we human animals can put such perceptions and the associated emotions into words: grief, sorrow, sadness, and so on. This wording activity could then put into motion other mental processes, and other wording activities. This might result in “recognition of death”, or in writing sad poems, or social and culturally determined patterns of activity?

      1. Sorry, my own wording faculty is a bit rusty, from time to time. Please read: ” prior bonding, that what this perceiving puts into motion” (I omitted ‘what’).

      2. I like this concept of gradation of understanding/confusion. It seems meaningful to me that relatively intelligent animals like elephants and apes show this unusual behavior around death much more so than less intelligent ones, suggesting it is much more than miswired instinct.

        The best analogy may in young children gradually understanding first that nonhuman animals die, then that people die, and finally that they themselves will die. These animals may be somewhere on that spectrum, or maybe somewhat below the lower edge of the spectrum, some cognitive sense of something being wrong or being formerly alive without quite understanding death.

        Or maybe more sophisticated than that. We shouldn’t assume our lack of knowledge means their lack of intelligence. We just don’t know.

    2. Yeah, I’ll bet no human has ever tried to mate with a boot. You assume the human knows the difference but then you won’t allow it for other animals. I don’t know what other animals know but, the examples given aren’t exactly iron clad. Have you ever observed humans in a house of mirrors?

  31. I know a story that seems to demonstrate a cross-species understanding of grief. When I was in medical school in Philadelphia in the 1980s, one of my classmates was dating a veterinarian at the Philadelphia zoo, so she had an insider’s access. The rhinoceros and elephant enclosures were adjacent, with a stone wall separating the 2 species. One of the rhinoceroses was having a problem with recurrent stillbirths. On one occasion following a stillborn delivery, one of the female elephants was observed to reach over the wall to caress the mother rhino, apparently to offer comfort.

  32. Within humans, some small fraction of us understand “death” to mean the cessation of life functions, along with a corresponding extinguishing of consciousness and thought within that organism.

    The majority of humans understand “death” to mean the transition from physical human to incorporeal Force ghost from Star Wars who gets to live forever in Imagination Land.

    If cats, gorillas, and giraffes understand “death” in the former sense, then obviously they don’t have the same “understanding” of death that most humans do!

  33. I’d like to direct this to the author of this post Matthew Cobb and anyone else who might want to weigh in. After looking at the comments here and speaking with other people, it seems to me that there is still serious doubt from some people about the sentience and consciousness of animals.

    To me, it seems that this shows how much christianity has influenced our culture and way of thinking is ways that most aren’t even aware of. According to christianity humans are to have “dominion” over the animals, using them as they see fit. I believe this type of thinking has invaded secular society as well. Any thoughts on this??

    1. Matt,

      I think I know “where you are going” with this post, and I would like to comment… so I will.

      I don’t think there is a strong case that it is due to christianity that humans might not see other animals as having the same degree/level of consciousness as humans or that they might have sentience in the way that we do. Absent of some test, I can only assume that my fellow humans have consciousness and sentience like I experience myself having such.

      1. This “test” you talk about is something that I don’t believe can ever be actually accomplished even on humans. Correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t think scientists have nailed down exactly how human consciousness exists either. I would think observing behavior would be the closest thing we could ever get.

    2. I think I agree with nonfreewillist. The ‘dominion over the earth’ business is in the Old Testament, and I don’t think there’s any evidence it’s restricted to Christianity, or any religion for that matter. As to the issue of whether animals are conscious it is simply a matter of evidence. How would you know an animal is conscious?

      Ultimately, there is no *proof* that even another human is conscious (or even exists outside of my fevered imagination – not yours, of course, because you *could* be not real). But solipsism is only fun when you’re 14 and trying to spook your friends… We have to assume that other people are conscious, and I think there’s a strong-ish case to be made that having a theory of mind will turn out to be unique to humans, or at least to us and our close primate relatives.

      The short answer is we have no way of knowing whether an animal is conscious or not. The best proxy we have is whether an animal can recognise itself as existing. Testing this is tricky, and usually invovles a mirror (‘mirror self-recognition test) – mirrors themselves are weird things that animals would only encounter naturally on planes of flat water.

      So far the only animals to pass this test are the great apes, dolphins, a single elephant (the other two failed) and a couple of magpies… This may tell us more about the nature of the test than about consciousness/sentience.

      It pleases me to treat my cats as though they were conscious, and I talk to them (they don’t talk back, I’m glad to say). But I have no evidence that they are conscious, and Occam’s razor suggests strongly that a simpler explanation is that they are behaving the way they do as a result of operant and classical conditioning.

      As to who has dominion over whom in our relationship, well all readers of WEIT will know the answer to that…

      1. Good points here as well. I do still think though, that religion has warped our relationship and perception of animals in ways most people probably don’t recognize.

        1. No doubt. You’d just have to visit India to see that with regard to cows, to a slaughterhouse to see the way that animals are treated according to various rites, or are simply not present because we aren’t supposed to eat them.

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