Mental health is a hot topic right now in our culture. Medium in particular has been featuring a lot of articles having to do with mental health. (Shameless plug: including my own!)
While reading one of these articles the other day, it occurred to me that you never hear of animals committing suicide. Suicide seems to be a uniquely human experience.
Or is it?
In 1845, the Illustrated London News reported that a Newfoundland dog had been acting less lively over a period of days before being seen “to throw himself in the water and endeavor to sink by preserving perfect stillness of the legs and feet”.2 Every time he was rescued he attempted to do this again before he finally held his head underwater until death.2 Other dogs, as well as ducks, have also drowned themselves.3 One duck did so after the death of its mate.4 Some dogs will refuse food after the death of their owner until they die as well.4 In 2009, 28 cows and bulls mysteriously threw themselves off a cliff in the Swiss Alps over the span of three days.5better source needed One deer leapt from a cliff to its death so as to avoid being captured by hunting dogs.4 Another famous example of animal suicide is the case of the dolphin which most often portrayed Flipper, on the 1960s television show Flipper. According to trainer Richard O’ Barry in the film The Cove, Kathy, the dolphin, drowned herself before him.
This certainly looks like suicide. But further research reveals that this isn’t suicide. Suicide is the act of killing oneself intentionally. Animals may do things that lead to their death, but it isn’t intentional. They don’t understand what they’re doing.
For instance, we’ve all heard of dogs who die soon after their owners. But they do not die of grief, the way one elderly spouse will pass away soon after the other. Dogs who die soon after their owners do so because they won’t accept food from anyone other than their owner. So while it is a broken social tie that causes their deaths, it isn’t grief, and these dogs are not trying to die.
Animals can suffer health issues like humans do, such as anxiety or PTSD. This can lead animals to do self-destructive things. But even so, these animals are not trying to die. They are only trying to relieve their own pain. A human analog might be someone who accidentally dies while cutting themselves.
Stories that break the mold, like the lab dog who threw himself in the water, well, they’re considered fables.
So, in conclusion…
It is generally considered that humans are the only known beings to use weapons when putting an end to their own life.
Why are humans the only creatures that consciously decide to end their own lives?
Humans are the only animals with advanced powers of deduction. Any animal in pain wants the pain to stop. “The idea that death means mental oblivion [the end of pain] is a sophisticated one that can be reached only by deduction, not observation,” says Aeon.co. So, perhaps the only reason animals don’t commit suicide is that they’re not smart enough to think of it. (No appeal to spirituality necessary).
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