Do animals commit suicide? Rom has regaled almost everyone we know with his animal-suicide stories.
In the 1970s, Rom and his Irula buddy, Rajamani were looking for reptiles in Sengeltheri, in what was later to become Kalakkad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve. One early morning, Rom was brushing his teeth, when he saw a stork-billed kingfisher perched on a tree branch overlooking the water. Suddenly it dove straight down, and then to Rom's amazement, it lay on the water surface, wings flapping. Rom jumped from rock to rock, and when he reached the bird, it was dead. Blood oozed from its mouth. The kingfisher had hit an underwater rock.
I remembered this story recently and contended, “That's not suicide; it was an accident.”
“Possibly. A really stupid thing for a kingfisher to do. But the treepie did take its own life.”
Rom was swimming in the sea off the Croc Bank one afternoon. A rufous treepie flew straight out from the Bank, as if it were headed to the Andaman Islands. Suddenly, it dove into a wave, about ten metres in front of Rom. By the time he picked the bird up, it had drunk a lot of water. It flapped weakly and wheezed, opening and closing its mouth. Standing on a sandbar, Rom tried to give it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. “Its breath smelt rank,” he recalls with a grimace. Despite administering CPR, the bird gave up the ghost in his hands, and Rom let it float away.
Rom asked, “Why would a treepie fly straight out over the sea if not to commit suicide?”
Why would any animal want to kill itself? Over the years, accounts of animal suicide reflected the prevalent values of human society, say Drs. Edmund Ramsden and Duncan Wilson. For instance, Aristotle recounted the story of a stallion, who on discovering he had mated with his mother, flung himself off a cliff. Shades of Oedipus Rex?
According to Iberian folklore, scorpions, when surrounded by flames, sting themselves to death. In 1883, psychologist Conwy Lloyd Morgan conducted various scientific but horrific experiments, and exposed this as a mere folk tale.
Humans have attributed numerous reasons: “age, despair, grief, jealousy, desperation, captivity, cruelty, insanity, self-sacrifice through maternal or social affection, or sheer ennui.” These are the very same reasons people commit suicide.
Animals do sacrifice their lives for the greater good of their species. Male mantids offer themselves as food to their ravenous mates while mating. Bees commit hara-kiri when they sting any animal that threatens their hives; their guts spill out when the stinger is pulled out. These actions don't rate as suicide as they are hardwired into the insects' behaviour. What about rats infected with the protozoan Toxoplasma gondii that throw themselves under the noses of cats? This also doesn't rate as suicide as the rat is helplessly under the control of the parasite.
In ‘Myths about Suicide,' psychologist Thomas Joiner lists three aspects in the suicidal tendencies of humans: A strong motivation to kill oneself, the belief that one's life is worth more dead than alive, and a sense of alienation from family and community.
To be suicidal, an animal should be capable of deliberation, planning and decision-making. But first, it has to recognise itself as an individual entity. So far only higher mammals like elephants, primates and sea mammals appear to be self-aware.
The treepie belongs to the crow family, among the smartest of the bird world. European magpies, also of the same family, have proven to be self-aware. As innovative problem solvers, New Caledonian crows are even better than chimpanzees. The birds are capable of fashioning and using tools in ingenious ways to fish food from difficult situations. If cleverness runs in the family, the treepie may well be capable of committing suicide. Or it may have been disoriented or sick.
We'll never know since it didn't leave a suicide note.