Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Do Animals Sense Death?

Münster Zoo: The grieving gorilla Gana carried her dead baby on her back for several days. 2008 reports here and here.  Gana died in January of 2010.

In yesterday's post, I touched on the commonly-held assumption that one of the things long considered to separate humans from animals is our awareness of death.  This goes right back to the Book of Genesis, when Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; they gain insight that makes them see things in the way God does.  Yet they lack God's wisdom and judgment, possibly due to the fact that they did not also eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life, the other tree in the Garden of Eden.  As a result, animals come to fear humans, whereas at the beginning of Genesis, Adam names the animals, which suggests his initial ability to communicate with them (to read the text, go here).  In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick symbolically repeated that moment from a non-religious point of view when he showed apes making a jump in consciousness and killing tapirs with which they had previously lived peacefully.  This was shortly followed by the now-conscious apes murdering each other while wielding tools to do so, with the tool-making the key sign of awareness of causality.  Kubrick used an extra-terrestrial monolithic symbol as a catalyst for that jump in self-awareness.

'The Dawn of Man' scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) © MGM. Video Source: Youtube.

In religious and non-religious depictions, the implication is that we had a change in our perception that divided us from animals, and that change in perception derives from our knowledge of death. From the human awareness of death comes our understanding of time.  And from that consciousness come our complex languages, and arguably, our culture, science, mathematics (we initially invented numerals because we are aware of a direction in time moving from one moment to the next - then we apply that core understanding to counting objects in the world: 0, 1, 2, 3 ...), and philosophy.  Since we feel that animal intelligence apparently precludes these things, we assume that animals are oblivious to the passage of time and their final endsBut do animals really not understand death, the passage of time, or related values of causality?

I think animals do exhibit understanding of the three things that form the essence of our grasp of time.  First, they show an awareness of death, both of themselves and of others.  These incidents are well documented, through cultural lore and anecdotal evidence as well as more clinical observations.  Second, they show an understanding of the passage of time.  Third, they demonstrate an understanding of cause and effect, which derives from our awareness of time and death.

Elephants show emotion when confronted with skulls and bones from their own species. Image Source: UFODigest. Image: Royal Society/Karen McComb.

First: death.  The legend of the elephants' graveyard derives from reported discoveries of collections of elephant bones, which suggests that these creatures cut themselves off from their family groups and go to a single place to die alone.  Scientists insist that the elephants' graveyard is a myth.  The New Scientist has a 2005 article posted (here) with results from Kenyan and UK researchers regarding elephants' responses to bones of their own species.  They can also distinguish between ivory and wood, showing a deeper interest in objects made from ivory.  From the New Scientist report: "the team could not corroborate stories that elephants specifically visit the bones of dead relatives. The elephant families in their study were unable to pick out the skull of their dead matriarch from other families' dead matriarchs. 'But their interest in the ivory and skulls of their own species means that they would be highly likely to visit the bones of relatives who die within their home range,' writes the team, [led] by Karen McComb [at the Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research Group] at the University of Sussex, UK."  There is a link to the original Royal Society publication of the research at Biology Letters here.

Wiki's article on elephant intelligence (here) summarizes further studies on elephants' reactions when one of their own herd dies; they are possibly the only surviving species aside from humans that appear to engage in death rituals.  They also reportedly perceive that death occurs in other species, and have responded with their own death rituals toward injured or dying humans:
Elephants are the only other species on Earth other than Homo sapiens sapiens and Neanderthals known to have any recognizable ritual around death. They show a keen interest in the bones of their own kind (even unrelated elephants that have died long ago). They are often seen gently investigating the bones with their trunks and feet, and remaining very quiet. Sometimes elephants that are completely unrelated to the deceased will still visit their graves. When an elephant is hurt, other elephants (also even if they are unrelated) will aid them.

