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  • Writer's pictureEsther Delisle


On February 13, I received a message from Birgit Winther, an elementary school teacher for special needs children and an asinotherapist (donkey-assisted therapist) living in Djursland, Denmark. She informed me that her dear four-legged partner in therapy, a female donkey (a jenny) named Sita, had passed away at 27. Having reached such an old age, Sita was afflicted with severe problems with her hips and teeth to the point where the veterinarian and the dentist recommended ending her life to spare her further suffering.


Birgit and her husband Peter brought the other donkeys living on their farm where Sita's body lay. Birgit wrote, "It was very touching to see how they gently checked if she was breathing, touching her nose with their muzzles. They padded gently around her and smelled her body."

Donkeys surround Sita's body.

Later, Sita was buried in a field in a nearby forest. Birgit and Peter created a burial with stones and flowers. Donkey's hooves left imprints in the snow, evidence that they had visited her grave.

Donkeys' hooves imprints near Sita's grave

Birgit and Peter grieved the passing of their beloved Sita, who had shared their lives for ten years. Is it anthropomorphism– projecting human feelings to animals' behaviour -to believe that Sita's donkey friends were going through a similar process?

Some scientists use the word "grief" to name animals' reactions to the passing of one of their own. Others understand it as an awareness of death leading to rituals. There is no certainty, and a lot more remains to be understood.


First and foremost among the scholars who believe that domestic and wild animals mourn is Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder and author of many books. To disagree is, in his word, arrogant.

Professor Marc Bekoff and a cormorant

Professor Bekoff describes the ritual of four magpies around a magpie's dead body.

One approached the corpse, gently pecked at it, just as an elephant would nose the carcass of another elephant, and stepped back,' he said. 'Another magpie did the same thing.

Next, one of the magpies flew off, brought back some grass and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then all four stood vigil for a few seconds, and one by one flew off.”

In Emotion, Space and Society July 2009, Professor Marc Bekoff adds these cautionary words:

"We can't know what they were thinking or feeling, but reading their action; there's no reason not to believe these birds were saying a magpie farewell to their friend."

Professor Marc Bekoff touched the heart of the matter: we do not know for sure what animals are thinking or feeling when they come across the corpse of one of their own. We see their actions that we sometimes interpret as feelings expressed in mourning, as a ritual with no identifiable emotions, or as an awareness of death.

A magpie

A few years after Marc Bekoff observed magpies' reaction to a dead one, an experiment took place whose purpose had nothing to do with magpies' response to death, giving it even more weight to what happened. In a rural area of Golden Colorado, they placed a camera near the dead body of a mature magpie to see if scavengers would feed on it. No hungry forager took the bait. Instead, four or five magpies stayed a whole day watching over the corpse. They cared for it, softly pecking it and preening its feathers. They finally moved the deceased off the rock to give it better protection. The researchers use "funeral" to name what these magpies did.

Watch the video of a string of stills of a magpie's funeral.

Watch the video of a magpie death ritual in Saskatoon, Canada.

Not Grieving But Warning of a Lethal Risk

Some scientist argues that some birds' reactions to death are unrelated to sorrow. A case in point is the research conducted by four scientists at the University of California, Davis, on scrub jays' response to a dead companion. The scrub jays they observed ignored the false and immobile birds (made of wood, for example). When they covered the same dummy bird with the skin and feathers of a scrub jay, the birds gathered around it and screamed at the top of their lungs (cacophonous aggregations being the scientific term for these loud gatherings. Come to think of it, it could be used for humans too ). The scientists concluded that they were warning others about a possible lethal risk.

Can we know what these scrub jays were feeling and thinking? They differentiated between a piece of wood with the colours of a scrub jay and a dummy bird that smelled and felt dead, and they reacted only to the latter.

A scrub jay

Many scientists believe rituals with or without mourning are more evident in higher-intelligence animals: elephants, chimpanzees, and dolphins. One could add in animals with complex and robust social lives.

The Chimpanzees

Flo and her children

Doctor Jane Goodall said, "Flo was protective, playful and supportive of her offspring."

Watch a video of Flo and her offspring.

Flint (left), his mother Flo (middle) and Jane Goodall (right)

Flo Up Close and Personal

Flo and Flint (Gombe, Nigeria)

In Life…

Flo had reached an advanced age when she gave birth to Flint. She was tired. It did not help that her son often behaved aggressively towards her when he wanted something, like grooming, riding on her back and sleeping with her. Flint expressed his frustration by throwing tantrums if she turned his demands down.

Dr. Goodall said Flint remained "abnormally dependent on his mother." They lived eight and a half years together, and isolated from her social group by her old age, Flo had come to rely on her short-fused son for company. "Without Flint, writes Jane Goodall, Flo's last years would have been lonely."

