Anyone who has heard a cow bawl for her stillborn calf, a goose honk for his lost mate, or a dog whine for her deceased human companion is likely to call it “grief.” However, attributing emotion to non-human creatures is generally labeled “anthropomorphism” because we cannot prove what we are hearing or seeing really fits the words we have for describing it.
Now a study from Italy identifies apparent awareness of death in bottlenose dolphins. The researchers are careful to avoid claiming what they observe is, in fact, what we understand as human grief, but New Scientist reports, “Taken together with a growing number of reports of cetaceans interacting with dead animals and the discovery that they have specialized neurons linked to empathy and intuition, the Greek study suggests dolphins may have a complex – and even sophisticated – reaction to death.”
Since 2006, the Tethys Research Institute in Milan has been observing dolphins in the Amvrakikos Gulf of western Greece. Joan Gonzalvo cites two incidents in which dolphins appeared to be reacting to death. In the first, he and his volunteers saw a mother repeatedly interacting, “sometimes frantically,” with her dead calf. In the second, a pod of dolphins stayed with a dying youngster until it died.
The New Scientist article also links to research done by the Orca Research Trust in Tutukaka, New Zealand. Ingrid Visser has observed orcas and bottlenose dolphins carrying dead infants and “speculates that the behaviours are a form of grief.”
Scientific caution is important so researchers are reluctant to claim observations such as these prove other species experience human-like emotions. We benefit from the questions they ask, from their probing responses to each other’s conclusions, and from the skepticism that keeps them looking to see if they have considered all contributing factors.
At the same time, our non-human neighbors suffer from our unwillingness to acknowledge their pain, both physical and emotional. We do not have to wait for proof that animals experience what we call joy and grief to treat them with utmost respect and care.
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