Suicide Warning Signs, Statistics, and Prevention

Do any animals other than humans commit suicide?

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2011-01-30 14:49:13

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 ......

Additional concerns:

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).

'Yes' Reasoning:

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.

'No' Reasoning:

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

will cease.

  • 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

    own death.

  • 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.

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