We’re all guilty of anthropomorphising wildlife, but when you’re witnessing emotions so close to home, it’s natural to relate to what these wild animals are going through. While you can’t ever fully understand what and why an animal is feeling a certain way, anthropomorphising wildlife isn’t always that sentimental or deluded.
Up until the 80s, it was generally accepted that animals could experience basic feelings like fear, anger or pain, but the very idea that animals might experience complex emotions, such as love and grief, was downright laughable. It wasn’t until scientists had access to sophisticated brain-imaging techniques that they found out that we form emotions in the primitive parts of the brain, a part that we share with all other mammals, indicating that animals can indeed feel complex emotions in a similar way to humans.
One of the most relatable emotions that is sometimes witnessed in the wild, is grief. If you have ever experienced the death of a loved one, you will understand how consuming the emotion is. Many animals have the capacity to grieve their dead, but there are only a few that take it so far as to hold a ‘funeral’ for their lost ones.
It’s no surprise that chimpanzees, one of our closest animal relatives, make the list of wild animal species that hold funerals. Highly intelligent and emotional, chimpanzees live in family groups and form close relationships with one another, even displaying a number of human-like responses to the death of fellow troop member.
The most common behaviour noticed in research is that when the chimps become aware that an older chimp is dying, they will gather around it and, as if to comfort it, they will groom and sleep with the chimpanzee until it has passed. In the case of a mother losing her baby, they will often carry the baby around long after it has died until they have accepted the loss. Other family members will also approach the body, touching it gently and staying nearby.
While elephant graveyards may be the stuff of legends, elephant funerals certainly are not. Perhaps the animal most famous for their emotional intelligence, elephants live in close-knit social groups and can live for 70 years, forming strong bonds over the years. When an elephant in the herd dies, the entire herd will mourn its death, displaying emotions ranging from sympathy to denial.
When a herd comes across the carcass of another elephant, the family will always stop to investigate and ‘pay their respects’. The ritual usually involves the elephants gently touching and picking the bones up with their trunks. Sometimes, they will even attempt to cover the body with leaves and grass. If the elephant was from their herd, they may even stay with the body for days or even weeks at a time.
Corvids is a collective term referring to birds from the Cordivae family that includes crows, ravens, magpies and others. While these birds may have a poor reputation as ‘graveyard birds’, ‘pests’ and ‘doom bringers’, corvids are actually not only one of the smartest bird species, but also one of the smartest animal species in the world.
In fact, the word ‘genius’ is often used in their description. Like elephants and chimpanzees, corvids also live in close-knit communities. When one of their family members dies, corvids will call to each other, gather around the fallen comrade and pay special attention to it. Sometimes, the grieving birds will fly off and return with small shiny tokens such as glass, which they will place next to the body. Corvids are even capable of recognising human faces and if one of their own is killed by a human, the birds will never forget that person. So much for a ‘bird brain’!
At Journeys Discovering Africa we believe that the emotional capacity of our fellow living creatures is truly phenomenal. So next time you find yourself tearing up on an animal’s behalf, you can take comfort in knowing that you’re not completely crazy, just empathetic.