- While experts remain uncertain if animals can commit suicide, there are several witnesses & material of self-destructive animals.
Animal suicide refers to any kind of self-destructive behaviour displayed by various species of non-human animals. Suicide has traditionally been thought of as a uniquely human phenomenon. Anecdotal evidence, however, seems to suggest that this is not the case. There is also debate about what counts as an animal suicide. For example, carpenter ants and termites use autothysis, whereby they purposely destroy themselves via the contraction of muscles to explode an organ, producing a sticky secretion to trap colony marauders.
Of course, this is a defence mechanism, not a pre-meditated act brought on by depression. Most people think of animal suicide in terms of an animal consciously deciding to end its own life as humans often do, for example after grieving the death of a mate or loved one.• • •
In 1845, the Illustrated London News ran the story of a ‘singular case of suicide’ involving a ‘fine, handsome and valuable black dog, of the Newfoundland species.’ He had seemingly been depressed for days, acting lethargic when he was once lively, until finally he decided ‘to throw himself in the water and endeavour to sink by preserving perfect stillness of the legs and feet.’ He was rescued and restrained but the moment he was unleashed he threw himself into the water once more, seemingly determined to drown himself – ‘By dint of keeping his head determinedly under water for a few minutes, he succeeded at last in obtaining his object, for when taken out this time he was indeed dead.’
In China in 2011, an Asiatic black bear committed suicide by running head first into a wall to save herself from a life of torture. She was being kept in a crush cage and her gall bladder was being milked daily in a painful process to harvest her bear bile, a traditional Chinese medicine ingredient. The procedure necessitates a permanent hole in the abdomen.
In Werner Herzog’s 2007 Antarctica documentary Encounters at the End of the World, the crew discovered a ‘deranged penguin’ who apparently ‘went crazy and had enough of his colony.’ He would repeatedly wander off into the wilderness, away from his fellow penguins and food source. Each time penguin scientist Dr David Ainley brought him back he would march off again. The penguin is last seen trekking off again into the wilderness towards ‘certain death.’
In 2011, a pod of sixty-one whales beached themselves to death at Opoutere Beach in New Zealand in a follow-me stranding. The final eighteen whales had to be euthanized after remaining trapped for two days. It was theorised that they were following their sick pod leader who had headed to shore to die.
In 2009, twenty-eight cows and bulls mysteriously threw themselves to their deaths off of a cliff in the Swiss Alps to the rocks below in an apparent mass suicide. A police spokesman said ‘We are investigating because cows growing up in the mountains normally can estimate dangers and do not plunge down cliffs.’ Whilst cows and bulls do occasionally fall to their deaths in the Alpine region, it is comparatively rare.
Kathy, a dolphin who played Flipper in the 1960s TV series of the same name, committed suicide in the arms of trainer Richard O’Barry - ‘She was really depressed. You have to understand, dolphins and whales are not involuntary air breathers like we are. Every breath they take is a conscious effort. They can end their life whenever. She swam into my arms and looked me right in the eye, took a breath and didn’t take another one. I let her go and she sank straight down on her belly to the bottom of the tank.’ After the moving experience, O’Barry quit dolphin training and became an animal rights activist.
Whilst the scientific community still debates the subject, it would seem that this phenomenon is real enough to those that witness it.