Lemmings, depressed dolphins, and ducks with a death wish cause us to question what we know about animal behavior.
Can an animal commit suicide? While there are many tales of non-human creatures taking their own lives, the survival instinct is incredibly strong—it’s hard to imagine animals as capable of understanding the concepts involved in such a grave decision. And yet these things seem to happen, as in the case of a few overworked donkeys in Sudan, that several years ago, apparently chose death over their cruel forced march. One ran into the Nile, drowning, and another allowed itself to be beaten to death rather than take another step. While it’s difficult to hear stories of this kind of savage treatment and one’s first instinct might be to empathize, anthropomorphosizing these equines’ actions as the result of their physical suffering, there are other cases of “animal suicide” that involve no such obvious or immediate cause: a duck drowns itself for no apparent reason, a dolphin, presumed to be sad, rams itself into the glass of its tank repeatedly or incredibly, just refuses to breathe.
But scientists say that animals, despite experiencing real emotion, cannot store the long-term memories required to “choose” death in the same way a human would, and other reasons for the behavior are usually eventually discovered. A bridge in Scotland, for example, was the sight of several dogs jumping to their doom. The area was said to be haunted by a man who killed himself there, but it was actually the powerful smell of minks living beneath the bridge that drove the canines into an impulsive frenzy. There are tics and anxieties that can cause an animal to stop eating or participate in other self-destructive behavior that can lead to its death, but could this really be considered willful suicide? Or maybe it’s instinct? Lemmings, maybe the most famous example of “animal suicide” were said to instinctually throw themselves off cliffs and into the sea en masse. But while teeming mass migrations often lead to the death of many lemmings, the image of these little rodents running off a cliff was actually invented for Disney’s famous 1958 nature “documentary” White Wilderness. The footage was, in fact, staged, although the myth of the suicidal lemming lives on.
We learn more about complex animal behavior every day, but the issue of whether an animal can actually commit “suicide” will probably not be resolved for a long time—we can’t know exactly what they’re thinking, and their layers of instinct, compulsion, and emotion are usually opaque to our dumb human senses. All we can do is take good care of those animals that are entrusted to our custody, engaging them on the emotional levels we know they experience, and avoiding at all costs the kind of suffering that those donkeys in Sudan went through. The sad story of those supposedly suicidal pack animals was covered in detail at Modern Farmer yesterday as part of their entertaining and eye-opening Donkey Week.