Dogs that stop eating, whales that come out of the sea … Is suicide in animals a reality?
Suicide is one of the most common and traumatic causes of unnatural death, claiming a large number of victims each year. It is a type of self-destructive behavior that has preoccupied human beings since ancient times, generating in-depth research in this regard from areas such as psychology or medicine, looking for the causes and ways to prevent human beings from actively seeking their own death. But this type of behavior has not been seen only in humans.
Numerous cases of animals that have somehow caused their own death have been documented. Are these deaths the product of the will to die? Is there suicide in animals? In this article we are going to make a brief reflection on this.
Cause one’s own death
Suicide is understood to be the performance of a behavior or series of behaviors that aim to cause one’s own death. Generally, whoever carries it out has the intention of avoiding suffering in a situation in which they do not have enough resources to handle, although the reasons why someone decides to take their own life can be multiple.
Suicide is an action that supposes the will of the being itself to bring about the end of its existence, having an active intention that the behavior emitted leads to death. It is necessary to take into account the concept of death, to know that we can die and that we have the ability to self-generate it. Therefore, it involves a certain level of abstraction, and also planning. It also supposes the existence of a self that wants to die, that is, of some kind of self-awareness of oneself as being.
These aspects have often made experts doubt the possibility that suicide exists or not in the animal world, as there is no evidence that they possess all these capacities. It has been observed that multiple species react to the death of their peers with anguish and regret, but it is unknown if they are aware of their own mortality and that their behavior can lead to it.
Are there cases of suicide in animals?
There are numerous cases of animal suicides throughout history, or at least of phenomena that have been identified as such. Since ancient times, we can see how different writings document the death of dogs by starvation after the death of their owners (something that continues to happen today).
More recently, in 1845 a case was published in the Illustrated London News in which a dog, which had previously shown signs of depressed behavior, had jumped into the water of a park without pretending to swim, leaving its legs still the supposed end of sinking. The dog was rescued, but after that he tried again. After several attempts, the dog finally sank and died. The same type of behavior has been observed in other animals, such as ducks or penguins that have lost their mates or dolphins that have stopped breathing (in these beings, breathing is not semi-conscious as in us, but conscious and voluntary).
Another typical example is that of lemmings, of which an alleged mass suicide has been documented when there is overpopulation. However, the truth is that this mass suicide is not such but it is something that could occur accidentally when these animals try to migrate en masse to areas with food availability and run into different geographical accidents. They would be trying to find food, moving forward with that purpose and not with the idea of killing themselves. In fact, it is speculated that in reality the image that we all have of these rodents falling off a cliff was a montage, its reliability being unclear.
Finally, the death of whales stranded on the shore of the beach is also considered by many as suicide, although it may be due to diseases.
Regardless of what we consider suicide or the values that animals can practice it or not, the truth is that there is evidence that multiple living beings have practiced different actions that have led to their own death.
The clearest and most well-known example is the case of many pets that, after the death of their owner, stop eating until they die of starvation. This type of behavior has been observed since ancient times, and there are reports of this reaction in animals.
The same happens sometimes with some animals in the wild, who act in this way because of the death of their partner. The penalty for the death of a loved one can generate serious psychological damage also in animals, with the presence of anxiety and depressive symptoms in different species being documented. As a consequence of this fact, they lose their appetite. In the case of pets that are very close to their owner, cases have been reported in which they have remained next to his grave until his own death.
Another behavior of this type is found in animals in captivity and / or in a situation of high stress. Specifically, many animals commit different self-injurious acts that can end up causing severe damage or even death. An example is found in the blows that different cetaceans take against the margins of their enclosure.
Another type of self-generated death in animals is that used in order to protect another being, generally the offspring of the creature. For example, the parent can serve as a distraction for their young to flee or attack the aggressor to defend them even if this can cause death. However, in this case it is not a suicide in the strict sense since the objective is not to die, but to protect the other even at the cost of one’s life.
You can also find animals that generate their own death through biological defense mechanisms. For example, there are some types of ants that tense up in the presence of enemies and cause certain glands to rupture that end up causing their body to explode. This type of suicide ends with the death of the enemy or predator, but also of the subject himself.
Lastly, some parasites and fungi are known to generate suicidal behaviors in different animals. This is what happens with ants when faced with different fungi of the genus Cordyceps, which end up looking for the stem of a leaf to bite it and wait for death while the fungus develops. In this case we would be talking about an induced suicide, in which the animal does not really plan or want to die. Other bacteria generate behaviors that can lead to suicidal behaviors such as approaching or losing fear of predators.
Arguments of those who defend their existence
Practically until a few centuries ago, a large part of the population considered that only the human being was aware of himself, capable of abstract thinking and reflection. Therefore, under this type of thinking we would be facing the only animal species that would be capable of causing death voluntarily and consciously.
However, research has shown that this is not the case. Monkeys, dolphins, crows, parrots, rats and other species have shown in different experiments to possess abilities that go beyond mere instinct.
There are multiple species that have shown the ability to identify themselves, as occurs with primates and dolphins, and that show the ability to become depressed and feel anxiety (something visible in pets and animals in captivity, but also in wild animals). They have also shown intelligence and the ability to sequence actions, as well as to communicate (there are even cases of animals that have learned sign language) and establish plans.
It has also been seen that many animals can reach the understanding that their actions may or may not have an effect on the situations they live in. A widely known example was given in the experiments that originated the theory of learned helplessness, carried out with dogs that in the presence of electric shocks from which they could not originally flee, they stopped trying to avoid them even when in another situation they only had to move to another side of the cage.
However, it is unknown if they have the same capacities in imagination, future projection and level of abstraction as human beings, or a sufficient level that would allow them to become capable of procuring their own demise.
Arguments of those who deny its existence
Those who consider that animals do not have the capacity to commit suicide consider that the behaviors associated with autolysis are actually involuntary, with no intention of actually taking their own life as such.
The aforementioned self-harm, for example, could be explained as self-harm aimed at changing states of anxiety or stress, or seeking to free oneself from some type of suffering (which on the other hand makes them similar to the main motives that usually lead to suicide). Death by starvation may be caused by grief, but this does not imply that there is a will to die. In this case it is proposed that the suffering and pain experienced occupy the animal’s mind, causing it to forget to eat. Suicide as a defense mechanism would be an instinctive and emotional reaction that would not really seek death but rather the defense of the colony or the offspring.
Finally, the case of infestation by parasites or fungi is not related to a death wish but to a death caused by external factors, which would not be considered suicide.
A realistic conclusion
Many of the cases that have been documented of animals that have caused their own death have a series of characteristics that can cast doubt on the validity of considering this action a suicide or not.
It is undeniable that some animals actively cause their own death, but it is much more difficult to determine if their actions are really motivated by the desire to die. In this sense, science has not yet been able to determine this fact reliably, and there is still not enough data to affirm or deny that animals have the capacity to commit suicide with full awareness that they are doing so.
- Preti, A. (2007). Suicide among animals: a review of evidence. Psychological Reports, 101 (3): 831-848.