Grieving Chimps

A photograph recently published by National Geographic and making the rounds online is renewing discussion about whether other animals experience the very human emotions of loss or mourning.

chimp_1510507cPhoto credit: Monica Szczupider

The photograph by Monica Szczupider at the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center in Cameroon shows a group of chimpanzees (I counted 16) watching from behind a fence as Dorothy, one of their deceased members, is moved for burial. The composition of the photograph is remarkable. A large group of chimpanzees are gathered together in close quarters in a way that chimpanzees otherwise only do when sharing food or grooming. Each and every chimpanzee is focused on Dorothy, and you can even see chimpanzees in the back standing and craning to get a better look. A chimpanzee at the back left has his/her hand on another (physical contact is used for support in chimpanzees as well as people), a chimpanzee in the middle is leaning on someone in front, and on the right an older individual is holding her shoulders, basically giving herself a hug, which chimpanzees and humans use to comfort themselves. The serious, possibly even somber, expressions on the chimpanzees’ faces, combined with Ms. Szczupider’s description of how silent the chimpanzees were makes it very easy to translate this scenario into human terms. We, in this setting, would be grieving. Is it too much to suppose that the chimpanzees are doing the same?

The image immediately reminded me of a picture taken last year. gana_794811cPhoto credit: Marco Stepniak

A female gorilla named Gana at the Allwetter Zoo in Münster, Germany lost her 3-month-old infant to a severe infection. The gorilla carried the lifeless body for weeks before finally releasing it and allowing zookeepers to retrieve it. The photo is truly amazing. Gana peering at her lifeless son, we can only guess what she was thinking, but like many people faced with loss, she needed time to let go.

I am also reminded of a more personal experience. My family’s first dog was a wonderful golden retriever. When he died at age 11, we were all very upset, but within a week or two, we had another dog. None of us were ready to bond with a new pet, but we felt we had to, not for us, but for our other dog. Our 2-year-old German shepherd, a bundle of energy that challenged our ability to keep her stimulated, became sullen and lethargic after our golden retriever passed. She was depressed. So we decided, in her best interest, to adopt another dog. The adoption worked, and pretty quickly our shepherd returned to her normal self. With the help of two exuberant dogs, so did we.

The question is, how do we deal with animals seeming to experience some of the most profound of human emotions? Do we “anthropomorphize” and call this grief? Do we “anthropodeny” and call this something different, like withdrawal from the deprivation of contact with a socially significant other? Perhaps how we treat some other emotional responses will help clarify the problem. Scientists have no problem talking about stress in animals. The stress response, starting with perception in the brain and ending with the release of cortisol or a related hormone, is the same throughout mammals. Depression has a neurochemical signature that is similar for humans and other mammals. I’ve seen the same anti-depressants prescribed to people prescribed to primates and dogs for depression-like symptoms, and they’ve worked.

So what about grief? Essentially, grief is a stress response that leads to transient or chronic depression, based on the perceived loss of someone or something important. In this context, grief is a matter of perception. Do the chimpanzees and the gorilla in these photographs perceive the loss of these individuals? Are they affected emotionally? Looking at the faces in these photographs, I perceive nothing but grief.

— Matthew Campbell

Additional examples of animals responding to death can be found in Good Natured.