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Rocky Raccoon Receives Respectful Burial

Strolling along with my dogs on a forest path in autumn, I let them sniff stumps, rocks and plants. Dogs love snuffling different places the way people enjoy reading different books. Their brains are connected to sensitive olfactory systems allowing a superb sense of smell. A dog can find an entire story about the creature that took the same path earlier while a human remains clueless. Our noses aren’t as powerful. We humans depend more upon our vision. With my eyes, I notice a bush or clump of grass. With their noses, my dogs discover exciting news!

I try to honor their need for detecting odors by not rushing them. Pulling dogs on leashes would be like someone grabbing my book or laptop and tossing it aside, then yanking on my collar to move me along. 

As we continued, Emmy, my pound pup, suddenly became alert and held her head high to sniff the air. Looking around, I noticed a large mound of thick, grayish brown fur poking out of a shallow depression near the path. Was it a big cat napping on the warm ground? Holding the leashes firmly, I moved closer. The mound of fur was still. I saw no sign of breathing. My dogs sat quietly while I gently tapped the fur with a stick. No response. So I turned the animal over. Teeth exposed in a frozen grin on a long snout revealed that it wasn’t a cat, but instead an old raccoon recently departed. It wasn’t yet stiff. There were no apparent injuries; it simply appeared to be asleep.

Emmy wanted to sniff it, and I let her come closer. To my surprise, she gently nosed it once and looked up at me. I stayed still. Using her nose, she began pushing dry leaves onto the body.  With great care, she slowly went around the body pushing on more leaves until the raccoon was entirely buried. She sat down next to the body. Then she looked up at me again and seemed to be finished and ready to go home.

What just happened? Did a little pit bull just give an old raccoon a formal burial? Or, was her behavior more like burying a bone? But her slow, careful movements made this situation unusual. Her actions seemed to show respect. Animals sometimes appear to do just that. A friend witnessed a crow funeral once. A crow had been killed on the road. My friend pulled her car over to watch as other crows began to gather on the branch of a nearby tree. They took turns flying down to the dead crow and then back up to allow another crow a turn. Documentaries also have shown elephant funerals. What is going on inside our fellow creatures’ minds? In my lifetime, we’ve learned that humans aren’t the only ones to use tools. Now, we’re becoming increasingly open to the idea that other animals have spiritual awareness as well.

I recall Jane Goodall saying how much she could learn by spending one day inside the mind of a chimpanzee. What an intriguing concept. I’d be happy just to spend a day in the mind of my dog Emmy—especially as she performs the burial of a wild animal she normally would prefer to chase when it was still alive.

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