Can animals actually commit suicide? Mass animal deaths and apparent animal suicides are not entirely uncommon, but experts remain uncertain as to whether animals posses the mental faculties needed to end their own lives deliberately.
Accounts of "suicidal" animals vary, but as Life's Little Mysteries explains, "the kind of abstract thinking [needed for suicide] is probably out of the range of animals." A researcher from the University of Manchester told the site, "Lacking the capacity to visualize and enact their own deaths, animals are seen to be driven by an instinct of self preservation."
While others argue that some animals deserve more credit for their cognitive abilities, self-destructive behaviors probably aren't suicide. Slate notes that some animals do have self-awareness and the ability to "speculate about the future," but "no one really knows which animals, if any, can combine these capacities to perform an act similar to human suicide."
Those who have witnessed self-destructive animal behavior personally may hold a different view. Dolphin trainer Ric O'Barry -- who was featured in the documentary "The Cove" -- became an activist after witnessing what he claims was a dolphin suicide in the 1960s, explained Time in 2010.
O'Barry argues, "The [animal entertainment] industry doesn't want people to think dolphins are capable of suicide, but these are self-aware creatures with a brain larger than a human brain. If life becomes so unbearable, they just don't take the next breath. It's suicide."
Even if it isn't suicide in the human sense, animals can and do engage in self-destructive behavior. Below, read about some of the most notable and mysterious alleged mass animal "suicides" in recent years.
In the past fifty years, 50 to 600 dogs have jumped over Scotland's Overtoun Bridge and plummeted to their deaths. Several years ago, five dogs jumped in under six months. The Daily Mail has featured reports of horrified pet owners who walked their dog over the bridge and, without warning, saw their pet leap over the bridge falling 50 ft to the rocky bottom below. Perhaps even more disturbing, there are reports of "second timers" -- dogs who have survived the fall and jumped over the same bridge again. Many theories have circulated about why dogs react this way to the bridge. Some suggest that the dogs are deliberately committing suicide, perhaps due to depression in their owners or even a supernatural force. More recent research suggests that it may be the scent of minks, an animal known to live under the bridge.
In November 2011, a pod of 61 whales beached themselves in New Zealand. 18 survived, but were later euthanized to end their suffering, reported the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. While Slate explained, "one theory holds that when a sick individual heads to shore to die, the others follow," it was not necessarily suicide. Subsequent whale strandings at Farewell Spit have given rise to the theory that the area is "a whale trap due to the way its shallow waters seem to confuse whales and diminish their ability to navigate."
In 2009, the Daily Mail reported that 28 cows and bulls threw themselves over a Swiss cliff in only three days. While it was reported that the cows "appear[ed] to be committing suicide," the animals were likely spooked by "violent thunderstorms" in the area.
In a pretty strong argument that sheep really do follow blindly, hundreds of sheep followed each other over a cliff in Turkey in 2005. According to the BBC, 400 sheep died, but another 1,100 falling sheep survived the pileup due to bodies cushioning their 15-meter fall. The mass “sheep suicide” devastated villagers in the eastern Van province, as families had relied heavily on their sheep for survival. USA Today suggests that it was an estimated loss of $100,000. What we want to know is, if all the sheep were following each other blindly, which stupid sheep was leading them all?
In 2005, National Geographic reported that thousands of jumbo squid were found beached in California. The death of these “Red Devils” remains a mystery - they may live at depths of over 2,000 feet, so it’s hard to learn much about them. In life or death.