Do chimps grieve?


Look at this photograph and just try to tell me the answer is no.

This incredible image was shot for National Geographic by Monica Szczupider, and shows chimpanzees at the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center in Cameroon. They're observing as the body of an elder troop member named Dorothy is taken to burial. She died at 40 years of age, which is pretty old for a chimpanzee.

The photo appears in the November issue of National Geographic Magazine, in the "Visions of Earth" section. [ Thanks, Marilyn Terrell ]


  1. The mother child bond in chimpanzees has been known for quite a while now, and in at least one instance a mother chimpanzee actually starved to death in the wild, refusing to release her dead infant and displaying an affect that would certainly be called grief in a human.

    That such bonds would extend to adult members of a troop is hardly a stretch, especially in light of the other observed emotions in chimps, including resentment over unfair treatment in clinical settings, and what can only be described as detachment disorders in orphan chimps raised without physical contact from a mother figure, much like human orphans. They are more like us than our anthrocentrism would have us believe.

  2. Seems to me that grieving, or something that looks similar appears in other species. I’ve certainly noticed it in my cats over the years after other cats have died.

    Whether it’s the same as human grief or not is another matter, but to an untrained observer, it appears to manifest similarly.

    Also, @2, Best. Idea. Ever. I might try to arrange that for my own funeral, unceremoniously wheeled past and tipped into a hole.

  3. I am a pretty science-based thinker, but I have certainly seen what I would consider ‘grief’ in much lower minds than chimps.. our simple dogs and cats seem to show confusion, acceptance, and sadness when a friend or loved one disappears, whether that be human or animal. And remember, grief does not only manifest upon death, but upon any permanent loss of a loved one. Our human emotions aren’t completely unique.

  4. A display of grief, or at least concern, from social primates isn’t all that surprising to me.

    I was more surprised a couple of years ago to see the apparent “funeral ritual” of hippopotami. Apparently the rest of the herd will circle around a dead member for a while, facing out, in the sort of formation they would use to protect young from attack.

    In a documentary about the maneating crocodile, Gustave, in Burundi…

    …the team trying to track the croc found a dead cow on the river they were searching. A herd of hippos found it too, and proceeded to circle around the carcass in a brief “memorial service” before moving on.

    I think ascribing emotions to hippos is a bit more of a stretch than primates, but it doesn’t seem entirely impossible, and it was hard to see the scene without imagining the lead hippo intoning an improvised eulogy for the fallen stranger they’d encountered.

  5. Recently, we had a chicken pass away. We separated her from the rest when she was quite sick, but kept her outside with the rest of them (in hearing distance). When she made her final “squack”, the rest of them were extremely unsettled for quite a while – they seemed like they were crying. So I think it’s not only chimps that grieve – other animals do as well.

  6. I cannot address whether chimps grieve or not, but this image is insufficient to prove grieving.

    Chimps are naturally curious. Nothing in this image strikes me as being more than that.

    We’re very good at anthropomorphizing. A study where dog owners were told (lied to) about their dog’s guilt, owners mostly saw the emotion they expected.

    As far as I know elephants are the only animals to have displayed any behaviors that approach grieving.

  7. In addendum, I don’t see any point in people continuing to draw a bold line between humans and the rest of everything. “Human” emotions may be unique to humans, but it is INCREDIBLY obvious that many other animals exhibit SOME degree of emotion, whether it be a gut instinct to cry out, or some more complex expression. They are all related to us.

  8. Although the first mention of “anthropomorphise” was in jest, that’s the word usually trotted out whenever one who believes that man is different than other mammals wants to set mankind apart from the rest. Some people actually believe that other animals are just “biological machines”, no different than a battery operated toy. (Not that kind of toy.) And yet, we have no reason to believe that the minds of other species are any different from our own; their brains are constructed similarly, they have the same behaviors as we do (eat, drink, sleep, procreate), the only difference is that we have nicer frontal lobes than most other species.

