An 8 year-old lowland gorilla named Muchana was found dead in his sleeping quarters at the St. Louis Zoo, last Spring. He had pulled apart his climbing rope and become entangled.
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) claimed negligence, pointing out that the zoo had been fined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the connection with the death of two polar bears in 2007. Some reports suggested that Muchana may have committed suicide. Native American beliefs accommodate such an outcome, but what about Western ones?
“It has been asserted that ‘mere brutes’ never commit suicide,” reads an article in The Popular Science Monthly, from 1878. “This is a wanton, it might be said an impudent, assumption.”
Birds, reptiles and other caged animals can persistently refuse food; isn’t that suicide, the article argues.
More clear-cut animal suicides exist too. The article continues: “There are many instances among domestic animals, proving that life-weariness and the determination to end miseries in a sudden manner are not confined to the human race.”
The article presents the case of the dog of Mr. George Hone, of Frindsbury, in England:
“The dog had been suspected of having given indications of approaching hydrophobia, and was accordingly shunned and kept as much as possible from the house. This treatment appeared to cause him much annoyance, and for some days he was observed to be moody and morose. On Thursday morning he proceeded to an intimate acquaintance of his master’s at Upnar, on reaching the residence of whom, he set up a piteous cry on finding that he could not obtain admittance. After waiting at the house some little time, he was seen to go toward the river close by, when he deliberately walked down the bank, and after turning round and giving a kind of farewell howl, walked into the stream, where he kept his head under water, and in a minute or two rolled over dead.”
Then there is the case of a “very wealthy gentleman’s” horse:
“A few nights ago a poor creature, worn to skin and bone, put an end to his existence in a very extraordinary manner. His pedigree is unknown, as he was quite a stranger. A very worthy gentlemen here met him in a public market, and thinking that he could find an employment for him, put him to work, but it was soon discovered that work was not his forte; in fact, he would do anything save work and go errands. His great delight was to roam about the fields and do mischief. People passing him used to ejaculate, ‘Ugh, you ugly brute’ when they saw the scowl which was continuously on his face. His master tried to win him by kindness. The kindness was lost upon him. He next tried the whip, then the cudgel, but all in vain. Work he would not. And as a last resort the punishment of Nebuchadnezzar of old was tried. He was turned out, ‘but house or hauld,’ to eat grass with the oxen. With hungry belly and broken heart he wended his lonely way down by the Moor’s Shore, passed Luckyscaup, turned the Moor’s Point, and still held on his lonely way, regardless of the wondering gaze of the Pool fishermen. At length he arrived at a point opposite the wreck of the Dalhousie, where he stood still; and while the curiosity of the fishermen was wound to the highest pitch as to what was to follow, he, neighing loudly and tossing his old tail, rushed madly into the briny deep, got beyond his depth, held his head under water, and soon ceased to be. The fishermen conveyed the truth, although strange and startling, tidings to the respected owner, that his horse had committed suicide.”
One of the strangest cases of animal suicide involves a bird. A 1901 New York Times article, reports the story of one Henry F. Mattjetscheck, of Hackensack, New Jersey. Mr. Mattjetscheck’s parrot was “a fine talker”, loved by his household and often allowed to roam far from his cage. But when the family got a pet dog, the bird was no longer the center of attention.
One afternoon, the family went out: “When the family returned it is asserted the house was filled with gas, and the trouble was located in the kitchen, where the parrot had pecked a hole through the rubber tubing leading to the gas range and allowed the gas to escape. The bird was found lying dead beside the hole he tore in the piping; Mr. Mattjetscheck asserts that it intentionally inhaled the gas to end its life.”