Not long ago my wife, Trudy, and I returned from an Kenyan safari. The trip was wonderful in so many ways, and one of the many amazing stories was how elephants mourn. When an elephant dies, the rest of the herd stands around the body for up to three days without eating or drinking. They then push over trees to cover the body of the deceased elephant, in effect performing a burial. Even years later when returning to the site they stop and stand silently, as if remembering their fallen family member.
I found this story engaging. It made me wonder if elephants engage in the same emotions of mourning as do humans. These elephant behaviors look like they are mourning the deceased.
Then a couple of days I saw something in my herd of cattle that called me up short. Tragically a calf of about a month of age died. I found it dead without obvious cause. The mother had wandered off by then to feed with the herd.
When I rolled the dead animal over, inspecting it for signs of predators or other hints as to why it had died, I was surprised to look up and see the mother trundling hurriedly for where I stood. The mama cow maintained her protective instinct for her deceased calf, and I felt sure she would have defended the carcass. Needless to say, I quickly took my leave.
Admittedly, protectiveness of the calf’s body is different from mourning but still projects an awareness of concern and affection for the deceased calf. Watching mother cows cleanse, feed, and protect their calves has convinced me that these mothers feel strong emotions for their offspring. Even the bull on occasion ends up calf-sitting and demonstrates surprising patience and protective instincts for his offspring.
I have believed for years that human psychology could be better informed if we better understand the behavior of other mammals, especially those closest to us on the evolutionary scale.
Would love to hear your thoughts. Do you think animals mourn? Do your pets show emotions?