When my grandfather passed away from cancer, my Jewish grandmother covered all her mirrors and sat Shivah with my family while mourners came to extend their sympathies, and to bring us cheese and vegetable trays. Shivah lasts a week, and overall mourning lasts 30 days. This whole process starts with the tearing of a clothing item and wearing it pinned, but my grandmother opted for the black ribbon that the Rabbi gave her. The dead are buried almost immediately, only a day or two after the death, and the family comes to the cemetery for many years to perform solemn remembrances. This regimen exists, among many reasons, in order to prevent over grieving, to provide closure, and to complete the mourning process.
Patrons and staff of the Louisville Zoo are mourning the death of baby elephant Scotty who died of colic on May 12th. The zoo invites people to mourn and memorialize Scotty by sharing memories, photographs, drawings, etc. on the zoo's facebook page, leaving items at a designated area in front of the zoo, or donating money to the zoo that will help support elephant conservation. This is the allotted mourning method and, unlike in Judaism, closure - in a way - will be delayed due to necropsy reports that will take several weeks to return.
However, while the humans come to terms with this loss, there are others that are likewise mourning, or would, given the chance. Elephants are one of the few animals, humans aside, that display grieving behavior. A University of Sussex study, led by Dr. Karen McComb in 2005, was the first study to concretely establish that elephants grieve. Elephants congregate at "cemeteries" to pay homage to their fallen kin, and McComb's study showed that elephants can recognize the bones of dead elephants when also presented with objects made of other materials and the bones of other animals, even when the presented elephant skulls lacked tusks (although, without tusks present in the skulls, elephants cannot recognize the dead of their herd versus those of another).
Elephants honor their dead by nuzzling the bones with their trunks and lightly stepping on the remains when they come across them, and sometimes they purposefuly revisit places that they know contain their herd members' remains. Noted elephant researcher Joyce Poole observed a mother elephant grieving over her stillborn, and in "Coming of Age with Elephants" she recounted that the mother appeared to be crying with a look of disbelief on her face, and she was attempting to revive her calf. This interpretation could be chalked up as an assumption, but scientific evidence that clearly marks elephant grief does exist.
Elephants return to the dead body several times in the days following the death, and tend to stay close by for a while afterward. The International Fund for Animal Welfare Canada has publicly stated that elephants should not be kept in captivity because the surviving herd members are not able to mourn properly.
When 3-year-old Scotty died, his mother, an African elephant named Mikki, was with him until the very end, but his body was then removed and will be buried in an undeveloped part of the zoo. Scotty's grave will not be marked, and Mikki will not be able to visit him. However, she does have the company of Punch, the only other elephant at the zoo. The Louisville Zoo would not provide detailed answers about the state of the animals, saying that it's "impossible to know what an elephant is thinking," but they did report that Mikki is eating regularly and moving about the allotment.
It may be too soon to tell how well Mikki and Punch will cope in the long run because elephants have been known to become depressed just as humans do, but for now we can send warm thoughts their way... and drape our mirrors.
Below are two videos of elephant mourning
Photograph of Scotty with his mother, Mikki, courtesy of the Louisville Zoo
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