Saturday, September 10, 2011

Do dogs recognize death?

Last night as I was walking the two hounds, Xerxes and Emmy, we happened upon the corpse of a raven. This is the story of what happened during that 4 minute adventure.

Xerxes was the first to spot, approach and sniff the carcass. The bird was laying prostrate on it's back, talons clenched. Xerxes approached with apprehension and gingerly sniffed, ready to spring back at a moments notice. He sniffed the dead bird an moved on.

Emmy, on the other hand, showed a great deal of apprehension and caution. She crept over carefully, ready to spring back...but with even greater fright, as if she was approaching something quite dangerous. Finally she sniffed the corpse once and that's when the surprise kicked in. Emmy started nosing pine needles over the body in a very delicate and ginger manner. She very carefully and thoroughly covered the bird in pine needles, maneuvering herself all the way around the critter to do so. Only after the bird was completely buried did Emmy walk away from the raven.

Why is this event unusual, one may ask. It stood out in my mind because I have been reading a great deal about self-awareness, consciousness, language and even the recognition of death among different species of animals. So this event leads me to the questions:

What was the purpose of this burying behavior?

Was Emmy saving this bird for a future meal?

Did Emmy recognize that the bird was dead and in decay, thus needing to be covered to prevent other scavengers from entering the area?

Why was Xerxes reaction completely different than Emmy's reaction?

Were her actions altruistic? Was she showing some sort of inter-species respect for this animal? (She has encountered dead and dying squirrels before and never performed this behavior.)

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