Do Chimpanzees Understand Death?

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Pansy - Illustration by Denise Nestor

Pansy – Illustration by Denise Nestor

Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior writer for Boing Boing, recently wrote an article in the New York Times reviewing the behaviors of chimpanzees around mortality. She retells the death of a chimpanzee named Pansy, who died in captivity, at the Blair Drummond Safari and Adventure Park in Scotland, about 5 years ago. The death was imminent. Many observed it, but it was James Anderson, a primate psychologist at the University of Stirling in Scotland who published the account in the journal Current Biology, “Pan thanatology.”

Koerth-Baker writes,

Pansy was probably in her 50s when she died, which is pretty good for a chimpanzee. She passed in a way most of us would envy — peacefully, with her adult daughter, Rosie, and her best friend, Blossom, by her side. Thirty years earlier, Pansy and Blossom arrived together… They raised their children together. Now, as Pansy struggled to breathe, Blossom held her hand and stroked it.

…During her last hours as Blossom, Rosie and Blossom’s son, Chippy, groomed her and comforted her as she got weaker. After she passed, the chimps examined the body, inspecting Pansy’s mouth, pulling her arm and leaning their faces close to hers. Blossom sat by Pansy’s body through the night. And when she finally moved away to sleep in a different part of the enclosure, she did so fitfully, waking and repositioning herself dozens more times than was normal. For five days after Pansy’s death, none of the other chimps would sleep on the platform where she died.

The video below documents a different death, that of a new orphaned male bonobo, Lipopo, who dies unexpectedly from pneumonia in Democratic Republic of Congo. His body is defended by Mimi, an unrelated female, the group’s alpha female. You can see her swat away flies and inspect his arm, at times seeming to pat his dead body. This footage was taken by Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke.

Koerth-Baker summarizes that when the caretakers try to remove the corpse out of the enclosure with long poles, Mimi viciously fights back. She grabs, calls others, and even when the tranquilizer appears, she stands her ground and screams. This begs me to wonder why was Mimi willing to risk an encounter with a gun to protect the body of a mere acquaintance?

The results of chilling behavioral studies like these in non-human primates are humbling to us because they often call into question our anthropocentric view of the world. Is this interpretation a form of speculation is laden with epistemological issues: are the scientists guilty of anthropomorphizing their subjects? Are these just isolated events? Are they more likely in captivity?

Koerth-Baker eloquently closes her piece with this quote,

As we’re now poised to end a somewhat arbitrary regulatory distinction between wild and captive chimps, it’s worth considering how we’re protecting actually distinct groups of chimps, some of which may have developed their own cultures. When they die off, they take with them behaviors that we might not find anywhere else and that we don’t yet understand — maybe including, somewhat tragically, the extent to which they comprehend their own demise.

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