    If other brains are based on entirely different designs, that would raise the possibilities that other creature’s minds might not be the same as ours. But lacking any evidence of a difference, it is absolutely unscientific to claim that other creature’s minds are not like ours.

  9. I’m certain that all animals have emotions. I am constantly baffled by why anyone would think this is not the case. Where the hell do they think we got them? We’re not special because we have feelings; we’re special because we can put up a fence that keeps the other monkeys out while we wheel a dead one along it for them to gawk at.

    Yes, of course, animals have feelings.


    1. we’re special because we can put up a fence…

      lots of critters build things.

      we’re special because we can conceptualize “special”, and we can tell each other we are…

  10. I am certainly willing to believe that the existence and intensity of emotions felt are pretty highly correlated with the percentage of the brain devoted to cerebral cortex, particularly the frontal lobes. I would find a diagram of a chimp brain more convincing in this regard then a still photograph of chimps looking at a dead chimp.

    My cat has very little cerebral cortex and appears to have only two emotions: happy and angry.

  11. Though I don’t doubt chimps have some capacity for an emotion similar to sorrow, I have to wonder what they were doing ten minutes after this picture was taken. Grief, as I think most would define it, is observable over time.

  12. Count em with those who say “Sure, why not…” but this photo by itself, while certainly very striking, isn’t exactly proof.

  13. It is interesting to compare the responses elicited by this post with the assertions contained in a later post, concerning torture and complicity.

  14. When my youngest cat died, her old friend cried every night for weeks. Anyone who has ever lived with a cat or dog know that animals have feelings. It constantly amazes me how arrogant man is. In the middle ages he thought he was unique in creation, that the universe revolved around the earth.

    Every time one of these studies comes out that announces that animals can communicate or lie or have fun. I always think doh really, you just worked that out? what next? water is wet?

    1. I think you’ll find that research is much more complex than “animals have feelings”. Actually most research you read in the general media will be dumbed down to the point of obsolescence.

      Like I said, I have a cat and she has a few feelings. I in no way believe her depth of experience is anywhere near mine. For a start her memory is approximately 5 seconds long. For example, if I stand on her tail, she’ll yelp, and five seconds later it’s like it never happened. Without memory how can an organism experience complex emotions for any period of time? I doubt she’s ruminating on past injustices while she’s lying in the sun. She lives in the moment.

  15. Derk’s comment is so spot-on. Is this forum really empty of people who have lived with cats and dogs? Is the consensus that they are weird, unfeeling robot lifeforms who don’t deserve consideration.

    I think it’s probably not (correct me if I’m wrong, Michael Vick fans). Yet we construct weird walls between “food animals” and “those other animals it wouldn’t be cool to shoot.” And even the “cute” ones we’re more or less willing to toss, if they get to be a problem, no?

    You all lead weird, cognitively dissonant lives. (I am leaving aside the person eating a puppy right now. You’re stuff is totally on point.)

  16. They do not “grieve”. If so, humans on the highway slowing down to watch an accident would be “grieving” as well. Do you think is this what we do? Maybe there is a semantic question here.

  17. I love some of the commentary – here’s a nice switch: Do chimps grieve like us, or do we grieve like chimps?

    Let’s just keep an eye on those cultural habits, DNA percentages and derivations, eh.

    I put man’s inhumane attitude to animals down to the stupidity and crassness of the bibble. byeble. buyball. Oh however the hell you spell it.

  18. If that picture is the only evidence for grieving then it’s fairly easily dismissed. (I realise that it probably isn’t the only evidence at all.)

    A chimpanzee is being taken away by non chimpanzee creatures on a wheelbarrow, the observer animals are curious.
    End of anthropomorphising.

    There is a probably a ton more evidence, but from that single picture it would be equally easy to decide that they simply watch when odd things happen.

  19. Please note the chimps are watching the dead chimp. They are not watching the people or the wheelbarrow. If a line of human grievers was standing around would we not look exactly like that? Their stance and quietness are also remarkable. Yes, chimps do grieve.

