Death… there, I’ve said it, I’ve broken the taboo. To discuss death openly is hard, in fact it hurts. Death is the only certainty of our precious existence, the only path that each of us follows whether we are human, donkey, ant or worm. Death is a sad fact of life and when you work with animals it can sometimes feel overwhelming. For me the only fault that I find with my animal companions is that many of them simply do not live long enough and I so often have to say goodbye. I have been present at the deaths of many loved ones, both human and animal and bear the scars on my soul from each.
Why am I dwelling on this most depressing of subjects? It is because I have just received a book in the post, a copy of Death on Earth by Jules Howard. Jules is a successful science and natural history writer who brings difficult subjects to life in accessible and entertaining non-fiction. Jules has tackled this most taboo of subjects in his book. When writing this book he was trying to discover how animals behave when faced with the death of others. Jules asked the question of many experts and scientists ‘do animals display grief or mourning?’ Whilst there are many anecdotal stories of just such occurrences there is surprisingly little science behind death and how it affects those left behind. Jules contacted us at The Donkey Sanctuary to talk about death and the experiences we have of donkeys and how they behave when their companions are euthanased. Those of you that know donkeys well will know a special trait they display is their fiercely loyal bonding, when donkeys make friends they often do so for life. When their companion dies it can be extremely sad to see the living donkey’s reaction, sometimes but not always, you will see reactions that we as humans may describe as grief or mourning. Grief is a very personal experience and involves emotional, physical and philosophical facets and convincing scientists that animals feel and display this trait is challenging. Chatting with Jules though I realised that a better word for how our donkeys and mules may behave in the face of death is distress which simply means to display anxiety, sorrow or pain. I am sure that our animal friends truly do feel distress on the passing of a close friend, not in every case but certainly many. When faced with this distress it always reminds me of how emotionally aware and special donkeys and mules are.
So if you’ve reached this far in my story I apologise if you are feeling a little distressed, all this talk of death is hard. But to talk of death is important for the end of a life may be an opportunity to release an animal from untreatable pain or suffering and to carry out this procedure in a thoughtful and caring manner is the final kindness we can offer. We must always spare a thought for those that are dying and those left behind. When dealing with death I always employ the greatest emotion available to us, that of love. It is my final practice when death is near to tell an animal or person that they are loved and that they can rest easy now, every being deserves to leave our land having been loved and spoken to with soft and genuine words. So too do we pay close attention to those left behind; some extra TLC, a close watchful eye whilst respecting the individual’s need to cope in their own way. Death is an awful fact of life that no one wants to dwell on but a kind death at the right time with care for the dying and living is something that can be a final blessing.
If you would like further information or support on euthanasia we have a fact sheet Dealing With Death available from our Donkey Health and Welfare page.
If you would like to read more about death in the natural world and Jules’ writing about donkeys then you can read his book.