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How Do Gorillas Grieve?

An anthropologist answers how one gorilla's death may affect those around him.
A gorilla

Throngs of people expressed sadness and outrage at the death of a male western lowland gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo last month. But what about the other gorillas—were they sad too?

Zoo staff decided to fatally shoot the gorilla, Harambe, after he began pawing and dragging around a three-year-old boy who'd fallen into his enclosure.

Gorillas are social animals that live in groups. In recent years, scientists have gathered evidence to suggest that gorillas can be deeply affected by the death of a member of their group. Some zoos even stage "funerals" for their great apes, showing the surviving primates the body of the deceased animal and giving survivors time to process the death.

Amid heavy discussion surrounding the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla exhibit, which re-opened on Tuesday, Pacific Standard talked with William & Mary anthropologist Barbara King about the science of gorilla and ape grief. King, who published How Animals Grieve in 2013, has studied gorillas at the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.

What are some ways people have documented zoo gorillas reacting to death?

There are various responses that range from curiosity to exploration to very clear distress that may happen around the body. It depends a lot on the individual's relationship with the deceased one. Relatives may sit quietly at the body of the dead one, or touch the body quietly, or hold the hand of the body.

There is a very moving story, that I recount in my book, that came from the Franklin Park Zoo, in Boston. There was a gorilla who was euthanized because she'd had cancerous masses and she was not going to recover. Her name was Bebe and had a companion named Bobby.

[Zookeepers] very purposefully let Bobby come in to look at Bebe's body after the euthanasia. He first tried to revive her. He was touching her and vocalizing and putting food in her hand, and then he stopped doing that. The person who recounted this for me, who had worked at that zoo at that time, said it seemed as if he'd had a moment of recognition. I'm not suggesting that he would have a concept of death like we do, but he seemed to understand that this longtime friend was not moving. He began to really cry out, wailing, and he banged on the bars.

Do gorillas in the wild do the same things?

I don't think there's much evidence for wild gorillas and their response to death. We have some very interesting examples from wild chimpanzees, and they're great apes as well. I think there's every reason, given gorillas' social organization, to think that there would be grief shown in the wild, but it can be very hard to get good data. You have to be there at the right moment.

This is a very new area of research. When I wrote this book in 2013, as far as I'm aware, I was the first one to bring it all together.

Gorillas are very intelligent. They do have a deep capacity for emotion.

How do we know that gorillas have this deep capacity for emotion?

Wild gorillas were thought for a long time not to be as smart as chimpanzees because they don't make tools as readily and they don't have cooperative hunting. It's just that they have their own ways of being highly intelligent. Part of that is the ability to really attend to each other in a social group, being very attuned to facial expressions and gestures. That involves a recognition of what the other may be feeling.

There's a lot of loyalty. These male mountain and western lowland gorillas, in the wild, they can—and do—die protecting their families. There are very, very tender, maternal responses to infants.

That's part of what Harambe may have been doing. This boy fell into his home and he has two females there and he's going to be exhibiting a response that's explorative and protective of his home. He was acting like a 17-year-old gorilla should be acting. I think there's every reason to think he was thinking through what to do.

This is often thought to be evolutionarily programmed, like the aggression or the maternal love is programmed, but gorillas are so smart that they're also thinking. It's not all instinctual. They're not on automatic pilot. They're thinking and they're feeling at the same time.

How do we know they're thinking?

We can see it. For example, there's a really good published series of observations where gorillas have actually learned how to dismantle poacher traps. They're clearly thinking, step by step. There's an example of a female gorilla who tested the depth of water in a swamp by using a stick as a tool.

What you're saying reminds me that humans also evolved things like maternal love and aggressive responses, but that doesn't mean people aren't thinking, obviously.

That's exactly right. I do not think it's anthropomorphic to talk about grief in gorillas. Anthropomorphism is a projection of human qualities onto apes. Why would we say that grief is a human thing? I don't think it is. I think it's an animal thing, at least for some animals.

In cases where zoos have let gorillas see a dead enclosure-mate's body, what happens afterwards? Can you tell if it was good for the surviving gorillas?

I don't think we know. You'd need a controlled experiment. You'd need the very same gorillas who would, after Gorilla A died, have the body whisked away. You would then score their behavior versus when Gorilla B died and they got to spend time with the body. Such experiments don't really happen.

My prediction would be that it can be very disorienting to live for many years in an enclosure with another animal and then suddenly have that animal disappear. But if you think about it, gorillas are taken from zoo to zoo all the time. They're being circulated among zoos mostly for healthy breeding. So it can happen that one day, you wake up and your companion of the last 10 years is gone. There's no way to explain to a gorilla, "Your companion has gone to a zoo across the country."

When you're allowing the survivors to see the dead body, it seems to me that there must be some equivalent of what we would call closure.

What are you working on now?

What my work has really been in lately is questioning the ethics of zoos. Should these very intelligent, sentient animals be in zoos? You're moving these animals around for breeding purposes. What happens, emotionally, to the animals that are left behind?

I think these questions are excellent ones that we are collectively asking about gorilla emotions, but I don't think they should stop there. I think they should be a springboard to asking how we treat gorillas and how we should be treating them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.