  20. orangebag: rich emotions are well established in a range of non-human animals. For a popular take on some of that, see

    The evidence for grief capacity in chimpanzees are is much stronger compared to the evidence for similar capacity in very young human children or severly mentally handicapped humans. Yet, almost no one jumps the anthropomorphising gun in those cases. Why is that?

  21. of course animals grieve, what about wee greyfriars bobby! : )

    seriously, I’ve not read the above posts but I’m guessing it’s more about semantics, rather than whether one animal misses another when it’s gone.

  22. Once in Malaysia we stopped our car at a tourist spot. There were small monkeys all over the place, which is common for that country. One monkey was lying dead on the road, it had obviously been hit by a car. A few other animals stood close to the body. They thumped their head in a clear sign of distress.

    So I parked the car (carefully) and realised that we were surrounded. Normally monkeys try not to be obvious about watching you even when they want something. But these animals acted angry. After a while things cooled off and we got out of the car.

    Chimpanzees are a lot closer to us than those Malaysian monkeys. But I had no trouble grokking their thoughts on that occasion.

  23. I got quite weirded out by the way the cows on my uncles farm were hanging around the carcass that he left to get eaten on an ants nest. Spooky.

  24. That picture is not evidence of much of anything.

    However, I’ve seen other instances of chimps and other apes in behaviors that certainly resemble human grief.

    As for “anthropomorphising,” there’s hardly any “morph” involved. Chimps are, biologically speaking, extremely similar to humans. It seems to me the burden of proof is on the claim that they don’t have such emotions, because we do. How can they have emotion? I’d be surprised if it was exactly the same, but I’d also be surprised if it wasn’t at least similar and analogous.

  25. The post proposes to stir up what is in actuality a false controversey. It is well established that animals do grieve the loss of companions, and so framing this as a provocative question and inviting people to disagree is rather silly. There are no scientific experts that claim that animals do not feel emotions. The large human frontal cortex seems to give us much more powerful emotional lives, but all of the emotions we experience are present in animals–although the behavior of course is specific to species. In fact, scientists commonly use rats and mice for models of mood disorders such as depression.

    So your answer, Xeni, is “Yes. Duh.”

  26. It amuses me that some here dismiss out of hand the idea of chimp grief as inappropriate anthropomorphizing, but then say something like “it’s probably just curiosity.” Where exactly do you draw the line on anthropomorphizing?

  27. people refuse to believe animals have emotions just because they lack the big juicy cortex required to write emo songs or fill a sketchbook with sad drawings. nobody ever thinks that it’s far more likely that we humans have used our giant brains to overly embellish the natural biological responses that arose in social vertebrates eons ago.

  28. I don’t see why animals wouldn’t have emotions, or consciousness. Then again, I believe in evolution. It makes sense to me that our emotions and consciousness must have evolutionary precursors in our evolutionary ancestors and offshoots.

  29. Obviously! The common hamburger cow has group mourning sessions in which several cow will moan for hours when finally seperated from their offspring. Having watched it, it is enough to make one realise that even these docile herd mammals grieve, and experience feelings akin to ours. I have watched humpback whale cows grieve over a dead calf killed by orcas. It’s enough to drive one to the salad bar.

  30. emotion and speech are a few of the last holdouts of the quasi-biblical idea that man is unique. many people (“scientists” included) dismiss all perception of higher thinking/emotions from animals as a result of humans’ desire to anthropomorphize, but the real issue is that humans are governed by the same simplistic drives as other animals. It is denial of our baser instincts that creates this rejection of animal intelligence.

    Alex, the famous African Grey parrot, could clearly understand words and use them to synthesize new expressions that had not been taught to him, yet researchers clamored whenever it was suggested that he used ‘language.’ Likewise, when he acted in a way that could best be described as ‘jealousy,’ researchers called it ‘a dominance behavior’ rather than an emotion. But how can we describe jealousy in humans, other than a dominance behavior??

