Do animals grieve? The question is a contentious one among scientists. In the era of the internet, the emotional lives of animals are on display like never before; pets welcoming owners home or even appearing to say “I love you”, wild animals cuddling with favoured humans. More recently we’ve been following the plight of the orca known as J35, who carried her dead calf for 17 days after its death. The story struck a chord with many, but divided scientists; was J35 really grieving for her child, or were we merely projecting our own emotions and rituals onto the animal kingdom? Some zoologists, such as Jules Howard, warn against anthropocentrism in our interpretation of animal behaviour. Howard argues that there is very little scientific evidence behind this, only our own desire to see ourselves reflected in our furry friends. After all, he says, this kind of behaviour has only been displayed a few times. Are all other orca mothers coldly indifferent to their dead offspring? It’s perfectly possible that J35 was simply confused. “If you believe J35 was displaying evidence of mourning or grief”, he says, “you are making a case that rests on faith not on scientific endeavour, and that makes me uncomfortable as a scientist”.

Others disagree, arguing that the scientific evidence for death-related animal behaviours is lacking simply because we are not looking for it. According to this view plenty of anecdotal evidence exists, which could be studied in greater detail were it not for the scientific bias against the idea that non-human animals could experience grief and sadness. Famously, when Koko the gorilla (who could communicate using sign language) heard of her pet kitten’s death, her instructor reported that she signed “bad, sad, bad” and “frown, cry, frown, sad”. Chimpanzees have also been seen to react to the deaths of other chimpanzees, cleaning the body and avoiding the area for a few days. This does not of itself indicate grief, although it could suggest that some species observe social and familial bonds after death or that they have death-related rituals which could be compared in some ways to human funerals.  

Applicants for Biology, especially those interested in zoology, might wish to look into the debate surrounding death-related animal behaviour. Do you think it is scientifically valid to assign any human emotion to animals? Those interested in bioethics could consider the issue from a moral perspective—what would it mean for our treatment of animals if they could indeed feel grief?  

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