It's hard to believe that donkeys grieve, though it has been caught on film... but is the interpretation accurate?
If anecdotes were reliable, the plural would be data. Poor George Romanes, pal and colleague of Charles Darwin. In 1884 he tried his best to acquire the most accurate accounts of animal minds he could. He collected anecdotes concerning the emotions and intelligence of animals in an effort to map them. He wanted to find the outer ranges of intelligence and emotions in animals so that he could put together a theory on the evolution of the mind. He assumed, as Darwin did, that their was a continuity in the minds of all animals, including man. He wished to prove his theory.
Only, unlike today, his only source of data for this wide ranging quest was to use anecdotes. So he tried to compile them carefully, using good sources. He wanted to only accept accounts witnessed by scholarly observers, who he could trust. He found, however, that these men were not the most likely to experience the most interesting demonstrations of animal emotion or intelligence. So in order to not loose the outer, more interesting and extraordinary accounts, he had to accept a wider and less heeled field of observer data.
He made a distinction between what he was doing in his scientific collection of this data and what he felt had gone wrong with the field of comparative psychology (study of animal minds across species). According to Romanes comparative psychology was not being taken seriously because it was full of “anecdote-mongers”.
Romanes had intended to write a two volume series. The first would map out intelligence and emotions through accounts of animals across the various species. The second volume would explain how this information fit into Darwin's theory of Evolution. Romanes wrote in his introduction, “But if it is remembered that my object in these pages is the mapping out of animal psychology for the purposes of a subsequent synthesis, I may fairly claim to receive credit for a sound scientific intention, even where the only methods at my disposal may incidentally seem to minister to a mere love of anecdote.”
He wrote the first volume. It was called Animal Intelligence. It was a tome of anecdotes on animal intelligence and emotions. It is remembered as such. I don't know if he wrote the second volume. His book is remembered as being full of unsubstantiated accounts of animals doing fascinating things. Some seem plausible to me. Some do not.
A mule opens his pasture gate to sneak out to the grain bin. In order not to be caught he backs up to the gate and closes it behind him. Hmmm...can I believe this account? Well, actually yes. I grew up with a horse that could open all kinds of latches and doors to get in to the grain room. I saw him do it many times with my own eyes. In fact we used to have to proof up the barn at night to keep him from the grain. But the deceit part? Yes, that also I believe. Our horse would wait till he thought we'd left the barn to get up to his antics. But a mule understanding or recognizing that the gate being flung open would be a clue to his shenanigans, and devising a way to get it closed behind him is amazing...maybe harder to believe. Something I would like to see to believe.
Nothing convinces us more of something being true than to see it with our own eyes. Phone cameras and the internet have done wonders for our understanding of animal minds and emotions. We are learning and getting to see so much. George Romanes would have been in heaven with this kind of access.
The online sharing of these moments is bringing them into the collective realm of data. At least convincing us enough to inquire further about what we are seeing. Still there is a correct interpretation that needs to be made. Are the animals captured in a video really doing what they appear to be doing? What is motivating them? For example, in the this video, which depicts donkeys at a sanctuary in the Netherlands reacting to a dead companion, the donkeys are heard braying, particularly the head donkey. They are seen gathered around the dead one, named Bram. Some paw and bite him. My guess the biting and striking are efforts to revive him. They seem upset by his lifeless body. The video is said by everyone to show the donkeys mourning their dead companion. It could be true. They are certainly agitated.
I think the donkeys are probably upset by his death and want him to not be dead. I can't say for sure that this is accurate. I don't know if they are upset that it is Bram who is lifeless. Perhaps any dead donkey in their presence would unsettle them. I don't know their “umwelt” well enough to be sure why they are reacting the way they are.
I was once riding a horse named Sara on a property where, unknown to me, a dead horse was being trailered by. As the trailer came along, Sara started whinnying, raised her tail and tried to tow me towards the trailer. It was such a strong reaction that I asked later on if there had been a stallion on the trailer. I was told, “no, that was an old horse that had been put down”. Sara did not know the horse but it sure seemed to me that she had some how sensed there was a dead horse on that trailer and had reacted to it strongly.
Perhaps the donkeys are reacting more to the death than who died. Then again the same horse that my family had owned that used to break into the grain room. The night his favorite companion died, he opened every other horses' stall door and ran around neighing profusely. I believe that he was missing his friend and had opened all the doors in an effort to find him.
We can not fully know the minds of other animals. A lot will always be left up to interpretation but at least collectively now we have more eyes on their world. This will lead to good questions and new ways of understanding. There is a richness in these captured moments that is tipping the scales towards data. George Romeans would be thrilled!