Can animals feel grief just like we do?
by Judy Elliott
Columnist
April 14, 2013 12:00 AM | 1086 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Ang Lee, who won an Oscar for directing “Life of Pi,” leaves the final judgment to his audiences. Is “John Parker,” the tiger in the lifeboat with the Indian boy, Pi, a creation from an animation crew or the real thing?

And does the tiger develop a bond with Pi, who saves him from starvation on an ocean of storms? As “John Parker” walks away, is his a grieving eye cast on the boy who spared him?

If the answers are: The tiger in the film is both animated and real. “John Parker” does develop a bond with Pi, leaving the boy while mourning the loss of their relationship. Then, are we buying a Hollywood ending or accepting the idea a creature of the jungle grieves?

Are animals capable of empathy, no longer constrained by definition as simple beasts of the field, chewing their cuds and functioning below the salt at the table of intelligence?

Reading tells us science will argue that for every grieving dolphin mother, pushing along her dead baby, there is a practical reason. She is moving away from a predator or afraid to leave her pod.

Still, we know there are rituals in elephant herds when surviving elephants surround a fallen comrade and trumpet a call of loss. A herd has also been known to stand over bones, sensing they belonged to one of their own.

There are stories of chimpanzees carrying dead babies for days on end and crows covering a body of a brother bird with twigs and leaves.

But we are most familiar with a pet who grieves over the loss of his master. In the latest issue of Time magazine, exploring mourning in the animal kingdom, there is a story of a dog in Japan who walked by his owner’s side to the train station every morning and then met the man at the end of the day to see him home.

After the dog’s owner died, his pet repeated the ritual of the morning walk to the train station and then again at the close of the day for 10 years.

We moved from Alabama to Georgia with a 6-week-old Labrador retriever named “Monroe” and a small mop dog called “Muffin.” She took on the role of “Monroe’s” mother until he grew too strong for her to nudge him from place to place.

Later, when the years had crippled him and “Muffin” was blind, it was his turn to shepherd her from house to yard and to hours of sunning on a side porch.

After she died and “Monroe” had lost his companion, he looked for her every morning, repeating their walk together down the steps, into the backyard, then retracing his steps to wait for her on the porch.

Though I sat with him, my face buried in the ruff of his neck, listening to what he had to tell me, (I swear he “talked,” rumbling sounds with inflection, letting me know he did not understand where “Muffin” was) he was listless and his food bowl was no longer his favorite stop.

He soldiered on, but once his role as “Muffin’s” guide was taken from him, he aged before our eyes.

It has been suggested we stretch the boundaries of emotion when we point to the effect of grief on animals. Suppose, as the writer surmises, animals feel as they see, only in black and white. Does that lessen their sadness or loneliness after loss?

There is no happier creature than a well-loved dog, who waits for the turn of his owner’s key in a lock, then bounds into his arms like a puppy.

When that dog is separated from his master, why would we doubt his heart aches?

Granted, we cannot raise the level of four-legged devotion or grief to that of our own, but neither should we dismiss it. In the animal kingdom as in our lives, love dies hard, and well it should.

Judy Elliott is an award-winning columnist from Marietta.
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