Love and Loss in the Animal Kingdom
By Jaime Stephens
Love is in the air this month and thoughts turn to love, not just for humans, but in the animal kingdom as well. Unlike birds, where nearly 90% partner for life, and like some humans, not all mammals are monogamous. In fact, only 3-5% of the approximately 5,000 different mammals in existence today form life-lasting bonds with a partner.
Swans mate for life. If they lose their mate, they go through a grieving process as humans do and either keep to themselves and remain alone, find another place to live, or join a new flock (and hopefully find a new mate). In addition to helping their mates build nests, the males are also good fathers. They are one of only two male birds in the Anatidae family, the biological family of water birds that includes ducks, geese, and swans, that share egg incubation duties.
Coyotes are dedicated to their mates, including those now frequently seen in urban areas (and frequently sighted in Alexandria, at least in the West End!). Only the alpha pair in a pack mate, with the remaining herd helping to raise their young. Bonds between alpha pairs are only broken upon the death of one of the pairs. Researchers from The Ohio State University followed 236 coyotes in the Chicago area over a six-year period and found no evidence of polygamy or of a mate ever leaving its partner while they were still alive.
Gray wolves, rare in most of the United States and Europe but found in Canada, Asia, and Alaska, are similar to coyotes, with the alpha female and the alpha male usually only the two that mate. In a larger pack, it is not unusual for a second pair to mate as well.
Beavers are also monogamous and mate for life, raising their young together. Surprisingly, the female is only fertile for a period of between 12 and 24 hours once a year!
Gibbons, a type of primate, live in small family groups in the tropical rainforest of Southeast Asia. Their pair-bonds last for many years of their relatively long life. The furry, tree-swinging gibbon doesn’t mess around with a lot of partners during its 35- to 40-year lifespan. Males and females form strong bonds and exhibit a surprising amount of relationship equality as they raise a family. They care for their young together, groom each other, and spend quality time together. Not every relationship is perfect, though – cheating, breakups, and “remarriage” all occasionally occur within the gibbon community.
Prairie Voles, a small rodent resembling a hamster, are monogamous, forming bonds that last long after mating (often for life, which, unfortunately, is a short one). According to scientists, a male and female come together, the male courts the female, and then they mate. Dopamine is released at that time and in the hours after that, so that those two animals have bonded and want to stay together always. The males stick around to raise their young and the female clearly expects this follow-through, yanking the male by the scruff of his neck if he’s not doing his part. In the vast majority of mammal species, males mate with as many females as possible and offer no help with raising offspring.
As spring and the mating season approaches, the natural instinct to reproduce is rampant. Oxytocin, a hormone found in both humans and mammals, is responsible for the feeling and sensation of love. Mammals, like humans, also have serotonin, a chemical in the body that is responsible for a relaxed, happy feeling. But is this love, or just nature? And do animals have, and show, emotions? Biologists and scientists have long avoided ascribing human emotions or attributes to animals. In the past, animals were not recognized for having emotions, in spite of displays of behaviors including anger, revenge, fear, and love. Those who suggested that animals might be capable of experiencing emotions were accused of “anthropomorphizing,” or “the showing or treating of animals, gods, and objects as if they are human in appearance, character, or behavior,” and were often ridiculed by their peers.
Today, however, the consensus says that many animals do, in fact, experience emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant ones. Dolphins and whales, monkeys, elephants, and wolves – these animals all grieve. Scientists have now observed seven species of whales and dolphins who mourn their dead mates and relatives in their own ways. Researchers have reported seeing dead calves being carried by adult bottlenose dolphins, spinner dolphins, orcas, Australian humpback dolphins, and sperm whales, in some instances for a long time after the youngster had died. Monkeys groom their dead family members and friends and sit with the deceased for, sometimes, hours.
Elephants are known for their close familial bonds, for their sensitivity, and their treatment and respect of the dead. They have long been known to linger at the carcasses of other pachyderms and have been observed trying to lift or pull dead elephants as if trying to raise them and bring them back to life.
Mourning is not limited to whales, dolphins, or primates – scientists have documented some form of “death response” in seals, manatees, dingoes, horses, dogs, housecats, and more. Striking examples include 27 adult giraffes holding a vigil for one dead baby giraffe, elephants from five different families visiting the bones of one of the dead, and a strange case of two ducks rescued from a foie gras farm who formed a friendship at their sanctuary home. When one duck died, the other lay with its head on the others neck for hours. This grief, though, is clearly a result of the deep love and affection that these animals have for each other. So, at the risk of being accused of anthropomorphizing, I say, yes, without a doubt, many animals do indeed have feelings and emotions and many of them are incredibly strong.
About the Author: Jaime Stephens lives in Alexandria with her husband, John, and a family of very entitled felines.