Did the stranded whales mourn their loved ones?

The pod of pilot whales stranded in the shallow waters of Everglades National Park captured the concerned attention of people not only in Florida but also across the nation. We worried about the whales, of course, but there was also a sense of mystery and wonder driving our attention: Why wouldn’t the whales who were still healthy enough leave their beached pod mates and return to safety in open waters?

As the Herald reported, some scientists believe that these magnificent and smart creatures may have social ties so deep and enduring that survivors simply refuse to abandon their dead or dying companions.

Is that idea a plausible one? As an anthropologist fascinated by the nature of animal emotion, I have spent two years working to discover whether claims about animals who grieve for their dying or dead family and friends are based in good science or instead in anthropomorphic projections, the kind where we force onto other animals reflections of our own behaviors.

My conclusion is that yes, a wide variety of animals do mourn their loved ones or companions, to surprising degrees. In my book How Animals Grieve, I recount instances of grief made manifest in the wild by mother dolphins, chimpanzees, and giraffes who mourned the loss of their newborn or young infants, and elephant females who became distressed over a dying, then dead matriarch even when that female wasn’t of their own close-knit family unit. Grief stalks animals who live with us, too: My friends’ Siamese cat sought, and keened for, her dead sister so intensely that it can only be understood as grief.

What ties together these disparate cases is that the survivor’s normal mood or routine is significantly and visibly altered — in some cases for a prolonged period. Not every response to death by an animal meets this criterion. After all, wild animals often refuse to show weakness, including emotional weakness — the individuals who do too often end up in a predator’s jaws. But surely the Everglades pilot whales do meet the key requirement: they are altering their routine in the most acute way, to the extent of putting their own lives at risk.

I’m not suggesting that alternative hypotheses for the current stranding situation should be ruled out: more than a single factor may account for these whales’ behavior. Yet after my research, I can attest that what we learn from closely observing animals — the ones who show acute distress at the body of their loved one, or who can’t eat normally for days or weeks after their loss, or who just can’t recover at all — offers a solid foundation for serious consideration of an emotional explanation in cases like these.

At some point in human prehistory, our own trajectory of grief broke away from that of other animals, so that we expressed it more and more by collective, symbolic, and linguistic ritual. Nowadays, our grief goes global. We mourn people we’ve never met, and other creatures from endangered apes to frogs — individuals who die, yes, but also whole species teetering on the verge of extinction. We pour our sorrow into wholly new arenas of expression, including literature, drama, dance, and painting.

The breadth of our grief, and the elaborate social rituals associated with it, those are ours alone. But, just as is true with our language and our technology, our violence and our compassion, our grief is built upon an evolutionary substrate. If we look hard and long at our fellow animals, we see it plainly: In our most raw, elemental mourning, we aren’t alone.

Barbara J. King is Chancellor professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary.

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