  31. Here’s a neat test: can your children detect or perceive emotions in animals? If so, wouldn’t you agree animals have emotions?

    Defining emotion (ha!) – all animals react with fear once they know that being hit with a stick hurts like someone threw a stack of bibbles at you. Fear is an emotion? It seems a fairly deep one in the human persona.

    I think we’ve all spent too long agreeing that we’re incredibly smart, when our own failure to prevent war / famine / disease seems to point out the blindingly obvious: we’re not. We’re a little bit smarter and better equipped (read usefully differentiated), but we’re not mega-brainos.

    My dog is definitely smarter than some of these commenters, that’s for sure. And my cat could probably manipulate their emotions better than they could.

    1. I’m firmly in the “we’re probably not all that different from other animals” camp. But your test (“can your children detect or perceive emotions in animals?”) doesn’t work. My child can perceive emotions in stuffed toys. That does not tell you that the toy is experiencing that emotion. It tells you that we’re very sensitive to prototypical affective cues, and good at projecting.

    2. Here’s a neat test: can your children detect or perceive emotions in animals? If so, wouldn’t you agree animals have emotions?

      Errrm, why? Kids say things like “that tree looks really sad.” That doesn’t mean that the tree is actually sad. It just means that we humans are incredibly good and reading emotions, so much that we tend to over-read them even when they aren’t there.

      I certainly believe that chimps have emotions, attachment and probably grief, although of course this photo has got absolutely zero ziltch evidence for that.

  32. Smart. But given that our responses to other people are simply responses to our perception of their emotions, things get murky.

    Alright – so add the question to your child “is it make believe?” They’ll defend their loved dog’s emotions much more fervently than their teddy.

  33. I’m with junior, though I couldn’t have said it as funnily.

    Although I am liable to believe chimps can feel complex emotions, I hardly think this photograph is rock solid evidence of anything, except a bunch of chimps looking at some humans hauling off a dead chimp.

  34. If we’re all talking about showing intense sorrow at the loss of a loved one then yes, animals are capable of grief.
    Elephants are another example of an animal that expresses interest the death of their own.

  35. I don’t see why people are so resistive to this idea.
    Emotions are essentially a biochemical process. Why is it so surprising that other animals evolved the same processes, especially ones that are so closely related to humans?
    Jane Goodall certainly weighed in on the subject…

  36. I’ve heard repeatedly that elephants grieve, standing by dead elephants and making moaning noises and then each touching the corpse in succession.

    Here’s a specific account:

    And a general article:

    Magpies apparently conduct similar “funerals” :

  37. You can go on all day about “anthropomorphising.” I don’t believe this is the case, and I refuse to think along those lines. Is it because we don’t see chimp tears?

    This picture is very tender and poignant. After spending a good part of 40 years with her fellow chimps, I’m sure there is curiosity on their part, but also sadness, too.

    We are foolish if we think animals don’t have emotions.

  38. It is clear that in humans, emotions are generated by neurotransmitter releases in the limbic system, and the behavioral expression of emotion is then modified by the neocortex. Rather than give citations, just google limbic system and read if you doubt. All mammals have both of these brain structures, and they function much the same as they do in humans with somewhat less complexity of expression.

    Chimps are very close to us both in evolutionary and morphological terms. They are also in the very exclusive club of animals that can pass the mirror test of self recognition that includes the great apes, some cetaceans, a couple of birds, elephants and us. If you ever get the chance to work with chimps, it is uncannily like working with human children that can’t speak (and that can rip your arm off).

    The differences are in degree, not in kind. Of course they have emotions.

    @walterbillington: If you draw faces on balloons, children can detect or perceive emotion. It doesn’t mean balloons have emotion. It does say we are wired to be able to perceive emotions tho….

