For Centuries, Animals Have Been Helping Us Understand Human Suicide

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Photo: Rick Rhay/Rick Rhay

In 1845, a Newfoundland dog in Yorkshire, England, drowned itself in a river. As the local newspaper reported at the time, each time the dog was “dragged out, it was no sooner released than it again rushed in, and at last determinedly held its head under water until life was extinct.”

For centuries, stories like these, suggesting that an animal had shown signs of suicidal behavior, have popped up on occasion; the latest was just last week, when a killer whale at a Spanish marine park “beached” herself on the concrete adjacent to his pool. (The whale, named Morgan, was wild until 2010, when he was captured, and this is not his first time exhibiting self-destructive behavior; last month, he reportedly slammed himself again and again against a metal gate.)

And also for centuries, scholars have debated the question of animal suicide. There are those who argue that by definition, an animal is not capable of “committing suicide” – to do so implies both intent and foresight, and there is no evidence to suggest an animal knows its self-harming behavior will result in its death. We can’t ask Morgan what he meant by stubbornly parking his massive body on a concrete slab, and so we can’t know he was trying to harm himself. But then again, there are those who argue that this line of reasoning works both ways: There’s also no evidence to suggest a lack of intent or foresight. In a 2007 review of the literature on animal suicide, Italian psychologist Antonio Preti wrote, “While anguish, despair, and rage often precede a suicide attempt and represent a driving force in human suicide, there is no evidence that animals, at least among mammals, are unaware of these feelings.”

But other scholars argue that the question of intent may be entirely beside the point. Whichever argument you agree with, it’s true that stories of animals acting self-destructive enough to end their own lives exist. What’s intriguing is this: Since at least the 19th century, these stories have helped shape a deeper, more nuanced understanding of human suicidal behavior.

Edmund Ramsden, a medical historian at Queen Mary University of London, and Duncan Wilson of the University of Manchester explore this idea at length in a fascinating 2014 paper published in the journal Past and Present. In the 1800s, for example, in the decades after that poor Newfoundland met its end in the river, reports of animals acting in a self-destructive manner were described as a “deliberate act of will,” as a publication called The Animal World phrased it in the late 1800s. “In 1875, The Animal World reported a case of stag suicide on the south coast,” Ramsden and Wilson write. “‘It is notable,’ an editorial claimed, ‘that a wild stag, rather than be overtaken by its pursuers, will fall into the jaws of an awful death.’ … [S]uicide was presented here as the last desperate act of a ‘notable and proud animal of high virtues and merits.’”

Suicide, in other words, was largely understood as an individual choice at the time, Ramsden and Wilson argued. In particular, the Scottish psychiatrist William Lauder Lindsay wrote at length about animal suicide in the late 19th century, using observed instances of suicide in animals as a way of making the case of the act as something “deliberate and intentional, the result of choice and consideration.”

As evidence, Lindsay cited some cruel experiments conducted on scorpions, in which an experimenter repeatedly used a lens to focus a beam of sunlight directly on a scorpion in a glass case; the fifth time this was done, the creature “turned up its tail and plunged the sting, quick as lightning into its own back … sure enough, in less than a minute life was quite extinct.” A scientist named Allen Thomson replicated this a few years later, writing in Nature that the “effect of light [produced] excitement amounting to despair, which causes the animal to kill itself.” Animal suicides were said to be the cause of individual despair, or madness, just like human suicides at the time – in each context, cases were thought to be so rare that they were understood as unnatural.

But beginning in the 20th century, the narrative around animal suicide began to shift, again mirroring the narrative around the act in humans. During this period, “attention turned to animals that were unwittingly driven to destruction: to shoals of fish dashing themselves on boat hulls, whales beaching themselves on the shore, or the hordes of lemmings known periodically to march across the Norwegian planes to perish in the sea,” Ramsden and Wilson note in their paper. Suicide was culturally being re-understood in the Western world as a social phenomenon, and the animal stories being told reflected that change.

This was the era, after all, of a fixation on lemmings, helped along by the 1958 release of a Disney nature documentary called White Wilderness, the creature acting as a stand-in for the dangers of conformity. “The lemming was … not an example of an individual willfully ending its life in defiance, anger, or grief, as in the case of the Romantic scorpion or the Victorian dog; this was a suicide of the unconscious mind … the unthinking mass, species or system,” Ramsden and Wilson write. If in the 19th century, suicide was understood as an individual act, “in the 20th century its role was reversed,” a signal of a social or environmental problem.

In the latter half of the 20th century, and continuing through today, language about suicide as an individual decision or as a sign of personal weakness is no longer found in serious scientific discussions of mental health, whether the subjects at hand are animals or humans. Rather, it’s understood as a consequence of environment and biology, compounded by stress, Ramsden and Wilson argue. “The body and mind are so damaged by stress and so it leads to self-destruction,” he told Discovery News in 2010.

And that’s important. For centuries, the argument that suicide is a “uniquely human” behavior has relied on the individual choice distinction – that is, that it’s a willful act, which can only be carried out by a creature with foresight. Now, studies in genetics are hinting that mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and depression may be found in a range of animals, not just humans. Put another way: Scientists seeking to better understand the emotional lives of animals are helping us understand ourselves better, too.

How Animals Help Us Understand Human Suicide