And In Death...

Flo died of old age in 1972. Three and a half weeks later, Flint passed away.

According to Jane Goodall: "Flint became increasingly lethargic, refused food and, with his immune system thus weakened, fell sick. The last time I saw him alive, he was hollow-eyed, gaunt and utterly depressed, huddled in the vegetation close to where Flo had died. . . . the last short journey he made, pausing to rest every few feet, was to the very place where Flo's body had lain. There he stayed for several hours, sometimes staring and staring into the water. He struggled on a little further, then curled up— and never moved again.""rief-in-animals-its-arrogant-think-were-the-only-animals-who mourn

"I think the main cause of his death was grief,” says Jane Goodall, and she remains convinced that chimpanzees mourn their dead.

Watch the video where Dr. Jane Goodall relates the life of Flo and Flint and, at 6:07: their death.

The Elephants

Some scientists use the word grief to name the attitude of elephants toward a dead one, others are more cautious, but they all believe that elephants show an interest in their deceased.

Mourning the elephant way (not the human way).

Shifra Goldenberg, was Ph.D. Candidate at Colorado State University Fish Wildlife and Conservation Biology and Save the Elephant when she witnessed and filmed in Samburu National Reserve (northern Kenya) a group of elephants coming near the dead body of a matriarch (but not their own) named Victoria. She had died at about fifty-five years old, two or three weeks before.

According to Shifra Goldenberg, the behaviour these elephants exhibited on that occasion never occurred in other circumstances. They stood around the body of Victoria, explored and smelled it. It is unusual for elephants to remain immobile because they mostly look for food to feed their huge bodies. More telling, some showed streaming from their temporal glands just behind their eyes, a behaviour associated with strong emotions like excitation or stress. Shifra Goldenberg concludes by stating that she does not know if these elephants were mourning if only because "it is tough to know if they mourn the way humans do (...). But they certainly showed an interest in their dead". Like humans, they have powerful social bonds.

Watch the video of the elephants' reaction to Victoria's body.

A picture of an Asian elephant carrying her dead calf

In the Wildlife Department of Jadalpara in Bengal, an elephant mother carried around her dead calf for two days. She was joined by a herd of 25-30 elephants.

Watch the video of the mother elephant carrying her dead calf.

The Collared Peccaries

A Collared Peccary

Less well-known than chimpanzees and elephants, the collared peccaries -also called skunk pigs- rose to fame thanks to Dante de Kort. The 8-year-old boy had put a trap camera near his home in Prescott, Arizona, for a school project, and what the camera recorded had never been reported.

A Collared Peccary Mother and Her Offspring

In that video, we see a group of collared peccaries coming upon the dead body of a herd-mate. They visited it repeatedly, nuzzling it and biting at it. Some even slept near the body to protect it from coyotes bravely but futilely. In the end, the coyotes won. Were they mourning? Maybe. The National Geographic team cautions that further research is needed to understand these collared peccaries' behaviour better. Like the chimpanzees and the elephants, collared peccaries live in groups.

Watch the video of the collared peccaries near the body of a herd-mate.

The llamas

Like the chimpanzees, the elephants and the collared peccaries, the lamas are also very gregarious. But there is a significant difference: they may also form couples united by a long-lasting friendship.

Betsy Webb, a friend of Professor Marc Bekoff, told him a story about grief in llamas that she had witnessed. After having spent their life together, a couple-llamas, Briger and Boone, died within a day of each other. Another llamas-couple, Taffy and Pumpernickel, watched the burial of Briger and Boon quietly. "For the next two days, Taffy stood across the fence from the grave and stared at the hole in the ground. Pumpernickel wailed for two days in his barn. They emerged from their grieving on the third day and resumed their normal activities."

The Donkeys

Like the llamas, donkeys can develop strong bonds with each other, often picking up a friend. These BFFLs (best friends for life) spend most of their time together, and they enjoy grooming each other by scratching softly and nibbling at their partner's neck and shoulders.

Sita is leading Betty. Betty always felt secure around Sita.

Sita had a best friend: Betty. “ They both moved into the farm at the same time. Betty had been beaten up before. When she felt insecure, Sita stood by her side” Birgit wrote to me.

Betty and Cordelia

According to Birgit, Betty visited her best friend's private room in the stable for the first time on the day of her death. There, she stared at her and Peter. Since then, Betty has been going to Sita's private room every day. Betty also preferred to be alone now, avoiding other donkeys. She does not yell anymore for food; she may have become less assertive with the passing of her protector.

The memory of Sita will remain alive for a long time if only because Birgit wrote a book about her: The Donkey Sita. My Friend is a Donkey (2015). The book is printed in a font especially designed for children with dyslexia, making it easier for them to read about the donkey who helped so many children in many ways for so many years.

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