  39. Parsimony would suggest that animals have emotions, including grief. We know that we grieve. In the absence of evidence otherwise, the assumption must be that animals also grieve. The emphasis on de-anthropomorphizing animals was an interesting and useful logical error (which can be traced to DesCartes, interestingly enough, so that he could study them without Church censure). Even the Harlow’s recognized emotion in animals during their 1960’s experiments. We should address emotion in animals with cautious and careful experimental approaches.

  40. Do people other myself have emotions? Or do I project my experience of having feeling onto others? Sure, other people may claim to have emotions, but they may simply be lying to prey upon my emotions?

    C’mon. Look at the chimps’ faces. They’re grieving. If you have to deny it to make yourself feel special and different from them, all you have done has shown the paucity of your own capacity for feelings.

  41. Koko, the American sign language speaking gorilla, told her keeper that she was sad when her cat, All Ball was killed by a car. I think that emotions serve as an adaptive strategy in social animals and are the behavioural manifestation of bonding. A group of individuals that are more bonded to one another, a troop of chimps, for example, will be more successful at facing predators than say, a pond of turtles that happen to live in the same area. It seems to be a mammal thing.

    We probably don’t have the innate ability to recognize how wild mammals mainfest their emotions. So, we don’t see most mammals as having recognizable emotions.

  42. I’ve worked for National Geographic and I want to know what is behind the camera? A shot like this can be set up in a way that is very close to staged.

    –Philip H.

  43. Though I personally don’t think animals grieve the same way people do, this unbelievable video will show that some animals do indeed appear to have great sympathy for their fellow creatures.

    Dog Hit by Car is Saved by Another Dog. Simply amazing:

  44. My girlfriend works at a chimpanzee sanctuary in the US, and one of their chimps recently passed away. The other chimps reacted in different ways — some were indifferent, some were visibly saddened. One, in particular, was inconsolable for some time. This is based on direct observation over a period of weeks.

  45. Until I owned a dog I never understood how emotionally complex animals are. I had always tried to live up to the Buddhist goal of showing compassion to all sentient beings. When I found out pigs are more intelligent and emotional than dogs and make great pets I became a vegetarian.

    I couldn’t justify killing a sentient being just to eat its muscles and organs.

  46. Not sure about grief, but I’m pretty sure they can smell death – which in this case adds a discordant note to the familiar smell of their elder member.

    Junior: “Don’t anthropomorphise these creatures, they hate that.”

    Poetry, my friend.

  47. Why is it so hard to swallow that humans are indeed just another animal…one which is perhaps only separated from other species by, not opposable thumbs or tool-use, but rather a compelling instinct for both fratracide and self-destruction. If grieving is unique to humans it is because we have seem to create in our lives so much grievous result. Just a thought…

  48. Animal emotions have been proven to the extent that humans’ emotions have been ‘proven’ (i.e. some of the biochemestry).

    By acknowledging that animals have emotions, nobody is saying that they feel or experience them as we do. Even among humans, the range and expression of emotions vary widely. Grief isn’t experienced the same way in all cultures and from person to person. Even if the chimps above will probably be eating or having sex within minutes, it’s not enough to completely dismiss that they are experiencing a form of grief at that moment.

    There are still debates whether human infants feel pain and emotions. Their expressions are still often written off as unconcious reflexes up to a certain age, probably because they can’t talk therefore we see them as sub-human (or pre-human), like little eating/pooping machines, like ‘animals’. Only recently (10-20 years) have serious research been conducted to prove that performing surgery or distressing interventions without anesthetics on infants was actually painful, scary and scarring to the child.

    We’re advanced as a species, but we’re also arrogant and make hasty conclusions.

