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  • I was driving along in my car this morning listening to a program on NPR and they were talking about a paper that was published online last week by the journal, "Animal Behavior". It was written by Iglesias, McElreath, and Patricelli at the University of California-Davis. The title was
    "Do Birds Hold Funerals?" They were talking about Western Scrub-jays and how they respond to the death of one of their own. It seems that these birds call out to each other using vocalizations when they find a dead companion. They tell each other about the death and then gather around.

    This reminded me of something I witnessed many years ago that really touched my heart. I will never forget it. I was driving home late one night and was only a couple of streets away from my house when I saw something big laying in the road. I swerved so as not to hit it and stopped to look back to see what it was. I saw something moving, so I turned the car around. I thought maybe it was a dog that had been hit and left to die on the road. The big thing in the road turned out to be "two" things. One of them ran to the side of the road and hid behind some bushes. I could still see it. I moved the car slowly closer and pulled over. It was a dead Raccoon. A big one. I turned off my lights so I wouldn't scare the one hiding in the bushes, and I sat and watched. The Raccoon that came out of the bushes was a little smaller than the one in the road. It went over to the dead one and reached it's paw out to touch it as if trying to wake it up. It was dark, but with the streetlights I could see them in silhouette. When the dead one didn't move, the other raccoon seemed frantic, walking around the dead animal and reaching up it's paws to touch it here and there.
    Then there were lights coming. Another car. It swerved, like I had. The Raccoon ran to hide behind the bushes again until the car passed and then came back out and continued to touch it's dead companion. It's head was down now. Sometimes it would sit by the body until another car came by when it would run behind the bushes again, and sometimes it would just move around the body as if it didn't know what to do. Touching it and sitting, and touching it again, and sitting some more. I watched this happening for about an hour. I was mesmerized. It started to sprinkle. I went home, but I couldn't sleep. I kept thinking about this animal sitting by it's dead mate. A couple of hours later I got back in my car and drove back to the site. There it was, hiding in the bushes waiting for my car to pass. It was raining harder now and I turned the car around. The animal came out and went over to it's dead companion and now it was trying to pull it out of the road. It was no longer just touching it. It was tugging and pulling at the body but was unable to move it. I started crying. It still makes me cry to think of it. This animal was grieving. It was clear to me. I've seen grief in my personal life and in my work with people in crisis, and this animal was clearly grieving death just like any human being. It sat by the body in a posture of sadness, and tried again and again to pull it out of the road. Even with the rain, it was not giving up, although it was futile. I sat with them for a long time. Grieving for this dead animal myself. Grieving for the one left behind. I finally went home. I went back the next day and they were both gone.
    They say elephants and chimpanzees grieve for their dead. Gorillas sit by their dead companions too. Animals feel death. They grieve. Maybe not just like us, but watching that raccoon sitting with it's dead mate, gave me a whole new perspective on life. Not just human life, but ALL life.

    * Photo of my little friend and companion, "Blue"
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