Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Chimpanzees—and Dogs and Cats—Respond to Death

April 30, 2010

The internet lit up this week with fascinating discussion of responses by animals to death. Writing in the journal Current Biology, two groups of scientists reported complex responses to death in our closest living relatives, chimpanzees.

In one article, Dora Biro of the University of Oxford and colleagues recounted observations at a long-term research site in Guinea, West Africa. There, two chimpanzee mothers carried the corpses of their infants, one for 19 days and one for 69 days, following the infants’ deaths in a respiratory epidemic. Taking great care with—even grooming the fur of—these bodies, the mothers carried them even after mummification had set in. It was as if they just couldn’t bear to lay down their infants permanently, and thus lose them for good.

Video data show some intriguing behaviors by one of the mothers. In this clip, note how the mother chases flies away from her infant’s body:

In a second article, James Anderson of the University of Stirling and colleagues detail the behaviors that ensued when a 50-year-old female chimpanzee died in the midst of her captive group. The female’s companions became “profoundly subdued” upon her death. They also apparently tried to revive her, and her daughter carried out a vigil at her body. Group members then avoided the specific spot where she died. Again, we are fortunate to have video data:

On April 27, I mentioned some of these observations (and others related to elephants’ response to death) during a live interview on the “Here on Earth” show aired by Wisconsin Public Radio. A caller to the program then recounted how one night, her dog, a dachshund, became agitated, vocalizing and behaving in patterns quite different to the usual. The next morning, the caller learned by telephone that one of the dog’s puppies—now living in another home with another family—had died the previous night.

If we accept that the dachshund’s unusual behavior occurred because she had intuited the death of her offspring, how could this possibly be? How could a dog come to this knowledge when separated not only from the event of the death but also from any living creature who knew of it? Here is an ability that seems almost otherworldly.

The morning after the radio show, listener Laura Nix emailed me with a similar story. Many years ago, Laura knew two cats called Dusty and Rusty, who had lived with her friend for many years. Though sisters, these two cats couldn’t abide living near to each other and thus carved up the house into what were effectively two territories: Dusty lived upstairs and Rusty lived downstairs.

Dusty began to fail in her old age. One night, attended to lovingly by her human friend, she died. At that moment, Rusty—who was, as always, downstairs and apart from her sister—let out a “single howl”. Laura notes: “It was the only time I ever heard her make such a sound. I can’t tell you how she apparently knew.”

Nor can I explain it. But I do believe it. Over and over again, I read or hear of reports like this, involving an animal’s response either to the death of a beloved human companion or to another animal. The question that emerges is in itself striking: Do animals enter the realm of spirituality when they behave in these ways?

That question won’t be answered by science. For now, we—scientists and anyone who carefully observes animals—must pay keen attention to animals’ responses to death. Though challenging, building up a “bank” of video data will be especially important; it will enable teams of observers to watch and rewatch death-related events, and then share interpretations.


  1. April 30, 2010 7:22 AM EDT
    In an old "Dr. Who" episode, when a colleague mentions that something is "inexplicable" the good doctor says something I think of often--"Not inexplicable, merely unexplained."
    - Mary Pratt

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.