  49. I’m reminded of “The Pope of The Chimps”, an excellent short story by one of my favorite writers, Robert Silverberg.

    “… a Nebula Award nominee about a science experiment and a group of fifth-generation sign language chimps. Their intelligence seems almost human at times, but they don’t quite understand what humans are all about. They think of humans as immortal gods, until one day a scientist on the project contracts terminal cancer. Now the other scientists must tell the chimps the truth, with unforeseen consequences…”

  50. Since chimps have a fairly high level of intelligence and are capable of remembering things, I think it’s a safe bet that they are capable of feeling emotion. Hell, I had a PARROT that got depressed and wouldn’t leave me alone when I got deathly ill one time. Another good example of this would be elephants…they periodically visit a ‘graveyard’ and caress the remains of their dead heard-mates. Pictorial evidence or no, you can’t tell me that they don’t feel emotions. :|

  51. I used to have a cat, Presto — gone these many years, yet I still miss him — who was deeply sensitive to my emotions.

    I remember weeping inconsolably one night about a love affair that ended against my wishes. Presto got upset: he cried and meowed, almost in anger; paced around my feet; ran out of the room, ran back. Finally, he bit me on the toe — good and hard, not a love nip but something more ferocious.

    Come to think of it, he did much the same thing earlier in the love affair, one time when my beloved was in my arms, just after a shower. Bit me on the toe, the little scamp.

  52. It’s a very haunting picture. I can’t say whether or not chimps “grieve”, not being one myself, but I can attest to the fact that every living thing has a range of emotion. We probably will never be able to fully understand the emotions of animals and insects (don’t tell me that insects don’t at the very least know the emotion of fear), at least not in my lifetime, but I think it’s important that we all understand that they have them.

    It’s very hard not to attribute human emotion equivalents to what we see in animals. What else can we compare with, after all. The emotional process might not be exactly the same for a chimp seeing a deceased comrade as it is for a person, but I have no doubt that they feel *something*.

    I also just want to say that I agree completely with what others have said here about observing their own pets and livestock. I know that my ducks behave oddly for about a week after a member of their flock passes away. I don’t know if they are “grieving”, but they definitely are distressed by it.

    Conversely, we had to put down one of our dogs a couple of years ago due to her health, and our other dog looked for her for about a day and then realized “HEY! I HAVE THE HUMANS ALL TO MYSELF!” and became a much happier dog than he was when he had to share us with her. So, you know, some animals can also exhibit human levels of douchebaggery as well.

  53. I am far less surprised by the photo than the headline.

    Is Homo Sapiens an animal species? ‘Anthropomorphism’ assumes the burden of proof is on those who think humans are animals. I think the burden of proof ought to lie with those who say we’re not.

    This is a fairly important philosophical issue. If we’re not animals, than there’s no reason to believe we could ever become extinct like all those others have. I think this philosophy makes our extinction that much more likely.

  54. Yeah, I have to agree with those who are saying that this is a rather senseless question. I don’t think there is much doubt that animals feel some emotions, including depression and grief

    I think the mistake many people make is the extrapolating from those fairly elemental emotions to more grandiose mental acrobatics. The chimps may recognize death as a final separation, and feel sorrow at the loss of a companion. Do they then ponder on the meaning of it all and start to imagine an afterlife? Probably not.

    Go chimps!

  55. Given the subject of this post I can see why people are focusing their responses on the question of whether chimps grieve. But I think an equally interesting question is: What do the chimp family members make of the human burial ritual?

  56. I’m surprised so many people would not know that Grief is an animal emotion. Several animals mate for life. When there’s love like that, of course there will be grief of a loss. My dog “Jessie” who unfortunately is not as smart as a chimp is very very close to me. I’ve been retired for most of her life so I spend more time with her than I do anyone. But anyway, I took a trip and left her with my wife at home. She had severe anxiety attack and lost patches of fur. Of course she recovered when I got back.

  57. actually all animals do feel and express all kind of emotions like we do but senses are differ from them to us.

  58. It is well documented that chimps experience anger, jealousy, and even Post traumatic stress disorder (from living unbeareable lives in labs for extended periods), so why wouldn’t they experience sadness or grief? They are known to form bonds, so why not feel sad at the loss of their bond?

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