December 16, 2014

Do Animals Mourn Over Death?

Animal Grieving

I’m sure many of you have seen articles or TV shows, or something that depicted animals grieving over the loss of one of their own. Dolphins and elephants seem to comprise the majority of the examples, but the list is far wider than just those two. My wife and I have had an animal sanctuary for about 20 years, and we average 45 animals at any given time. Despite the amount of work involved, and the money, it is a unique opportunity for us to observe a lot of animal behavior. Unfortunately, I had the chance to do just that a few weeks ago.

A Great Loss

One of my favorites on the sanctuary was a giant female Great Dane—Briella. She weighed 180 pounds, and stood 34.5 inches at the shoulder. Her chest was 44 inches. This was a big girl! You can get an idea of her size in the pictures below.


But Brie’s size isn’t what made her special. Great Danes are often called “Gentle Giants” because of their amiable personalities, and it was never more true than with Briella. She loved everyone she met, whether it was a person, a dog, a pig, and even cats.

Despite her size, she was terrified of our little dog Freckles—a fifteen pound monster that picked on poor Brie constantly.

We knew that Great Danes don’t live long. In fact, their lifespan on average is 6-8 years, earning them another, less endearing nickname, “The Heartbreak Breed”. Because of their size, they are prone to hip dysplasia and a host of heart diseases.

We knew all of that, and yet we had high hopes—she had turned 10 years old in September and was still going strong. She looked as if she had lost a few pounds, but not much. And she still ran every day, and jumped four-foot fences as if they were nothing. If Freckles was after Brie, I think she might have jumped a six-foot fence.


The First Signs

One night in late September, I noticed she appeared a little thinner. I said something to Mikki about it and we thought it might be just old age. The next week she was noticeably thinner again. We took her to the vet, and discovered she had cancer, and it had spread throughout her body. When we weighed her, we discovered it was worse than we had imagined—she was down to 125 pounds. The vet said there was nothing to do for her.

We said our goodbyes and had the vet put her to sleep. Then we brought her home to bury. Mikki always lets the other animals smell whoever passed, to let them know what happened. When we first started the sanctuary I wondered if this was crazy, or if they would realize what had transpired.

I don’t wonder anymore.

A Time To Mourn

We brought Briella to the big gate separating one part of the property from another. All the dogs were lined up, and each one sniffed her, then they all sat down and just stared for a few moments. After that, everyone went back to their business—all except Butters (Brie’s sister).

Butters stayed at the gate and watched as we buried Brie. Two hours later, she was still there. And four hours after that.

For the next week, Butters went out early in the morning and planted herself by the gate, most of the time just staring out where Brie was buried.

If it had been any other dog, I might not have thought it so odd, but the thing is, that for the ten years we had Butters, she almost never went outside. She would venture out once or twice a day for half an hour or so, and to do her business, but that was the extent of it. This was, without question, a period of mourning her sister.

The behavior continued for another few days, but not as diligently as before. Every morning she’d come out to the gate, but she didn’t stay as long. By the end of the second week, she was back to her old routine of staying inside almost all day. It was a touching display of emotion, and it wasn’t the only time we’ve seen this. The pigs have shown it and even Joe, the horse. But those stories are for another post. All I can tell you is if I had ever questioned, “do animals mourn over death”, I no longer did.

For a long time, scientists refused to recognize that animals had a full range of emotions, but more of them are finally coming around to realizing they were wrong. If you ever get to see it firsthand, it is undeniable, and it’s something you won’t forget.

We don’t have many videos of Briella, but this is a short one of her stealing a cookie from the table. It is times like these when I regret not taking time for that extra video.


If you enjoyed this post, please share.

Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of gritty crime dramas about murder, mystery, and family. And he also writes non-fiction books including the No Mistakes Careers series.

He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with 45 loving “friends.”

PS: For a heartbreaking story of an animal mourning, check this story about Ciccio, the dog

4 Responses to “Do Animals Mourn Over Death?”

  1. So sad.

    Big Brie was such a sweetie! And it was funny how she didn’t seem to get just how big she was and would try to sit on your lap or something. 🙂

    What Butters did puts tears in my eyes. But I’m glad you guys let them be part of the process and say their goodbyes. If you hadn’t have done that, she may not have been able to grieve as she did, which she obviously wanted to do.

  2. Butters was amazing. Haven’t seen any of them mourn for so long, but they were sisters, so maybe that’s why.

  3. I’ve seen this myself over the years with various dogs. The closer the relationship, the harder the grief.

    My heart aches for you, my friend. Brie looked like a very sweet girl. I’m glad she found you and Mikki.

  4. Thanks Maria. Two weeks before we noticed signs we were marveling at how great she looked for her age. It came on quickly.

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