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Death Of Dorothy
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Animals Grieve When Companions Die

By James Donahue

Scientists may argue the question but the evidence is clear that animals show empathy and they grieve for the dead. This was made dramatically clear when photographer Monica Szczupider captured an amazing image of chimps at an African rescue center for chimpanzees watching the burial of one of their own.

Although the death of Dorothy the chimp occurred in September, 2008, Scczupier’s image didn’t go public until it recently appeared in National Geographic. Since then it has been making the rounds on the Internet. We are posting it here with this story so readers can appreciate what occurred when that favorite old female chimp died of heart failure.

Dorothy was in her late 40s when she died. She had been rescued from a life as a “freak” in an amusement park where she was taunted, teased, and taught to drink beer and smoke cigarettes by insensitive owners. After brought to the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center in Cameroon in 2,000, and shown kindness, Dorothy developed deep friendships with the other chimps and even mothered an orphaned chimp.

When Dorothy died, the management at the center decided to allow the chimpanzee family witness her burial to help them understand that Dorothy would not be coming back. They were stunned when the animals lined up along that fence and stood in silence. Anyone who knows chimpanzees knows they are usually never silent creatures.

Susan Welchman, the Geographic photo-editor who examined the images submitted with the story, said this particular picture “caught my eye because you just don’t see that much emotion – human emotion – with animals. I couldn’t have been posed or faked. There’s no way to make an animal look or act like that.”

My wife and I observed a similar reaction a few years ago when our pet cat, Tucker, died. He was one of about six cats living in the house at the time. The other tenants also had cats, and all of the animals knew and associated with one another.

Tucker died in our arms in our bedroom. We wrapped him in an old blanket and put his remains in a cardboard box to be carried into the back yard for burial. It was uncanny how the other cats gathered in waiting for us when we carried the box down the stairs and through the house that day. They all gathered as if they knew something terrible had just happened.

We placed the box on the floor and exposed the body so the other cats could see. They all came to examine the remains before leaving the room. After Tucker was buried, one of the cats, a stray named Stinky, which had probably been as close to Tucker in life as any of the cats, stood guard over the place where Tucker was buried. We were so moved by his actions that we adopted Stinky as our own.

Elephants are considered to be among the more intelligent animals on the planet. And it has been shown that they grieve for the dead and show emotions much like humans.

Joyce Pool, in a book “Coming of Age with Elephants,” describes several instances where mother elephants clearly grieved over the death of their babies. In one story, she told of watching a clan of elephants moving toward new territory when one of the animals in their group fell over dead. The other elephants noticed and came to her side, attempting to get her back to her feet. After determining the elephant was dead, the clan moved on. But the following day elephants returned to mourn the loss of their friend and clan member

Some years back we had a pet dog, a golden colored shih-tzu named Muggins, who was so intelligent he quickly became a member of the family. Muggins was with us when the decision was made to sell our home in Michigan and move to Arizona, where my wife was promised a good paying job in a government hospital on the Hopi Reservation. She and our youngest daughter, Jennifer, who was still at home, took the car and went on ahead while I stayed behind to finish the transaction, close down, and load a U-Haul truck for our move.

Muggins stayed behind with me. Immediately this dog let it be known that he was not happy with the family separated, all of the household object he knew being packed in boxes, and a large U-Haul truck backed up at the front door. Once when I forgot and left the truck cab door open, Muggins disappeared. After a frantic look the dog was found curled up in the cab. He was smart enough to know that everything we owned was being loaded in that truck and wanted to make sure that when the truck left, he was going with it

Muggins hung close to me during the days before we left. He even slept by my side, something we had never allowed him to do but I took sympathy. During the trip this dog appeared glad to be going and excitedly stared out the window at the open highway. When we finally linked up with Doris and Jennifer, that dog expressed sheer joy and happiness as only a dog can. Dog owners will know exactly what I am describing.

Professor Marc Bekoff, who has researched this phenomenon during his work at the University of Colorado, believes animals not only share emotions with humans, they clearly show it with facial expressions and body movements.

“Animal emotions aren’t all that mysterious,” Bekoff said. “Just look at them, listen to them, and see what happens when they interact with friends and foes – look at their face, tail, body, gait and eyes. What we see on the outside tells us a lot about what is happening inside animals’ heads and hearts.”