Can animals commit suicide?

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)

One Response to Can animals commit suicide?

  1. Tim Stevens says:

    Kudos for not mentioning lemmings and their apocryphal collective shuffling off of the mortal one.

    On the several occasions I saved up the requisite 25 piastres to visit Cairo Zoo I was struck by the depressed nature of the denizens of the Sacred Baboon Sanctuary, and of their neighbours, the World’s Most Miserable Chimpanzees. I never witnessed movement in the chimp cages and they looked for all the world as if they had lain down to die. Poor bastards. I hope they succeeded, as there is little joy to be derived from a crowdful of children pelting you with carrots.

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