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The Emotional Lives of Animals

Grief, friendship, gratitude, wonder, and other things we animals experience.

Horses and couple spread

Photos courtesy of iStock,

Scientific research shows that many animals are very intelligent and have sensory and motor abilities that dwarf ours. Dogs are able to detect diseases such as cancer and diabetes and warn humans of impending heart attacks and strokes. Elephants, whales, hippopotamuses, giraffes, and alligators use low-frequency sounds to communicate over long distances, often miles; and bats, dolphins, whales, frogs, and various rodents use high-frequency sounds to find food, communicate with others, and navigate.

Many animals also display wide-ranging emotions, including joy, happiness, empathy, compassion, grief, and even resentment and embarrassment. It’s not surprising that animals—especially, but not only, mammals—share many emotions with us because we also share brain structures—located in the limbic system—that are the seat of our emotions. In many ways, human emotions are the gifts of our animal ancestors.

Grief in magpies and red foxes: Saying goodbye to a friend

Many animals display profound grief at the loss or absence of a relative or companion. Sea lion mothers wail when watching their babies being eaten by killer whales. People have reported dolphins struggling to save a dead calf by pushing its body to the surface of the water. Chimpanzees and elephants grieve the loss of family and friends, and gorillas hold wakes for the dead. Donna Fernandes, president of the Buffalo Zoo, witnessed a wake for a female gorilla, Babs, who had died of cancer at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo. She says the gorilla’s longtime mate howled and banged his chest; picked up a piece of celery, Babs’ favorite food; put it in her hand; and tried to get her to wake up.

I once happened upon what seemed to be a magpie funeral service. A magpie had been hit by a car. Four of his flock mates stood around him silently and pecked gently at his body. One, then another, flew off and brought back pine needles and twigs and laid them by his body. They all stood vigil for a time, nodded their heads, and flew off.

Foxes photo by Paul Huber

Photo by Paul Huber

I also watched a red fox bury her mate after a cougar had killed him. She gently laid dirt and twigs over his body, stopped, looked to make sure he was all covered, patted down the dirt and twigs with her forepaws, stood silently for a moment, then trotted off, tail down and ears laid back against her head. After publishing my stories I got emails from people all over the world who had seen similar behavior in various birds and mammals.


Empathy Among Elephants

A few years ago while I was watching elephants in the Samburu National Reserve in Northern Kenya with elephant researcher Iain Douglas-Hamilton, I noticed a teenaged female, Babyl, who walked very slowly and had difficulty taking each step. I learned she’d been crippled for years, but the other members of her herd never left her behind. They’d walk a while, then stop and look around to see where she was. If Babyl lagged, some would wait for her. If she’d been left alone, she would have fallen prey to a lion or other predator. Sometimes the matriarch would even feed Babyl. Babyl’s friends had nothing to gain by helping her, as she could do nothing for them. Nonetheless, they adjusted their behavior to allow Babyl to remain with the group.

Waterfall Dances: Do animals have spiritual experiences?

Do animals marvel at their surroundings, have a sense of awe when they see a rainbow, or wonder where lightning comes from? Sometimes a chimpanzee, usually an adult male, will dance at a waterfall with total abandon. Jane Goodall describes a chimpanzee approaching a waterfall with slightly bristled hair, a sign of heightened arousal. “As he gets closer, and the roar of the falling water gets louder, his pace quickens, his hair becomes fully erect, and upon reaching the stream he may perform a magnificent display close to the foot of the falls. Standing upright, he sways rhythmically from foot to foot, stamping in the shallow, rushing water, picking up and hurling great rocks. Sometimes he climbs up the slender vines that hang down from the trees high above and swings out into the spray of the falling water. This ‘waterfall dance’ may last 10 or 15 minutes.” After a waterfall display the performer may sit on a rock, his eyes following the falling water. Chimpanzees also dance at the onset of heavy rains and during violent gusts of wind.

In June 2006, Jane and I visited a chimpanzee sanctuary near Girona, Spain. We were told that Marco, one of the rescued chimpanzees, does a dance during thunderstorms during which he looks like he’s in a trance.


Shirley and Jenny: Remembering Friends

Elephants photo by Evan Long

Photo by Evan Long

Elephants have strong feelings. They also have great memory. They live in matriarchal societies in which strong social bonds among individuals endure for decades. Shirley and Jenny, two female elephants, were reunited after living apart for 22 years. They were brought separately to the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn., to live out their lives in peace, absent the abuse they had suffered in the entertainment industry. When Shirley was introduced to Jenny, there was an urgency in Jenny’s behavior. She wanted to get into the same stall with Shirley. They roared at each other, the traditional elephant greeting among friends when they reunite. Rather than being cautious and uncertain about one another, they touched through the bars separating them and remained in close contact. Their keepers were intrigued by how outgoing the elephants were. A search of records showed that Shirley and Jenny had lived together in a circus 22 years before, when Jenny was a calf and Shirley was in her 20s. They still remembered one another when they were inadvertently reunited.


A Grateful Whale

In December 2005 a 50-foot, 50-ton, female humpback whale got tangled in crab lines and was in danger of drowning. After a team of divers freed her, she nuzzled each of her rescuers in turn and flapped around in what one whale expert said was “a rare and remarkable encounter.” James Moskito, one of the rescuers, recalled that, “It felt to me like it was thanking us, knowing it was free and that we had helped it.” He said the whale “stopped about a foot away from me, pushed me around a little bit and had some fun.” Mike Menigoz, another of the divers, was also deeply touched by the encounter: “The whale was doing little dives, and the guys were rubbing shoulders with it … . I don’t know for sure what it was thinking, but it’s something I will always remember.”

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