Can animals commit suicide?

March 29, 2010

An article in Endeavour ponders the peculiar question of whether animals can commit suicide.

Animals routinely indulge in behaviours that, should they be undertaken by humans, would be labelled suicidal. Strangled exotic goats are mourned as victims of circumstance. Kamikaze cliff-diving cows are presumed clumsy. Some, like Poppy the spaniel, who fling themselves headlong from clifftops and live to bark the tale, are considered reckless in the pursuit of quarry.

None is thought to be bidding addio a questo mondo cruele, because, no matter how baffling the means,

it is commonly assumed that suicide is a distinctly human act. Lacking the capacity to visualise and enact their own deaths, animals are seen to be driven by an instinct of self-preservation.

Human lives, on the other hand, are not governed by such base concerns, and their owners are at liberty, by the force of their superior intellects, to engage in self-destruction. For the modern mind, the notion of animal suicide is abhorrent:

By granting animals the capacity to take their own lives, they [are] granted emotion, intelligence, consciousness.

It was not ever thus, the Endeavour article notes, citing Aristotle’s noble Scythian stallion, who offed himself once he discovered he had committed the Oedipal sin. Later, Victorian minds were fascinated by tales of

a canvasback duck that drowned itself at the loss of its mate, a cat that hanged itself on a branch following the death of its kittens, a horse that leapt into a canal after years of maltreatment and numerous dogs that starved to death on the graves of their masters.

Many scientists would dismiss such accounts as so much sentimental, anthropomorphising nonsense. But the myth of the suicidal animal refuses to die (so to speak). Time raises the ghost of Kathy the dolphin, who “looked [her trainer Richard O’Barry] in the eye, sank to the bottom of a steel tank and stopped breathing.”

O’Barry is unequivocal about what he witnessed, telling Time: “The [animal entertainment] industry doesn’t want people to think dolphins are capable of suicide, but these are self-aware creatures with a brain larger than a human brain. If life becomes so unbearable, they just don’t take the next breath. It’s suicide.”

The notion that animals will choose death over suffering is simultaneously challenging and appealing. In a scene that is probably played out many times a day away from the eyes of the media, Otto the dachshund “was trying to tell [his owners] that he’d had enough,” and was put down “to end his suffering”. In such circumstances, it is tempting, if not particularly instructive, to redefine euthanasia as assisted animal suicide.

The nature of suicide: science and the self-destructive animal is available to subscribers from ScienceDirect. Lay personnel can probably find it here, pending the intervention of the law.

(Spotter’s badge: Tim)

Winston the bulldog bests Tennessee cops

March 28, 2010

A Tennessee patrolman had cause to call for backup this week as a crazed bullldog made short work of his patrol car.

According to a report at, officers unsuccessfully tried to subdue Winston with pepper spray and a Taser.

Winston’s owner, Michael Emerling, expressed gratitude for the restraint exhibited by the police. “In other areas near here, police have shot dogs for much less,” he said.

The motor-munching mutt has been bound over to keep the peace for six months, lest he be declared a dangerous dog.

Ape apologist: apes escape because they can

March 17, 2010

Following Dallas Zoo’s recent embarrassing incident, The Dallas Morning News quizzed Kristen Lukas, who holds the gorilla chair at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan.

Dr Lukas is evidently an individual of exquisite taste and subtlety, since her answers betray a close reading of these pages. Asked whether gorillas are more likely than other species to spring from confinement, she answered:

I am not aware of any data that would [support that conclusion]. I am aware of a wide range of animals that have breached containment in a zoo, including birds, turtles, snakes, monkeys, carnivores, insects and hoof stock, in addition to apes. You may be aware that 30 chimpanzees escaped a British zoo enclosure last year, for example. I think the evidence to date suggests orangutans [like Pulang and Karta] and are among the most creative escape artists.

When asked to consider what should be done to prevent animal escapes from zoos, Dr Lukas answered:

… things can happen unexpectedly. Equipment can fail, infrastructure can age and human error can lead to opportunities for animals to breach containment. In short: Animals escape because they can.

Read the Q&A in full.

