Animal Grief & Bear Suicide

Posted by Jennifer Molidor, ALDF's Staff Writer on July 2, 2013

Bear Bile FarmHaving been an animal lover all my life, studying biological anthropology in college, and spending as much of my time in the wilderness as possible, I was a keen witness to the emotional sentience and intelligence of animals. But I discovered I had no idea the depravity and cruelty humans perpetrate upon human and nonhuman animals. It was learning about bear-bile farms that really broke me.

A post written by Mark Bekoff, titled “Bear Kills Son and Herself on a Chinese Bear Farm” pierced my heart to its core. A mother bear trapped at a bile farm could hear her baby suffering the extraction of his bile. Unable to stand his pain, or even the idea of it, she broke through the grates, smothered him, and intentionally rammed her own head into a wall until she died.

For the past month, the Animal Book Club has been featuring Barbara J. King’s excellent new book “How Animals Grieve.” In Chapter 11 (“Animal Suicide?”), Barbara considers the horrors of bile farms. She quotes Else Poulsen’s Smiling Bears, to explain:

Each bear lies down, permanently, in a coffin-shaped, wire mesh crate for his entire life—years—able to move only one arm so that he can reach out for food… Without proper anesthetic, drugged only half unconscious, the bear is tied down by ropes, and a metal catheter, which eventually rusts, is permanently stuck through his abdomen into his gall bladder.

Unable to move, bears often lose their minds, smack their heads on the bars, and suffer long, excruciating, unimaginable pain before death, which must come far, far too slowly. Possibly 10,000 or more bears are suffering at bile farms across Asia, where bile is extracted for supposed medicinal purposes, and used in face cream and toothpaste.

Barbara’s book considers instances like these, and our interpretation of the mother bear’s actions.

Do animals kill themselves? And if they do, is grief ever the probable motivation?

She avoids the easy conclusions of anthropomorphizing animals as well as negating the emotional complexity of animals. Elephants who experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a striking example–where the horrors of poaching and war disrupt the normal patterns of elephant behavior. Jane Goodall showed us baby chimpanzees who lose their mothers can die of broken hearts. I have always been similarly struck by silverback male gorillas—vegetarian males who are the great protectors of those they love. The stories that haunt me are those in which poachers, who hunt gorillas merely to butcher the silverback’s hands and teeth, shoot silverbacks again and again–because only death will stop a male gorilla from protecting his family. He keeps charging in defense until his life is taken. Humans do terrible things to each other–is it really so difficult to understand that animals suffer as we do for love?

Are we the only animals who love? Who suffer? Who would break through walls to protect our children? Who experience confinement and pain as an unbearable torture not preferable to death? What can we learn about the psychological damage we do animals in even well-intentioned zoos, by understanding, through compassion and empathy, the real lives of love, grief, and suffering present in animals?

Moon bear enjoying freedom.

Moon bear enjoying freedom.

As Barbara writes, “We bring about conditions in the wild and captivity that lead animals to feel a sort of self-grief, and at times to feel empathy for others’ suffering. Whatever caused that mother bear on the Chinese bile farm to run into a wall, in the end, it was human behavior—human greed twinned with an insensitivity to animal suffering—that murdered her.” How much are we contributing to animal suffering, if not bears on bile farms, maybe animals closer to home? From factory farms, to zoos, to theme parks, to animal testing, to rodeos, just what are we doing to animals who share the ability to love and to grieve?

For Discussion

Share your stories that demonstrate the brave capacity of nonhuman animals to self-sacrifice and to mourn the loss of love.

12 thoughts on “Animal Grief & Bear Suicide

  1. Adriene DeZarn says:


    1. dennis says:

      I wholeheartedly agree!

    2. JRZGRL1 says:

      This is so very sad. I cannot understand how so-called human beings can treat animals this way. There are so many examples of this type of cruelty going on right now in spite of what we now know about how animals relate to one another and to humans. RIP Mama Bear and son – I hope you are now living free in another place.

  2. Eithrael says:

    This has brought me to tears. Yes, animals grieve. Anyone who says they don’t has not spent time around animals, or are just complete idiots. I used to have three cats. They spent years living together – playing, eating, sleeping, etc. When one got sick and had to be humanely let out of her pain, the other two cats knew she’d become sick and then knew she’d passed. They mourned her by crying for her, laying *next to*, but not on, her favorite spot on the bed, they didn’t touch the treats left in her bowl. Then when the older male got sick, the younger one knew it and stopped playing as roughly as they used to. After the older cat passed, the younger guy took all of the older one’s favorite toys and put them in the now unused food bowl. Yes, they do grieve and mourn and show it in their own ways.

  3. GM says:

    When I was a child, each year my mother would drive my sister and me to summer camp for six weeks. The ride was about a half hour and included a nice bridge over a small tree lined river. I loved to see the ducks swimming together in their flock. My favorite was this male duck with a deformed bill. Everyone in the area of the bridge knew him because of the huge growth on his bill. I always felt bad because he was always swimming alone or sitting under one of the trees while the rest of the flock was together. For a few years he didn’t have a mate, then one summer he was seen with a female duck swimming in the river. They even had ducklings and the whole family could be seen swimming together just a little bit separate from the larger flock. It was the talk of the area.
    Then the local paper reported on how the mom and ducklings were hit by a truck. The poor duck daddy with his deformed bill was found under the tree, dead, but without injury. It was presumed he died of a broken heart. That story happened 30 years ago, but I tell it frequently. For me, I never understood how people could think animals don’t feel things.

  4. Karen B. says:

    Animals take cues from humans, so they sometimes seem to imitate us.!! But I have seen animals grieve, I had 2 rats, when one developed mammary tumors, and had to be put down.!! The remaining rat, got angry when her lifemate wasn’t brought back home, that day, and she grieved for her dead housemate.!!! Animals grieve for other animals, and they grieve for their owners, and human family members.!!! No Doubt about it.!!

  5. The human animal is incredibly cruel. Saddens me to no end. :(

  6. Leslie says:

    I have never doubted that non-human animals grieve in their own way as they love in their own way. These stories tear my heart out. I find some comfort by believing that there are angels that stay with these suffering animals until the pain and torture are over. I also think that those animals who perpetrate the bear bile extractions, puppy skinnings, reptile beheadings and other inhumane practices will pay, perhaps not now, but they are carrying a karmic debt that they will discharge. “They” includes all who knowingly support the practices. I don’t know how to turn this around, but, I believe that together we will do it, one battle at a time.

  7. Leslie says:

    Those “human” animals I meant to say in the fourth line above.

  8. Denys Bucksten says:

    I can attest, after a lifetime of wonderful pets, that animals seek and give love, comfort and affection to humans and other animals. To deny those simple truths renders a person devoid of humanity.

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  10. Nancy says:

    What is wrong with us? Humans were given all of God’s gifts and we choose to do harm to helpless creatures. They are not the “animals” WE ARE!!!

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