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Friday, November 18, 2011

Silence of the whales: Can this be suicide?

The Suicide (Painting by Edouard Manet)
As a result of this week’s beaching of 61 whales, people have once again been wondering:  Do animals commit suicide?

Although it’s virtually impossible to know for sure what the motives of any creature are, we can nevertheless study behaviors. reports on the following examples of self-destructive animal behaviors that are thought to be possible suicides:  A “depressed” Newfoundland dog kept holding his head “determinedly” under water for several minutes; “other dogs drowned or starved themselves after losing their owners;” “a duck drowned itself after the death of its mate;” infected mole rats and bees abandoned their colonies “to prevent an epidemic;” and single-celled algae engaged in “programmed cell death when exposed to stresses that they’re fully capable of overcoming” (which then “promoted growth in the survivors”).

Yes, but are these examples of self-destructive behaviors actually suicides?  Wikipedia defines “suicide” as “the act of intentionally causing one’s own death.”  In humans, despair, mental disorders, substance abuse, interpersonal troubles, and/or financial difficulties are often linked to suicides.  Cultural factors also play a significant role.  For example, “during the samurai era in Japan, seppuku was respected as a means of atonement for failure or as a form of protest.”  Ancient Greek and Roman cultures did not necessarily view suicide as immoral.

However, some religions have a strong taboo against suicide.  Wikipedia reports that “suicide is forbidden by Jewish law,” although “the Talmud is somewhat unclear on the matter.”  Many Catholics consider death by suicide to be “a grave or serious sin” because “one’s life is the property of God… and to destroy that life is to wrongly assert dominion over what is God’s…”  Some Conservative Protestants consider suicide to be “self-murder” that “is the same as if the person  murdered another human being.”

It seems that the defining factors of “suicide” are therefore fairly dependent upon the societal context within which the act occurs.  Although the spirituality of animals is even more difficult to assess than their motives, it seems as though they do self-destruct with intentionality (and even altruism) at times.  Add to this the results of animal studies that show self-awareness capabilities (such as recognizing one’s image in a mirror) - and it seems very likely that animals can and do sometimes commit suicide.


Copyright November 18, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

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