When she is not (allegedly) reading idiotic animal escape blogs in her spare time, Dr Lukas works to understand the behaviour of captive animals — especially primates — with a view to improving their welfare.

Boffins: “Dolphins are people too”

March 9, 2010

America’s top scientists recently pondered the question “Is a dolphin a person?” in a timely beard-stroking session at the annual AAAS meeting, Science reports.

Scientists have finally joined the long list of hippies, teenage girls and vegetarians who have come to the conclusion that, since dolphinkind rates among the smartest crews ever to clutter God’s bluish-green Earth, they are deserving of a greater measure of our respect.

“They are the second most encephalized beings on the planet,” Lori Marino, neuroanatomist at Emory University, Atlanta, GA, told ScienceNOW.

Found among Marino’s research is a fascinating paper on the convergence of behaviours between primates and toothed whales, which includes a thought-provoking discussion of the neuroanatomy of dolphins.

Primates and dolphins share a number of abilities — in sociality, problem solving, and self recognition — despite embarking on separate evolutionary paths around the time the Spinosaurus went the way of the dodo 95 million years ago.

But what is especially surprising about this convergence in behaviour is the divergence in brain structure betwen the groups.

The brains of great apes — and especially humans — show elongation in the lengthwise axis, especially in the region of the frontal lobes (above the eyes, dimwit). Experiments involving human individuals whose frontal regions have been (more or less deliberately) damaged have established the importance of this area in executive function.

And yet among the toothed whales, this region is almost non-exisent; instead, the cetacean brain exhibits expansion across the lateral axis.

Quite literally, they have more between the ears than we do.

But wait: there’s more. Detailed sections of the dolphin brain have revealed the presence of a layer of tissue that is completely absent in primates — a paralimbic cortex whose function is “largely unknown”.

This raises the intriguing possibility that dolphins, with whom we seem to share so much, quite literally cannot percieve the world in the same way we do.

Nevertheless, our neuroanatomical differences notwithstanding, philosopher Thomas White of Loyola Marymount University in Redondo Beach, CA, is bold enough to call dolphins “non-human persons”.

[Dolphins are] alive, aware of their environment, have emotions … seem to have personalities, exhibit self-controlled behavior, and treat others appropriately, even ethically

Provoking the world’s complement of philosophers, White said: “When it comes to what defines a person, dolphins fit the bill.”

Pouring out the measure of scorn traditionally required by each new announcement from the scientific community, Dr. Jacopo Annese, neuronatomist at the University of California, San Diego, scowled across the AAAS table: “We don’t know, even in humans, what is the relationship between brain structure and function, let alone intelligence.”

Calgary snakes escape down drain

March 9, 2010

A pair of snakes at Calgary zoo slithered their way towards freedom through an open drain, CBC News reports.

The brace of Malagasy giant hognose snakes were returned to confinement following an exhaustive search of 274 metres of shit smelling foulness I can’t even imagine.

Zoo officials were at pains to point out that the snakes could not have entered the city’s sewer system, nor are they venomous: probably points one and two on the public’s escaped snake panic card.

Having snake-shaped tunnels littered around the vivarium might seem a bit of a blunder on the part of the zoo’s designers, but Cathy Gaviller, Calgary zoo’s director of conservation, education and research, laid the blame squarely at the door of the Human Error department:

“A normal procedure that was put in place seven years ago when we opened the building wasn’t followed,” she frowned.

No prizes for guessing that the “normal procedure”, in this case, involves closing the drain after cleaning it.

The hognosed snakes were closely followed by a hogbodied python that proved too fat to fit through the pipework, stage-whispering “Go on without me; I’ll only slow you down.”

CBC News notes that Calgary zoo has attracted the opprobrium of animal rights activists, who point to the zoo’s dismal record of keeping its inmates alive.

In recent years, the zoo has failed in its duty of care to a baby elephant, a hippo, a suicidal wild goat, four gorillas, more than 40 asphyxiated stingrays, and a solitary capybara that was crushed to death by a hydraulic gate.

Happily, on this occasion, all three snakes lived to escape another day.