Death is a mystery, and for all of our braininess, most of us can understand death only through the emotions we associate with it, through our feelings of grief and loss. Our ability to comprehend death in even this small way, and to experience all of the complex emotions that the loss of a fellow human creates in us, is part of what makes us human. It belongs to our species alone, a marker of our deep intellectual and emotional ability, as uniquely human as our large brains or complex cultures. Or does it? Is it possible that we humans are not the only creatures capable of grasping the concept of death, and of feelings the emotions associated with the loss of a loved one?
A recent study, done by researchers at U.C. Davis, is yet another link in a growing chain of evidence that non-human members of the animal kingdom do, in fact, mourn their dead. This study showed that scrub jays (a type of bird) show distress at the presence of a dead jay, which includes ceasing all food-gathering and making loud calls of alarm. In my opinion, this study does point less to an emotional response to death and more to a self-preservation response, but it shows that animals can perceive death and its consequences. And who are we to say that the response isn’t, at least in part, emotional? The question of whether animals experience emotions of grief after the death of a relative or another member of their community is an important one, and there is far more evidence than just this study suggesting that they can. Giraffes, elephants and chimpanzees, all of which are far more social animals than jays, have been observed reacting to the deaths of others in ways that are, well, human.
If animals can feel grief upon losing a member of their community, some very difficult and disturbing dilemmas arise. I’m not referring to the rights of animals in zoos or being used for testing (which are important, of course, but not really the point that I want to make) but to what this could mean for our definition of humanity. If animals react to death in much the same way that we do, what does that mean for us? Do animals have culture, or is this response to death innate? How much of our own response to death is built in, and how much is a product of society? None of this changes the nature or the complexity of human reactions to death, but it does raise questions about what really separates us from the rest of the natural world, and about what it really means to be human.