Do any animals other than humans commit suicide?
Animals and Suicide
This is a very sensitive and charged topic, and has many
perspectives from different philosophies and religions, with
disagreement even among professionals in the fields of animal
cognition and behaviorology.
Suicide involves a sense of awareness and emotion; both of which
are hard to measure in general, and become an even more complicated
issue when dealing with animals.
These kinds of questions are philosophical, in part religious
(what is death? What does knowledge of it mean? What is
consciousness?), and crucially even have sharply divided answers
within the fields of behaviorology (depending not on the science,
but on the religious and philosophical perspectives of the
To give a single "No" answer to this , would seem just as
misleading as to give a single "No" answer to the "does god exist?"
question. Assuming a negative because we can't say for sure on a
topic doesn't seem to be precedent.
The most important point is that because we can't determine
what's going on in the mind of another - any other, even other
people (see Solipsism) - the question is essentially unanswerable
in any absolute sense.
Something like this would be more consistent, to provide a more
broad and comprehensive perspective:
Some say NO...
In order for an act to be classified as "suicide," the agent
must know that what it is about to do will end its life; it
must possess some concept of death. So the crucial question becomes
whether or not non-human animals possess such a concept.
In order to have this awareness, the agent must also understand
that it could exist in one of two possible states: alive or dead.
Some scientists believe that these sorts of thoughts are far too
abstract for any known animal to think, even including the more
intelligent, non-humans like Chimpanzees, Bonobos, and Dolphins.
So, No, many people believe animals do not commit suicide as
Some Say Yes...
Yet, How can you deny the numerous stories of animals who
deliberately hurt themselves when put in captivity, or pets who
starve themselves and die after the loss of their master? The
animal puts it's life in jeopardy because it is 'unhappy.'
Whether this is conscious or unconscious is the question at hand
and whether this 'unhappines' leads to death, or suicide is hard to
The real answer is NO ONE KNOWS
But we can try to understand this topic better by looking at
research, stories, science and contributor input ......
Suicide, with regards to a seemingly deliberate action ending one's
life with no other apparent purpose, is regularly engaged in by
many species of animals (see some examples in the next section)-
the contentious issue is whether those creatures genuinely
understand the concept of death, and that their actions will result
in it- that is, while the action itself may have been apparently
deliberate, we can not know for certain if the desired effect was
deliberately suicide (and not, for example, merely self harm).
Due to the ubiquity of fear of death among humans, and our
knowledge of evolutionary biology and behavior of near-relatives,
we can intuit that fear of death is on some level instinctual, and
as such, that knowledge itself could be understood in the same way
for humans and many other animals- as an instinctual fear. In that
sense, even when we cannot survey other species of animals on the
topic, we can understand that a dog jumping from a building is
probably confronting that same instinctual fear- in the presence of
essentially the same knowledge of mortality as humans possess- and
is committing suicide.
Beyond the instinctual knowledge argument, many animals have
been taught human language, and can express basic knowledge of life
and death and very acute self-awareness in rigorous testing.
Some argue that this knowledge is not sincere, but a form of
parroting- not only is this argument flawed due to also being an
argument for Solipsism (the belief that one's own consciousness is
the only consciousness, and all other people and other animals
around one are essentially automitons); but from a cognition
perspective, actual knowledge is also much simpler than such
complex parroting, and so should be assumed as the simplest
scientific explanation (as per Occam's razor).
From this perspective, the answer would amount to a resounding
'Yes' with regards to some animals being capable of suicide,
however, some believe that the knowledge itself is contained in
linguistic memes and the abstract thought granted a mind by a
language, which could mean only those other species which have been
taught human language and abstract thought would necessarily
inherit that knowledge from humans. That is to say, the signing
gorilla Koko would understand the concepts, but a wild gorilla may
or may not- this would depend on whether the animal languages used
by the species contain a concept of death (which, because we have a
poor grasp of those languages, would be impossible to say at the
Many Eastern religions which relate sentience to reincarnation
and shared souls would also argue for that fundamental
self-awareness, indicating that other species of animals can commit
suicide, while most of the Abrahamic religions are silent or
inconclusive on the topic.
If very precise and intellectual knowledge of death is required to
qualify death as deliberate (rather than a general instinctual
one), the issue becomes much more complicated. Quite
controversially, this could even disqualify many people as having
committed suicide because they, "do not understand what death is";
a theist and atheist could equally suggest that the other doesn't
understand death, and so is acting on false pretenses in engaging
in what would otherwise be a suicidal action, obfuscating the
intent. If death really means oblivion, then is attempting to
transport oneself to another spiritual universe really suicide?
