In some religions, it is written that God gave us “dominion” over the Earth and all its creatures, as if we were created specially. The implicit suggestion is that we aren’t connected to other living things, except as their masters. They are there to be exploited, be it shot in the wild or picked out of a supermarket freezer in a cardboard package.
Science is bringing us closer everyday to the realisation that we share more in common with our animal cousins than we may like to believe. In evolutionary terms we share DNA, of course, but that’s too intangible for most of us to truly absorb. It’s when animals start “behaving like humans” that we pause for thought.
A recent article published in the journal Animal Behaviour, reported by the BBC, suggests that western scrub jays hold funerals for their dead:
…when they spied a dead bird, they started making alarm calls, warning others long distances away.
The jays then gathered around the dead body, forming large cacophonous aggregations. The calls they made, known as “zeeps”, “scolds” and “zeep-scolds”, encouraged new jays to attend to the dead.
The jays also stopped foraging for food, a change in behaviour that lasted for over a day.
The Californian researchers explain this behaviour as a warning sign:
Spreading the message that a dead bird is in the area helps safeguard other birds, alerting them to danger, and lowering their risk from whatever killed the original bird in the first place, the researchers say.
This makes it sounds like a curious episode of avian CSI. A bird discovers a body, and they all gather round, feathers spread because they don’t have any crime scene tape.
The cacophonous gatherings seem reminiscent of human rubbernecking, where strangers will rush and gawp at the site of an accident in the hope of seeing a severed limb; or in bad telemovie recreations of the Jack The Ripper murders, where crowds will gather around the body of a dead prostitute and mutter, “Isn’t he awful?”
But how do you explain the bit where they stop foraging for food? Doesn’t that suggest more than just a biological warning system? Maybe even a pause for reflection on their own mortality, much as we do when someone we know dies?
It is said that what separates us from other animals is consciousness. We are more self-aware.
Death is a commonplace occurrence, more so in the wild for animals than in our modern Western society, yet why are we – the supposedly higher-functioning creatures – more indifferent to it?
There’s a lyric in the Crowded House song “Don’t Dream It’s Over” that sums it up:
In the paper today tales of war and of waste
But you turn right over to the T.V. page
We collectively mourn death as a society if it is somebody well-known, and in so doing have created a hierarchy of mortality. If somebody we don’t know dies, we will express sympathy, but more out of obligation than a genuine sense of caring. Is this a moral flaw, or a biological one?
When I think of that lone scrub jay who is the first to discover another of his kind, fallen, and immediately calling out to everyone who will listen to come and attend, it makes me pause for thought.
Look, he is saying. A life has been lost. This member of our tribe will never breathe again, never experience simply daily pleasures or stresses. He is gone.
Perhaps I’m anthropomorphising too much. But the death of any human being, or indeed any living creature, should make us stop to remember how little time we have on earth, and ask ourselves whether we’re using that time in the best way possible – for our own wellbeing and of those closest to us.