Do Animals Mourn, Or Do We Anthropomorphize?

Giving human characteristics to animals is a perception referred to as “anthropomorphism.” This is the process of giving attribution of human traits, emotions, and intentions to non-human entities and is considered to be an innate tendency of man’s human psychology.

It’s been said that chimps, dogs, whales and elephants [ to name just a few ] seem to suffer when they lose a family member or a beloved companion. Is there an innate emotional trait in animals similar to humans to understand the concept of death and to grieve when it occurs? Or are we anthropomorphizing — projecting our sense of loss and understanding onto their behavior?


There's been a lot of research to indicate that mammals bond closely in life and experience grief at the time of death.Typically, it is said that grieving happens with mothers and offspring in mammals — and that it is also is apparent when animals lose a fellow companion they had a close attachment.

Iain Douglas-Hamilton and his colleagues assert that elephants extend this compassion to non-relatives as well — to those who aren't genetically related. National Geographic reported that researchers have witnessed elephants helping other dying elephants, lifting their heads with their tusks and trunk, while calling out in distress.

Other well-known reports talk of elephants who would stand beside their fallen friends, touching them with their trunks to soothe them, while making affectionate chirping sounds. Many would even put their trunks inside another's mouth, a behavior elephants find particularly comforting, according to researchers.


Birds grieve as well, especially those who are pair-bonded such as lovebirds [hence the name.] The signs of grief may be subtle or obvious. The widowed lovebird may search his cage for his missing mate, or may call out more frequently then usual. He or she may lose their appetite and may not be as keen to play for a long period of time after the death of one's mates.

Nobel laureate ethologist Konrad Lorenz notes that “a greylag goose  that has lost its partner shows all the symptoms that [developmental psychologist] John Bowlby has described in young human children in his famous book Attachment and Loss. . . the eyes sink deep into their sockets, and the individual has an overall drooping experience, literally letting the head hang . . ."

What about Fish?

As odd as it might sound, fish might be affected by those they lose as well. One case reported that when one out of several piranha died in a home aquarium, the remaining fish behaved strangely. Instead of their usual calmness, they appeared agitated and refused to eat for a period of time. However that type of occurrence might be physiological versus emotional. There is a chemical alarm system inherent in piranhas known as Schreckstoff. It is substance that fish release when they are distressed.

Animals grieving for Humans

Some animals reach beyond their species to mourn for humans. There are many stories about dogs who grieve for years after losing their pet owners. One case sites a dog named Hachikō in Tokyo, Japan who after his master died visited a train station for ten years, where they were known to rendezvous daily when he returned from work.

In 2014, in a post titled: Koko The Gorilla’s Bond With Robin Williams, I reported how the late Robin Williams before his death formed a fast friendship and communicated with this gorilla in a way that was very memorable for the animal. In fact, when Koko was told of Williams' passing, it was reported he visibly took the news very hard and signed the word: "Cry!"

So IMHO . .  .

So, it is my conclusion that many animals experience rich and deep emotions when they lose others to death, and that while anthropomorphizing might play a part in some instances, that the animal kingdom is capable of a whole host of emotions — grieving loss, just being one.

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D probably summed it up best when he noted it’s “arrogant to think we [humans] are the only animals who morn,” and that “it's not a matter of if emotions have evolved in animals but why they have evolved as they have. We must never forget that our emotions are the gifts of our ancestors, our animal kin. We have feelings and so do other animals.”

Your thoughts readers? Have you witnessed experiences of grief with your pets? Please comment and tell us your stories below.

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