Do animals grieve?

05 December 2022

One life: Grief Awareness Week

December 2 - 8 is National Grief Awareness Week highlighting a deeply rooted emotion within us all and providing a focal point for us to recognise the important place that grief plays in many of our personal lives. It also gives us a chance to explore the place it plays in the emotional lives of many non-human animals.

Grief is multifaceted, although conventionally focused on the emotional response to loss, grief has physical, cognitive, behavioural, and social dimensions.  Animals expressing grief are likely to exhibit a departure from their usual behavioural patterns, they may eat or sleep less, act listless, or agitated. They might also attend their friend’s body, or isolate themselves from social situations. 

Sound familiar? Thanks to the advancement in the study and understanding of animal behaviours, we are now seeing behaviours that we interpret as grief, in animals that experience the loss of others they’ve bonded with. Grief, it appears, is just one of the many emotions that animals share with us humans.


There are many accounts of non-human primates grieving the loss of a close family member and these date back as far as 1879, when a naturalist described a captive male chimpanzee grieving the loss of his female friend who he had been housed alone with for many years. When the male chimp came across his deceased friend and could not rouse her, he screamed and tore at his hair. He tried to stop the keepers from removing her body, and then spent the rest of the day moaning and crying, and even uttered a sound never heard before, which was thought to be specific to his grief.

Many examples of grief-like behaviour have since been observed in both captive and wild chimpanzees and in other primates.

Primate mothers can often be seen carrying their dead infants for days and sometimes weeks, often treating them differently from their live infants, with an apparent understanding that they have died. Chimpanzees carry infant corpses for, on average, three days after death and demonstrate behaviours interpreted as an understanding that they recognise that death has occurred.

Chacma baboon mothers carry their infants for up to 10 days after their death, and in one particular case a snub-nosed monkey held her deceased infant for four days, before researchers removed it. She carried it, groomed it, and when the body was removed, she vocalised for days. During this time, she also withdrew from the social group. This withdrawal of normal activity such as social grooming, is similar to the withdrawal seen in grieving humans.


Such behaviours are not restricted to some of our closest evolutionary relatives. Elephants understand when a family member has passed away. African elephants have been observed standing over a deceased herd member often for days, rocking back and forth, and pulling at the body of a dead companion in an apparent expression of grief. 

Elephants almost always react to a dead elephant’s remains, investigating it with their trunks, touching the body gently as if obtaining information. They often run their trunk tips along the lower jaw and the tusks and the teeth, the parts that would have been most familiar in life and most touched during greeting, the most individually recognizable parts.

Asian elephants also show behaviours that seem similarly mournful. In 2013, elephant biologist Sanjeeta Pokharel found a dead Asian elephant on a riverbank in India, in a remote spot that was devoid of vegetation. Despite this, the body was mysteriously surrounded by lots of branches, trees, and leaves. Materials that had been brought to the site by other elephants in an attempt to cover the body. Researchers have also observed Asian elephant mothers carrying their dead newborns, draped over their trunks and tusks, for days at a time.

Dolphins and whales

Observations of dolphins have demonstrated nurturant behaviour toward their dead offspring, with mothers supporting dead calves at the surface of the water. Orca mothers also show behaviour similar to grief when they lose an infant, and to display distress signs similar to mourning behaviour when their youngsters have been removed from them in captivity.

Underwater cameraman Rodrigo Friscone Wyssmann observed a female humpback whale appearing to be what he described as ‘inconsolable’ after her calf was attacked and killed by a group of orcas in Mexico. Describing how the mother humpback sat motionless in the water column while her male escort swam nearby, trying to comfort her by touching her gently. The two whales remained near the site for nearly a week before finally moving on.


And it is not just mammals that show the emotional capacity to mourn the loss of closely bonded individuals. Crows have been observed gathering and sharing information by mobbing and squawking when they find a dead member of their own species, and magpies seen burying their dead under twigs of grass.


Grief-like behaviour has been seen in wild giraffes, following the death of a calf, with a mother and female members of a herd observed 'nudging' the calf and the mother staying close to the deceased infant for a number of days despite the calf being partly eaten by predators.

A motion activated camera trained on the dead body of a collared peccary revealed that members of the herd repeatedly returned and paid close attention to the body over a period of 10 days, sleeping next to the body, and wedging their snouts under the body, this behaviour only stopped after the body was eaten by coyotes. 

Other species

Similar grief-like behaviours have also been observed in other species with anecdotal evidence in pilot whalesdogsdeer, and donkeys, and the Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz described grief-like behaviour in geese, writing,

 “A greylag goose that has lost its partner shows all the symptoms described in young human children….the eyes sink deep into their sockets, and the individual has an overall drooping experience, literally letting the head hang….”

From these examples it appears that the experience of sorrow and loss after losing a close companion is just one of the many emotions that animals share with us. This is not surprising as many of these species live in communities of related individuals and develop close friendships across many generations, just as we do. It is clear therefore that many animals are highly likely to experience grief in similar ways to ourselves.

Of course many may argue that these behaviours may not represent grief as we recognise it in people, and as it is impossible for us to completely understand the emotions of others we rely upon the detailed observations of behaviours that we are familiar with that appear to demonstrate individuals experiencing something that we know ourselves to be grief-like behaviour.

But whilst observations of deep emotional states continue to present themselves in various species, and with our extensive knowledge of how individuals form life-long attachments, we must consider the implications of how the loss of closely bonded individuals is likely to impact their emotional state. 

Time and time again animals are showing behavioural responses that we recognise within ourselves as being deeply emotional in their nature. With this in mind we must be increasingly sensitive to our own companion animals, and to all of those animals under our care in zoos, sanctuaries and research establishments, providing social animals with the opportunity to develop life-long bonds and ultimately mourn the loss of individuals they are emotionally connected to.

In this grief awareness week, we should take time to support those within our own communities that may be experiencing grief due to the loss of loved ones, and at the same time recognise the complexity of the animal mind to be able to experience such deeply emotional states for themselves.