Conversely, if death means passing on to another realm, is
attempting to annihilate oneself really suicide?
Some theists within a religion believe that animals share
inherent knowledge of the true nature of life and death with
humans, while others believe this knowledge is exclusively divinely
gifted to humans or even that it can only be understood in the
context of a single true human religion, which would make it
incoherent to imagine animals possessing this knowledge (or people
of another religions possessing it)- as such, this issue is
contentious in almost all circles, because it is rarely
conclusively addressed by scripture.
Some religious sects also believe that non-human animals are
automatons without any real knowledge or emotion at all
(philosophical zombies), which are incapable of acting with genuine
intellectual deliberation because they lack free will as granted by
humans through the 'soul' (which has various theological origins,
from inception, to creation, to temporary habitation by divine
spirits)- this, likewise, would make animal suicide only apparent
reflex rather than deliberate action.
Whether death, and the knowledge of it, is understood
rationally, scientifically, philosophically, or spiritually is of
crucial importance to the question of animal suicide.
Additional Input and Examples:
Some animals, such as birds and mammals display obvious signs of
emotions such as happiness, excitement but also sadness,
depression, and loneliness. When driven to extremes animals will
terminate their own lives be it by starvation, suffocation, or
blunt force trauma. The most common type of animal self-termination
is that in which an animal (like a dog) forms a very strong bond
with either a human being or another an animal and then loses that
significant other. Many intelligent animals form such bonds and
they engage in a broad array of behaviors indicating that they are
aware of the absence of their companion. For example, dogs in such
situations sometimes go into depression and reject food and
attention until they eventually die. The inactivity caused by
depression is not the same as suicide, even though it may lead to
death. If dogs were to actively engage in behavior that would
obviously lead to their own demise, like throwing themselves under
cars or running off cliffs, then this could indicate awareness of
death and thus be considered suicide. A much more plausible
explanation for the fatal inactivity of dogs and other intelligent
mammals is that they are paralyzed by feelings of grief and loss.
Observed behavior does not suggest that they know that their lives
- Tarsiers have been known to intentionally injure or kill
themselves due to unhappiness or stress of being in an enclosure.
Because of this reason they are not in zoos. In captivity, the
tarsier can be so extremely distressed it may die of psychological
trauma and have even been reported to smash their heads against
objects resulting in fatality.
- Some zoologists have noted that African Elephants
deliberately pick up and scatter the bones of deceased elephants.
This could be taken as a sign that they are aware of their own
mortality, but elephants do not engage in nearly the range of
behaviors we would expect if they were truly aware that they could
die. The bone scattering could be explained in a variety of other
ways. It could, for example, be a simple survival behavior that
hides their migration routes or feeding patterns.
- As opposed to elephants, all known human cultures indicate
their awareness of death in many different ways. Even though the
world's cultures have tremendously different ideas about what
happens to an individual after life ends, they all agree that some
dramatic change of state occurs at the moment of death. Moreover,
each culture indicates its awareness of mortality through a
combination of rituals, taboos, myths, and linguistic expressions.
In order to conclude that a species is aware of either life or
death, it should also exhibit a broad range of indicative
behaviors. No known animal engages in a sufficiently wide range
behaviors that could exhibit awareness of either life or death.
Without such an awareness, animals cannot be said to commit suicide
even though they may inadvertently kill themselves.
- It has also been observed that, under the right circumstances,
will commit suicide by repeatedly stinging themselves in the
head. These circumstances generally involving very high temperature
situations. This behavior is likely an attempt by the scorpion to
use its neural toxin to alleviate its current discomfort. Because
scorpions show no other signs of being aware that such a thing as
death exists, we have no reason to call this suicide.
- Some animals die because of their own actions but it is
difficult to classify that as Suicide. When certain bees sting or
mate, they lose their stinger and die from that injury. There is
little evidence suggesting that bees know that the use of their
stinger will result in their own death.
- The same occurs when some types of spiders mate. The
male is sometimes eaten by the female shortly after the copulate.
Then in other situations the female has her eggs hatch within
herself so they can have a nutritious meal as they eat their way
out. The same is the case with Praying Mantises. Either after (or
DURING) the mating process, the female eats the males head and
eventually the rest of his body.
- All of these examples suggest that animals can kill themselves
under certain circumstances but that they do so inadvertently. Even
depressed animals who are clearly suffering great emotional pain,
do not seem to be aware that their inactivity will lead to their
- Lemmings also are said to take their own lives. Seeing as these
fat little rodents can't swim, they sink. So when they leap into
the water -forgot why the heck they do- they sink.