People are accustomed to fictional donkeys showing human emotion. In "Winnie the Pooh," Eeyore is almost always exhibiting depressive behavior. In "Shrek," Donkey is a highly sensitive chatterbox. But real-life donkeys displaying human emotion? That's not something you see every day.
A new video out of the Netherlands, however, may show something just like that.
In March 2014, an animal sanctuary, called Stichting de Ezelshoeve, took in an old and ailing donkey named Bram. Bram had spent the majority of his life with elderly owners so neglectful that, by the time he was rescued, his hooves and lungs were damaged beyond repair.
"All we could do was give him medication, nurse him, and give him all our love," sanctuary founder Jacqueline van den Berg told CBS News. "We knew that he was very sick and it was just a matter of time."
Van den Berg is all too familiar with severe cases of animal neglect. In the 11 years since she and her husband founded Stichting de Ezelshoeve, they have rescued nearly 300 donkeys from terrible situations.
"I take them out of bathrooms, from balconies, out of doghouses" she says. "Most are living in meadows, totally forgotten by their owners. Their hooves have often grown so long that they can't walk anymore. Sometimes there is no grass and they get nothing else to eat and you can see their ribs. Sometimes they got too much grass and they are terribly obese. Very often I find foals as young as two months without a mother. People think foals are adorable, but they need their moms to feed them and to raise them, to teach them body language."
And it isn't only foals who benefit from the companionship of fellow donkeys. Bram reportedly blossomed amidst his adopted family of humans and peers. So, when he finally succumbed to his injuries about a year and a half after his rescue, those peers put on a heartbreaking display of mourning for him.
"The day came that Bram was not able to walk anymore, despite the medication we gave him for the pain in his hooves," Van den Berg explains. "But when he was laying down, his lungs were compressed by his body, and breathing was already difficult. So, he was choking and smothering himself."
That day, van den Berg and her husband made the difficult decision to have Bram euthanized by their local vet. Later, when the other donkeys discovered Bram's body lying on the ground, they surrounded him, making loud braying noises. The leader of the herd, a black-and-white jack named Moefra, even bit and nudged Bram's body in an attempt to rouse him. And one of the sanctuary's volunteers captured the entire scene on video.
"This video shows compelling evidence that non-human animals experience deep grief and loss," says University of Colorado ethologist Marc Bekoff. "I don't know exactly what's going on in the heads and hearts of these animals, or whether they have a concept of death that tells them their friend is gone forever. But I don't see any reason at all to say they're not grieving. Animals have been known to bray when deeply depressed, and these donkeys are clearly very upset."
Bekoff, who studies animal emotions, has witnessed similar grieving ceremonies among wild coyotes, elephants, dogs, foxes, cats, crows and even magpies. During that last example, he says, "The magpies stood around the corpse, flew away, brought back pine needles to lay around the dead body, softly pecked at it, almost imperceptibly bowed their heads, then flew off."
Van den Berg, for her part, has no doubt as to what the video shows either. "I am very sure that they are mourning," she says. "Bram is not the first donkey who has died here, and their reaction is always the same."