If you have lost a loved one, you may have noticed your pet dog or cat also mourns. A personal example: when my father died, my dog stayed for a full day in the exact place his hospital bed was, refusing to move. She didn’t eat anything for three days and moped around the house, forlorn.
However, it is very rare for wild animals to show such attachment to the dead. Elephants are one exception (as are other highly intelligent species like dolphins) . Elephants coming upon other elephant bones will often bury them by kicking dust over them. They don’t do this with other species’ remains.
Perhaps you are wondering if they do these things simply to mask smells. Scientists are discovering this is not the case. Elephants have empathy for others and offer consolation to one another. Emory University completed the following study:
“On a monthly basis between the spring of 2008 and 2009 they observed 26 Asian elephants at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, looking for signs of what researchers call “consolation.” Many animals are capable “reconciliation”—making up after a tussle. Far fewer animals display true consolation: when a bystander goes out of his or her way to comfort the victim of a fight or an individual that is disturbed for some reason.”
Sure enough, the elephants frequently consoled each other – for example, when one was afraid, they rushed to the scared elephant’s side and gently patted the head with their trunks and made soft chirping noises until the fear subsided.
Elephants can also find consolation outside of their herd. A scientist, Joyce Poole, saw an elephant mourning her stillborn. Over and over the mother stroked the baby, and Poole observed her for a few days. The mother did not eat or drink. Finally, Poole intervened by slowly approaching her by vehicle, offering water. The wild mother elephant took it and then laid her trunk softly on the Poole’s chest, and they shared their grief over the baby. The mother elephant was then able to accept the death.
Interestingly, elephants also anticipate each other’s pain and react accordingly. When a live wire was turned off in an enclosure and a new elephant bounded towards it, an experienced elephant cringed, stiffening all her muscles and contorting her facial expression, fully anticipating the shock that would fortunately not occur to her new companion.