Mournful Creatures


Virginia Morell in Lapham's Quarterly:

Animals have a great advantage over man: they never hear the clock strike, however intelligent they may be; they die without any idea of death; they have no theologians to instruct them…Their last moments are not disturbed by unwelcome and often objectionable ceremonies; it costs them nothing to be buried; no one starts lawsuits over their wills.

Who can say what cows feel, when they surround and stare intently on a dying or dead companion?
—Charles Darwin

It is often said that our understanding and knowledge of death separates the human animal from all other animals. We alone know that we will die—that one day, suddenly or slowly, our life, our loves, our dreams will end. Surely this awareness sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, we say, pointing to some of our greatest art, music, and literature—all inspired by what we know: that death awaits every living being. And yet, how very odd it is that we should be the only animal to know what life ultimately has in store for us. We share biological histories and physiologies DNA, eyes, muscles, nerves, neurons, hormones—with other animals, and these may lead to similar behaviors, thought processes, and emotions—even about death.

Take the case of Thomas, a nine-year-old chimpanzee who died in 2010 at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust in Zambia, home to more than one hundred chimps. Research scientists filmed the reactions of one community of forty-three chimpanzees to Thomas’ corpse; thirty-eight of them gathered around and stayed by his side for almost twenty minutes. During that time, some of the chimps gently touched his body, smelled and studied him closely. One of those visitors was Masya, a mother carrying her dead infant (at the time, there was an outbreak of a respiratory illness among the chimps). A few days earlier, Masya had been seen placing her dead child in a grassy, sunlit patch and retreating to the shade, where she sat watching, her eyes rarely straying from her infant. Every few minutes, she strode back to the clearing to inspect her baby’s body. At times she did so hurriedly, jumping up and rushing forward as if she thought she’d detected a stirring. She studied her child’s face intently, peered into her gaping mouth and wide eyes, and brushed away the flies. Finally, she placed her knuckles softly against her infant’s neck—hoping, it seems, for any sign of life.

More here.