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When animals grieve

March 27, 2009

Experts say our four-legged friends go through an emotional process much like ours when facing loss.

TORONTO — While more than a thousand people gathered last week to mourn the passing of prized Toronto police horse Brigadier, were his stable mates grieving as well? One of the herd is missing. And they’re probably aware, says one equine behaviour expert; many companion animals share emotional responses strikingly similar to our own.

“The longer and closer their association has been, the more strongly and the longer they are likely to grieve,” says Dr. Jessica Jahiel, internationally-known horse trainer and lecturer. “That’s not too different from the way humans react, is it?”

DELIBERATELY STRUCK Brigadier, a nine-year-old Belgian-cross with four years of police service, was put down after being deliberately struck by a vehicle in a hit-and-run while on duty in Toronto on Feb. 24. His legs were shattered and the distressed animal had to be shot twice where he lay. “What’s very interesting about horses is that the sight of a companion’s dead body doesn’t seem to cause distress — they will typically sniff it and then turn away. Perhaps they are more clever than we are, or more realistic — they seem to know that the body isn’t the important part of their friend, and although they make it clear that they miss the other horse, they aren’t usually preoccupied with its remains,” says Jahiel, also an author and clinician.

ELEPHANT FUNERAL RITUALS The emotional lives of animals have been carefully researched and documented in books and articles, including grief which has been observed in many wild species and companion animals following the death of a pack member. A deep attachment in their social group is common among many in the animal kingdom; intricate funeral rituals are even followed by elephants, including mourning at the gravesite for hours. Toronto police constable Chris Heard has witnessed the beauty of animal bonding throughout his eight years with the city’s mounted unit.

“Horses are extremely social animals,” he says. Brigadier was stabled with 27 horses in the mounted unit and the mounts rotated shifts together. Heard is the constable who trailered the three remaining police horses on duty back to the barn following Brigadier being put down: “They really freaked out all the way back — bucking and kicking. I had to stop the trailer four times and go back and calm them down … This has never happened before. “I can’t explain it — maybe they fed off the fact that four left the barn but only three were coming back,” says Heard. “Brigadier was an alpha — he was the head honcho!” Jahiel isn’t surprised at the horses’ reactions: “Their behaviour at the scene was almost certainly based on fear and agitation, especially their riders’ fear and agitation — and, no doubt, anger at the driver of the vehicle, and frustration at their inability to apprehend the guilty party immediately.

“The horses wouldn’t necessarily understand the reasons for their riders’ emotions, but they would definitely perceive all of them and be strongly affected by them.” But grief wouldn’t set in immediately, she says: “If all of the horses are close pals, and had all been turned out together or stabled and worked close together for years, their riders should be aware of and watch for signs of grief, but not immediately. “Actual grieving probably won’t begin until the other horses figure out that the missing horse is well and truly gone,” says the Illinois horse trainer. “In horses, grief manifests itself, usually, by a certain dullness, a diminished interest in just about everything, often including eating.

LOOKS LIKE DEPRESSION She says, “A grieving horse may appear dull, slow, uninterested and tired — in the same way that a depressed human can appear dull, slow, uninterested and tired. In fact, a grieving horse may appear to be suffering from depression.” The grieving process can’t be hurried, says Jahiel. “I’ve seen horses grieve for many months — one mare of mine grieved for nearly 11 months after the death of a half-sister with whom she had shared a stable and field for 19 years. “She did emerge from her misery eventually, regained all the weight she had lost, and became her normal cheerful self again — but even though she was not alone, the grieving process took nearly a year,” adds Jahiel, author of The Horse Behaviour Problem Solver.

A study by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reveals that animals experience emotional responses to significant upheaval in their environment: 66% of dogs exhibited four or more behavioural changes after losing a pet companion. Grieving pets may also continue to look for their dead companion, says renowned canine expert Dr. Stanley Coren, who believes social animals, especially dogs and horses, love and suffer.

They form deep attachments with each other and “when grieving, they show certain behaviours similar to humans.” Owners can help the surviving pet adjust to the loss by giving them something to do, advises Coren. “Change their circumstances a bit, engage them in their favourite activity and introduce them to new friends — the same things you’d do for a human.”



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