Since I was little, I have often felt closer to animals than to others of my own species. This month, in honor of the ninth anniversary of my blog here on Psych Central, I have decided to spend the month featuring some of my first-ever mentors and teachers with a mini-series called “Animals Are Just Like Us! I hope you enjoy it. 🙂
What do you do when you feel sadness or grief? I can tell you what I do. Often I cry. Sometimes I don’t cry but I get very sad inside and start to feel depressed. I have been known to have a glass of wine (or few). Sometimes I call a friend.
Are these universal traits that indicate grief or are they just traits of homo sapiens who experience grief?
I know what I think, but as so many scientists point out, it is also important not to assume but to observe using both our heads and hearts.
I have long been fascinated with elephant behavior, and not only because each year there are fewer and fewer elephants left to learn from.
Elephants seem so unlike me, with their enormous wrinkly bodies and long trunks. And yet their eyes water when they are under stress – we share that in common. The adults gather to protect their young when a threat approaches (as resident MommyGuard for my own little interspecies flock, I can totally relate).
And elephants gather around when another elephant passes, exhibiting behaviors that often appear quite similar to how we file past a grieving family to pay our respects.
But elephants will also travel incredible distances to pay respects to people who have helped them. When author and “elephant whisperer” Lawrence Anthony died unexpectedly of a heart attack, two herds of elephants walked more than 12 hours across the Thula Thula game preserve in Africa to a place they hadn’t been to in a year and a half. Their sudden arrival made no sense – and perfect sense.
Earlier this year, I went through a devastating breakup with my longtime love. It was time. It was the best thing for both of us. I don’t second-guess my decision but I often still feel very, very sad. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever find a partner ever again. And when this fear arises yet again, and especially at night when the work day is done and I am all by myself, sometimes I head for the scotch.
As it turns out, I’m not alone.
Remember our genetic cousins, the fruit flies?
In the previous post in this series, we talked about how we share a whopping 60 percent of our DNA with these tiny winged beings.
To hear researchers tell it, it appears part of that shared DNA is the part that likes to drink. In one experiment, researchers contained young male fruit flies inside a clear glass cylinder, then added another larger clear glass cylinder over it and let in a bunch of lady fruit flies. The boys could see the girls but kept bumping into the glass barrier when they tried to, er, seal the deal.
Then the researchers opened the bar. One straw delivered regular sugar yeast water. The other? Sugar yeast water with 15 percent booze. Guess which one the boys gravitated towards the most? (You’ll only need one guess.)
Then the researchers did their thing and discovered that the flies have a brain chemical that is quite similar to one people also have. In times of stress, the amount of this chemical decreases and many fruit flies and homo sapiens apparently compensate by hitting the bottle. I’m certainly not going to judge.
Many, many more stories of animal grief and coping exist, from killer whales to gorillas, giraffes to zebras, magpies to crows, peccaries to horses.
And this grief isn’t limited to same-species losses. Back in 1985, a very famous captive gorilla named Koko who learned sign language asked for and received an unusual Christmas gift: a kitten. The two quickly became best friends. Fast forward six months and the kitten, now a cat, somehow got out and walked onto the freeway. When Koko’s keeper told Koko, the gorilla started whimpering and signed “Sleep. Cat.”
For 14 years after his owner died, a Skye Terrier named Greyfriars Bobby guarded his grave. No amount of machinations from the graveyard caretaker or local residents could convince Bobby to leave. When Greyfriars Bobby died at the age of 16, the town erected a statue in the dog’s honor that can still be seen today.
More recently, the Toddlers Up project recently delivered some startling news to human parents of multi-species families: their kids often feel closer to the family pet than they do to their own human siblings. And this was no fly-by-night research project, either. Rather, the data was compiled over a 10-year period, cementing the importance of these interspecies friendships throughout life.
When I lost my first cockatiel, a precious yellow and gray bird named Jacob, I wailed. I went out back behind our house and buried him near the bayou and screamed out my grief. I have no idea what the neighbors thought and I really don’t care. It has been more than 21 years since he passed and I still feel sad.
Issues of “us” and “them” fade away in the face of grief. Who really cares if it is a gorilla grieving for her kitten, an orca grieving for her lost calf, an elephant grieving for his mother, a dog grieving for his person, a person grieving for her bird, or a person grieving for another person.
It doesn’t matter at that point. Grief is grief. Loss is loss. We might not be able to talk with each other using words to explain how we feel in ways the head can understand. But what our eyes see translates easily in the language the heart uses and tells us all we need to know.
They lost someone important to them. It hurts. We get it.
With great respect & love,