Can a dog sense a dead person?

When animals mourn their dead

Deutsche Welle: Mr De Waal, I have an aquarium with piranhas. A piranha recently died - and the other six behaved strangely, were unusually calm, and refused to eat. Have you mourned your companion?

Frans de Waal: I don't think so. Piranhas sometimes nibble at each other. I don't think they're very kind to each other. In general, it is rare for fish to grieve. Unless they are individually linked fish - this happens with some species.

Frans de Waal denies piranhas the ability to mourn

Then why did my piranhas behave so strangely?

Fish release substances called repellants when they are disturbed. Perhaps what happened to the other fish affected the fish - in a more physiological way.

What is the difference to 'real' grief?

We typically find mourning in mammals, such as mothers and their offspring. So whenever animals form individual bonds, have friends - which goes beyond pure swarming or something similar. All mammals have this to some extent, including birds. They often form couples for life. When the partner dies, she takes it very seriously.

What if the significant other is of a different species? You always hear stories of dogs mourning their deceased master. Are we interpreting too much into it?

No, it really does. I think of this dog in Tokyo - Hachiko was his name. After his master died, this dog came every day to the train that his master normally took to arrive - for about ten years he did. Whenever there are personal ties - whether between two cats, a dog and a person, or a cat and a human, grieving is possible.

In the 1930s, Hachiko came to the train station every day to pick up his master - but he was long dead

Do animals mourn like humans?

'Mourn like humans' is a powerful expression. I would say they are upset and unhappy. When one of the chimpanzees dies, the others usually don't eat for a few days. They become very still, stare at the dead body for a long time, trying to bring it back to life. This, for example, is very human - we don't do it these days, but in the past people tried to bring their dead back to life.

This state of unhappiness only lasts for a few days?

If a very important companion like your best friend or an offspring dies, it can take longer, even years. I knew a female chimpanzee who lost her cub and who was worried about it for months.

But how do we know that these animals really mourn? Maybe your behavior is just messed up because something is missing that was there before?

Frans de Waal: 'Primates understand that death is forever. "

I remember the story of a mother baboon whose baby was killed by a predator. Weeks later, the female passed exactly where she had lost her cub. There she climbed a tree and started calling. That suggests that she remembered what happened in that place and that she missed her cub.

Do you think the animals realize that the deceased will never return?

One thing primates know for sure about death is that it is forever. That once someone is dead, he or she is actually dead and has stopped moving - I think they understand that.

How do you know?

I can tell you an anecdote about bonobos who found a very dangerous snake in the forest. They were very scared and poked the snake with sticks. At some point the alpha female came along, grabbed the snake's tail, hit it on the ground, and killed it.

Then the young bonobos in the group took the snake, hung it around their necks and played with it. This indicates that they know this snake is very dangerous and that you have to be careful - but once it's dead, it's okay to play with it. So I think they understand that death is an everlasting state.

Do great apes understand that one day they too will die?

I think no. There is no sign that they have this understanding.

Great ape mothers have strong bonds with their babies

In your opinion, which animals mourn particularly impressively?

Probably the elephants. They even go back to the bones of the deceased. When an elephant dies - and this is not uncommon with poaching these days - the other elephants inspect the dead elephant's bones afterwards - if they can find them.

I don't know if anyone has already checked whether these are any elephant bones or those of the elephant they knew - but I suspect the latter. It's a bit like going to the cemetery.

Do some animals bury their dead in a kind of grave?

No, they don't dig a grave. It may be that they cover the dead with something. But this is probably more of a protection against predators, because a decaying body attracts predators and scavengers.

So graves are typically human?

Human species Homo Naledi

In any case. Remains of Homo naledi, one of our ancestors, were recently discovered. The research team claimed that these ancestors buried their dead - a typical indication of humanity. However, there are now doubts about this claim.

Does it help animal and species protection if we know that animals mourn?

Everything we learn about the emotional life of animals helps - because it makes animals more complex, more human and more attractive to many people. This knowledge contributes to the fact that we look at animals differently and treat them differently. It has moral consequences, so to speak.

Frans de Waal is a Dutch primatologist and behaviorist. He is Professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University in Atlanta, USA and directs the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He works mainly with chimpanzees and bonobos and has written many books including 'Man, the Bonobo and the Ten Commandments: Morality Is Older than Religion' and 'The Monkey In Us: Why We Are Like We Are'.

Interview: Brigitte Osterath