Elephant researcher Martin Meredith recalls an occurrence in her book about a typical elephant death ritual that was witnessed by Anthony [Hall-Martin], a South African biologist who had studied elephants in Addo, South Africa for over 8 years. The entire family of a dead matriarch, including her young calf were all gently touching her body with their trunks and tried to lift her. The elephant herd were all rumbling loudly. The calf was observed to be weeping and made sounds that sounded like a scream but then the entire herd fell incredibly silent. They then began to throw leaves and dirt over the body and broke off tree branches to cover her. They spent the next 2 days quietly standing over her body. They sometimes had to leave to get water or food, but they would always return. Occurrences of elephants behaving this way around human beings are common through Africa. On many occasions, they have buried dead or sleeping humans or aided them when they were hurt.
Other famous examples of animals coming to terms with death of a member of their own or another species were evident at the San Francisco Zoo.  The first example is the reaction of the famous gorilla Koko, when her pet kitten All Ball was hit by a car in 1987.  Incidentally, Koko's sign language word for 'gorilla' is 'animal person,' a term her keeper Penny Patterson claims Koko coined herself. Wiki: "Patterson claimed that when she signed to Koko that All Ball had gone, Koko signed 'Bad, sad-bad' and 'Frown cry-frown sad.' Patterson also reported later hearing Koko making a sound akin to human weeping. Patterson uses this to argue that non-human species can have human-like emotions."

Video on Koko and her cat. Video Source: Youtube.

There are excerpts at Freecitymedia.com from two conversations with Koko about death:

Koko has been asked about death several times, especially when her kitten, All Ball, was killed by a car. The following conversations were published in our The Gorilla Foundation's biannual publication, Gorilla.

Gorilla, Volume 8, Number 1, from December, 1984.
One day Koko was having a conversation with Research Assistant Maureen Sheehan.
MS: Where do gorillas go when they die?
Koko: Comfortable hole bye.
MS: When do gorillas die?
K: Trouble, old.
MS: How do gorillas feel when they die, happy, sad, afraid?
K: Sleep.

Gorilla, Volume 8, Number 2.
December 18, 1984, three days after All Ball had been killed, with
Dr. Penny Patterson:
PP: Do you want to talk about your kitty?
K: Cry.
PP: What happened to your kitty?
K: Sleep cat.
PP: Yes, he's sleeping.
K: Koko good.
Michael, a gorilla that lived with Koko for several years, also learned sign language.  His keepers believe that he tried to describe the death of his mother to them.  From Wiki: "Michael's caregivers believe that he witnessed and remembered his mother's death at the hands of poachers, but was unable to clearly express the event. In the PBS Nature special Koko: Conversation with a Gorilla, a group of Michael's signs is interpreted to be an attempt to convey a description of his mother being shot as he watched."

The extent to which these highly intelligent animals grasp the meaning of death is hotly debated; it is difficult to know where the animals' actual responses end and our anthropomorphization of them begins.  But is intelligence the only prerequisite for animals' responses to death?  Is there also some odd sentiment or common feeling that compounds intelligence, or enhances the momentous sense of loss of life, thus allowing less intelligent animals to show a similar distress when confronted with death? There is a long-standing ill omen associated with a specific howl made by dogs; it is known as 'the death howl' in Nordic legend.  This folk belief - also reported in other European legends and in Chinese myths - reflects the widespread conviction that dogs sense death of other dogs or humans. There are descriptions of this superstition here, here and hereHere are some variants:
-If a dog howls at night in your yard, someone is dying or has just died.
-A dog howling at midnight warns you of a death.
-If a dog howls at night beneath a window, there will be a death.
-A dog howling all night is foretelling a death.
According to this site, the dog's reaction relates to their keen sense of smell, not to any emotional response or intelligent awareness of death: "Perhaps the most powerful universal belief associated with dogs is that they possess the ability of second sight. It is said that a dog can see apparitions and sense if death is imminent. This may be because we now know that the dog can sense chemical changes in the air, and it is known that the human body undergoes such changes close to death. Evidence abounds that supports this with dogs howling when the owner is ill. It is understandable then that to hear a dog howling has long been considered to be a death omen, and the same is said to be true if the dog howls by an open door. The actual moment of death was thought to be marked by a dog howling three times and then ceasing. A barking dog too was usually a sign of misfortune if  heard first thing in the morning."

It is hard not to consider that dogs have some emotional awareness of death when confronted with specific accounts of their reactions.  These seem to extend beyond their sense of smell.  There is an account at Psychology Today here:
Dear Dr. Coren,

Please allow me to introduce myself. I am a fellow psychologist and dog lover (have 3 dogs now) who is reading your book, How Dogs Think, and am enjoying it quite a lot. This morning I read the chapter about canine's sixth sense. I too think there could be many explanations for these reported abilities. But I have a beagle story that I thought I might share.

Growing up my dad got a pair of beagles, Maggie and Jigs. We are from Punxsutawney, PA (yes, the groundhog capital place) and my dad was an avid hunter and the dogs were hunting dogs who were always housed outside in a kennel. Jigs had died at a young age for a beagle but Maggie was still living and probably about 8 years old. I would have been around 10 (am 60 now).

