Animal Suicide

Richard O’Barry gets misty eyed when he talks about Cathy. His beautiful girl died in his arms. Suicide he says. Cathy was a bottlenose dolphin, one of five he trained for the 60’s television hit, “Flipper.” Her death in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium changed his world and set him on a course of activism. “I knew she was tired of suffering,” O’Barry says. “She was living a miserable life and she was tired of being miserable.” Does O’Barry feel responsible? “Of course. I’m the guy who captured her. She’d have been better off if we left her alone.” According to O’Barry, Cathy chose to stop breathing, something dolphins are physiologically capable of, and he believes it was an intentional act brought on by her captivity. He doesn’t care if you believe him or not. It’s his story and he’s sticking to it. Since then he has spent his life crusading for a future where dolphins and orcas will never again see the inside of a tank.

We were out on the water off Key West, Florida, working on a story for HDNet’s World Report about this wild notion of animal suicide. Our correspondent, Jennifer London, was on a journey of discovery to see if it was indeed possible for an animal to commit suicide. O’Barry, who first floated this notion to raised eyebrows in the Oscar award winning documentary, “The Cove,” wanted us to see dolphins in the wild, frolicking in their natural environment, swimming 40 miles a day, speeding through the waves like torpedos in their watery world of sound and vibration. Afterwards, we went to the Miami Seaquarium on Key Biscayne to see how the other half lives, performing for audiences, swimming in circles in small, concrete tanks, begging for fish, away from their social circles and the rhythms of the sea. The contrast was striking.

But can captivity really cause a dolphin to commit suicide? They seem to be smiling, don’t they? What kid hasn’t been charmed by the dolphin’s toothy grin? Dr. Ann Weaver, who studies dolphins in Tampa Bay, calls it a frozen face and doesn’t buy the notion of animal suicide. She acknowledges that animals can get depressed (that’s well documented) but the leap to despair, which is a hopelessness that carries into the future, doesn’t occur. She speaks about a continuum from melancholy to the blues to depression to despondency to despair. According to Dr. Weaver, the final step to despair, which is a tipping point in suicide, is uniquely human. Then there is the powerful survival instinct. “I think everything they are designed to be is to keep on keeping on. So I think suicide is the curse of the human consciousness, but not other consciousnesses. I don’t believe they give up and that’s what suicide requires.”

Dr. Weaver tells us about a dolphin named Whitley who used to beg for food. She chokes up as she describes how the dolphin who had been turned into a beggar, then was maimed by a shark, still came to her looking for one last handout before sinking into the water for the final time. She mentioned a heron who had its bill ripped off yet still tried to catch lizards until it eventually starved to death too. Giving up, she said, is not in the DNA of animals. And suicide involves intention. How can you know what an animal is thinking? “How do we ask the animal if it intended to do this?” Dr. Weaver wonders.

Finally, we visited Dr. Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and marine mammal specialist at Emory University in Atlanta. In the animal behavior world she is a rock star for a mirror test study that showed dolphins recognized their reflections. Self awareness and a sense of past, present and future are essential if one is to commit suicide. She shows us a human brain and a dolphin brain and explains how evolved they both are. Such big brains indicate a high level of cognitive processes. In fact, Dr. Marino believes that humans and dolphins share emotions, that they are more alike than different. “I think the idea that other animals can’t commit suicide because they are hardwired to live is very old fashioned,” Dr. Marino explains. “Basically it says that we are aware of what we are doing and other animals are just driven by this hardwired red in tooth and claw to survive and there is no evidence for that.” So how would they commit suicide? There are examples of dolphins and whales beating their heads on walls and jumping out of their tanks. Hard evidence? No. Tantalizing information. Yes.

So at the end of the day did we find the answer to the question “Can Animals Commit Suicide?” You’ll have to watch HDNet’s World Report on June 8 for a deeper exploration. It’s a provocative inquiry and scientists agree it requires more research. But no matter what the science says it won’t change what Rick O’Barry saw when Cathy looked in his eyes and let herself go. “I lived with her for seven years. She commited suicide. She died in my arms and I experienced that.”

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One thought on “Animal Suicide

  1. Dolphins are said to be intelligent so I wouldn’t be surprised if research confirms that they are capable of suicide. But its sad how us humans drive them into such a morbid act of suicide.

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