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by Allan Kellehear

Animal Awareness of Death

The dog storywriter Marjorie Garber asked the question:  do dogs know when their time is coming? and believes they do. She offers two accounts of dogs who seem to understand the prospect of their own death. One old dog woke every member of the family during one night by visiting each in heir bed. In the morning this dog was found dead in its own bed. Another pet that "listened" in on a family conference to decide to euthanize the dog because of chronic disability became suddenly better the next day by everyone's account. Perhaps these accounts over-interpret the events. Maybe the first dog was begging for aid and the second was a coincidental improvement in health. However, the alternative "mortal awareness" interpretation is not so far-fetched when placed in a broader observational context with other animal accounts.

Our closest relatives — the primates — clearly understand death. Vervet monkeys, for example, have distinct alarm calls for snakes, and when hearing this from other members of the species they scan the ground. When hearing a leopard alarm from group members they climb trees. When warned about eagles they run for cover or drop out of trees as fast as possible. This conduct is evidence of a complex communication system that can signal identity and location. They understand death, or at least death-threat, and they have a language to communicate it.

The famous South African ethologist Eugene Marais, author of The Soul of the Ape, records the story of a mother chacma baboon whose offspring is accidentally injured some weeks after its birth. When the infant is taken away, the mother shows endless signs of distress, including ceaseless calling into the night. The infant dies in treatment and is returned to the caged mother. The mother greets the dead infant with sounds of endearment, touching it with her hands and lips. But after recognizing that the infant is dead she loses interest in the body, even when the deceased is removed from the cage. This chacma baboon recognized death.

In the same work Marais describes a similar incident involving a mare whose 2-day-old foal drowns in a river. The mare witnesses the drowning, the recovery of the body, and the subsequent burial. The mare showed great distress during all events but when the body was recovered "she muzzled it repeatedly, softly whinnying. After she had stood by and witnessed the burying, she commenced at once running about wildly, whinnying for the foal." She returned to the river twice but not to the grave. This pattern of searching and distress continued for eight more days. She did not interest herself in the grave but rather the place of death — the river.

Perhaps overly influenced by materialist ideas, Marais explains this uninterest in the gravesite as a "deficient causal memory," but I think the opposite is true. The life she knew in that foal disappeared in the river, not the burial site. Her memory seems excellent on that score and her grief — for it is grief — memorializes that site. The actual site of death for humans, rather than disposal site, is now becoming an increasingly important place for human remembrance as well and does not indicate defective "causal memory" or defective grief reaction. The mare recognized death, knew where it had come to her foal, and showed clear signs of grief with which other species, such as human beings, are clearly able to identify and empathize.

Elephants have also demonstrated sophisticated awareness of death, dying and grief. They do not go to some "elephant graveyard" so often popularized in childhood stories but they do recognize the remains of one of their own, even if only its skeletal remains. The ethologist Moss observed a family of elephants who came across the carcass of a young female and after physically inspecting the body with their trunks and feet, started to kick soil upon the body. Others tore palm fronds from trees to cover the body, and had a park ranger not suddenly appeared the family of elephants would have virtually "buried" the remains. Only the fact that we are talking about elephants stops some commentators short of interpreting this as elephants burying one of their own.

Moss has also made several observations of female elephants looking lethargic and trailing the herd for many days after they had lost young calves. Are these not signs of depression or sorrow, a mixture that we commonly call "grief"? I think it not too adventuresome to argue that elephant "understand" death as loss, and may possibly "understand" even more.

Recently, Langbauer observed elephants stroking a dead elephant at a waterhole when arriving and leaving, and also the carrying of tusks and bones of dead group members. In 1966, the Wildlife Protection Society of South Africa described how an elephant herd-leader watched and helped an aging and sick elephant to drink water and to stay upright. After a while the herd-leader assisted this sick elephant to some bushes close by and killed her, stabbing her with his tusk between the ear and eye (the exact spot, observes the Society, where a hunter would shoot). Was this a show of leadership or a rare example of mercy killing in the animal kingdom?

In the lower orders of animal, opossums are well known to "feign" death. They seem to know what death might look like to their predators and simply "pretend." Norton and colleagues measured brain wave and behavioral activity in opossums attacked by dogs in an early experiment unlikely to be repeated today. The opossum curls itself up, the limbs become limp or flaccid, the body is motionless and the animal is apparently insensitive to external stimuli. The electroencephalograph recordings, however, show the animal to be in normal cortical activity. In other words, the opossum really is "playing possum." Although perhaps not the mortal awareness shown by higher mammals such as dogs, horses, elephants and primates, nevertheless even opossums display a simple recognition of mortality matters as an adaptive addition to their arsenal of survival strategies. And this recognition, this simple idea or instinct, has always run deep and elementary in the animal kingdom. Consider a few examples.

Gibran reports one of several tropical fish that "feigns" death as a way to attract prey. They lie on their side on the sand or gravel, remain stationary, dorsal fin retracted, and sometimes even change color and body pattern. When small inquisitive fish come within a meter of them they lunge forward and seize their prey.

Hoser describes a similar defense mechanism in the Little Whip Snake (Unechis flagellum). When disturbed this snake will turn itself into a tight coil, twist or knot in a rigid pose, often with head hidden, and remain motionless. Hoser speculates that the feigning of death is probably designed to make it appear non-edible, but entomologists — observers of the insect world — have other ideas.

Feigning death, also known as thanatosis, has been observed in beetles, locusts and crickets. The entomologists that have made these observations argue that it is a "naturally occurring" quiescence that discourages predators because struggling can incite a kill in predators. Even frog tadpoles of a certain species have experimentally demonstrated that inactivity reduces predation by damselfly nymph.

From elephants, horses and primates to fish, snakes and insects, the awareness of death as a source of fear, grief, defense, attack and release has been observed or demonstrated. Death is an experience to which they and their group are vulnerable but also a behavior that can be strategic if recognized at conscious or unconscious neurological or instinctual level and imitated. As human beings, our awareness of death is not unique but instead a direct and demonstrable inheritance of our animal ancestry and biological hard wiring.

Our higher language, cognitive and technological development may set us aside from our animal peers but a simple awareness of mortality is not responsible for our uniqueness. The mortal challenge for humans in our early history does not derive from a widespread animal recognition of the facts of death but rather the anticipation of death's arrival and reflection on its possible meanings, or even more, entertaining the possibility that death might have meanings at all. This possibility, that death itself may have meanings beyond the mortal facts of bodily remains, has become the greatest single cultural influence responsible for what we commonly refer to as "the social experience of dying."

Excerpted from A Social History of Dying by Allan Kellehear. Copyright © 2007 by Allan Kellehear. Reprinted by arrangement with Cambridge University Press.

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Articles in this Issue

What the Stones Remember, by Patrick Lane
Our Dog Riley, by Emily Taylor
My Dad, by David Caplan
The Polish Estate in Germany, by Fred Bruemmer
Burn, by Frank Huyler
Communications, by Frank Womble
Cinematography, by David Lynch
Biology, by Allan Kellehear
February 2007


Allan Kellehear is Professor of Sociology at the University of Bath, UK.

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