Thursday, June 13, 2013

When Animals Grieve

Many years ago, after our house cat had been run over, two friends — without knowing about the other gifted us with two kittens from two different litters. Once they became big cats, we allowed them to play in the backyard and then, after we knew for sure they would return home after roaming during the day, we took the next step and installed a "kitty door" so they could come and go as they pleased. 

About four years later, after we had all become accustomed to the pair sleeping at the end of our son's bed, they were late coming home. About 10 p.m. we finally heard the kitty door and went to greet them, knowing they would be hungry. 

What greeted us was something I had never dreamed of seeing. I was immediately thankful we had not allowed Erik to stay up and wait for his pets. Sylvester, the smaller silver male, seemed to be fine, but Midnight, the larger black male, had obviously been the victim of a sick-minded torching after being doused with gasoline. Midnight wouldn't eat, drink the milk our vet had recommended to dilute the poison of the gasoline, nor could he walk normally. Sylvester (nicknamed "Silly Kitty") had no appetite either and, instead, stayed right beside his lifelong companion. 

We stayed awake the whole night, trying everything we could think of, but Midnight did not respond. Finally, the big black cat got up and hobbled to the door. Silly Kitty was right behind and, together, they disappeared into the first rays of dawn.

That was the last we saw of them both and, after shedding tears and cursing the perpetrator, we were thankful our young son had not seen the cruelty and the distressed condition poor Midnight was in or the painful grief Sylvester was experiencing.

Countless animal lovers have reported similar signs of grief in their own beloved pets. Scientists confirm that many animals do show visible behaviors that suggest grief well beyond a simple awareness that a fellow animal is dead or ill,

According to Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., in an Oct. 29, 2009, issue of Psychology Today, there is no doubt that many species of animals have rich, deep emotions, including grief.

Why do animals grieve?

Some researchers theorize grief reactions may allow for the reshuffling of status relationships or the filling of the reproductive vacancy left by the deceased, or for fostering continuity of the group or herd. Others say grief and mourning strengthens social bonds among the survivors of the herd as they gather to pay their last respects to their dead, enhancing group identity at a time when the herd could, indeed, be weakened. Not all that different from what happens in human groups when a family, school, workplace or neighborhood is shaken by a significant loss.

(Next Week... Elephant Mourning)