Animal suicide – are they ‘just like us’?
In The Cove, the Oscar winning documentary on Japanese dolphin slaughter, activist and former dolphin trainer Richard O’Barry claims that he witnessed one of his dolphins commit suicide by self-suffocation. This event was a major turning point in O’Barry’s life and spurred his transformation from someone who kept dolphins into someone who rescues them.
The idea of animals voluntarily killing themselves is a long-debated subject, as an article in Time magazine explores:
The Romans saw animal suicide as both natural and noble; an animal they commonly reported as suicidal was one they respected, the horse. Then for centuries, discussion of animal suicide seems to have stopped. Christian thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas deemed suicide sinful for humans and impossible for animals.
Post Darwinian humanism may have given rise again to more anthropomorphism of animals than ever, but examples of the sentimental attribution of human qualities to animals do not mean that humans hold dominion over suicidal acts.
A similar article by Discovery News, quotes Thomas Joiner, a Florida State University psychologist and author of the book Myths About Suicide, who maintains that animal suicide is indeed factual, the main difference between animal and human suicide being intent. Joiner cites the example of the pea aphid, which sometimes explodes itself when its fellow pea aphids are threatened by a lady bug:
But most of the millions or so human suicides each year worldwide benefit no one, Joiner explained. They are acts that perhaps used to serve a purpose in early human societies, he said, but have lost their function in the modern world.
So the main difference is selfishness? Fascinating stuff, no doubt. But do dogs and dolphins have more in common with aphids than humans or can they simply get depressed and want to end it all? How can we know? Surely not by looking at them. As pointed out in The Cove, Dolphins are always ‘smiling’, while basset hounds on the other hand, constantly appear woeful.
by Graham Land