One day she started howling. I had never heard her do that. Bark, yes. She had quite a barking repertory as beagles do. This was a sound I never heard before and one I will never forget. I can't really describe it other than to say it seemed mournful. I went to her kennel to see if she was hurt or if I could find out what was wrong. Nothing. No obvious injuries. No problems I could see. The things I tried, petting, treats, playing, did not distract her from the howling. So I asked my dad and he said, "I don't know who but someone is dying." He said he had heard a dog howl like this before and that was the reason. 
The howling continued. About an hour later, a neighbor whose backyard adjoined my parents' yard came walking through the yard past Maggie's kennel. Oddly she did not interrupt her howling to give a "pay attention to me" or "warning bark" to the neighbor. She just kept on howling. He told my dad that his mother had recently moved in and was ill and the dog was really disturbing her. Could we do something to stop the howling? Dad told him he would try but that likely his mother was dying and the dog would stop when she died. We put the dog in our basement but the howling didn't stop. That is, the howling didn't stop till about 6 that evening when the woman died.

This dog had no contact whatsoever with the dying woman. Nothing had changed about Maggie's living circumstance nor would she have been lonely or feeling cut off or pushed away.. She could not see the entrance to the neighbor's house to notice any comings or goings. She was not doing any barking to alert us to strangers, rabbits or need for attention. Maggie really had no reason to know about this woman's state of health. She was just howling this continuous mournful howl. It didn't stop when she was taken out of her kennel and put in the basement. Maggie stopped howling when the woman died.
I've got no explanation and I'm not sure how Maggie knew but she knew something and it upset her very much. I have never heard another dog make this sound but I know if I ever do, I will recognize it (the sound is that distinctive) and I bet someone close by is dying. Maggie's story seems to counter your ideas about Eddie in your book. In Eddie's story he was taken from someone he was very connected to and your ideas probably fit the circumstances well. Those circumstances didn't apply to Maggie. ...
Phyllis Brentzel
In June of 1994, reports on the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson carried the eerie detail that her dog, an Akita, had wandered the neighbourhood howling and covered with blood.  Eventually the dog dragged witnesses to the bodies (reported here):
The dog kept barking late on this foggy Sunday evening, June 12, 1994. Pablo Fenjves, a screenwriter, thought he heard it the first time at about 10:15. Elsie Tistaert, who lived just across the street, also heard it, and when she looked out of her window, she saw the dog, a white Akita, pacing up and down outside the front of 875 South Bundy Drive. Louis Kaupf, who lived next door to 875, returned late from the airport and went out to clear his mail at 10:50. The dog was still barking and trotting up and down in an agitated manner. Just before 11:00, Steven Schwab, who was walking his own dog, came across the distressed animal. It followed him home. There, he noticed that the dog's belly fur and paws were matted in red. Schwab asked his neighbor, Suka Boztepe, to care for the dog overnight. He agreed, but as the dog persisted in his restless behavior, Boztepe and his partner, Bettina Rasmussen, decided to walk the dog and try and calm it down. The dog dragged them back to number 875, where it stopped and gazed down a dim, tree-shaded pathway. Following the dog's stare, they saw a shape of someone lying at the foot of some steps, part of the body sprawled under an iron fence.
Aside from animals' responses to death, I will consider in later posts whether animals are aware of the passage of time and whether they show an associated awareness of numbers or counting.  You could set a clock by animal migrations around the turn of the seasons, although this cannot be attributed to conscious intelligence, given that birds and insects such as Monarch butterflies also migrate.  See my blogging on bird migrations here.

My third question about animals is whether they understand cause and effect.  Causality is one of the sparks that drives humans to make tools.  Anyone who has ever trained a dog to eat a cookie after he has gone outside and come back can be fairly certain that animals have some sense of cause and effect.  I will also return to this topic in later posts.


  1. Wolves had previously been noted as mourning lost members of their pack, even the lowest in their pecking order, the Omega.

    The question then becomes, do we define sentience as when a creature is willing to "murder" it's own kind?

    In any event, something clearly divides us from all other animals, including the porpoise, which supposedly has the potential to be as smart or smarter than us. What remains is to figure out what, exactly, that is.

  2. Thanks for the comment about wolves, Jay. It made me think of Elfquest. I'll return to this question of our division from animals in other posts. Really it's a division that we perceive and affects how we see ourselves and our final aims as a species.