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Do Animals Experience Grief?

By Jessica Pierce, The Conversation
SMITHSONIAN.COM
AUGUST 24, 2018

For many weeks, news of a mother orca carrying her dead infant through the icy waters of the Salish Sea captured the attention of many around the world. Keeping the infant afloat as best she could, the orca, named Tahlequah, also known as J35 by scientists, persisted for 17 days, before finally dropping the dead calf.

This has been one of the most protracted displays of marine mammal grieving.

Among scientists, however, there remains a prejudice against the idea that animals feel “real” grief or respond in complex ways to death. Following reports of the “grieving,” zoologist Jules Howard, for example, wrote, “If you believe J35 was displaying evidence of mourning or grief, you are making a case that rests on faith, not on scientific endeavor.”

As a bioethicist, I’ve been studying the interplay between science and ethics for more than two decades. A growing body of scientific evidence supports the idea that nonhuman animals are aware of death, can experience grief and will sometimes mourn for or ritualize their dead.

You can’t see when you don’t look

Animal grief skeptics are correct about one thing: Scientists don’t know all that much about death-related behaviors such as grief in nonhuman animals. Only a few scholars have explored how the multitude of creatures with whom humans share the planet think and feel about death, either their own or others’.

But, I argue, that they don’t know because they haven’t looked.

Scientists haven’t yet turned serious attention to the study of what might be called “comparative thanatology” – the study of death and the practices associated with it. This is perhaps because most humans failed to even entertain the possibility that animals might care about the death of those they love.

Awareness of mortality has remained, for many scientists and philosophers alike, a bastion of human-perceived uniqueness.

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