Suicide by Animal

Julie Ramsey/Creative Commons


A while back, we discussed the odd methods of suicide mentioned in a recent book by Mark Dery—death by leeches, death by black widow spider (see the comments in that link). Dery told me he didn’t know anything about those cases beyond what he’d put in the notes to his book. Those notes led me to Kay Redfield Jamison’s Night Falls Fast, a book about suicide. Jamison’s book, disappointingly, does not name a source for those cases.

I did find her book relevant to another topic we often discuss here: suicide by zoo. Jamison writes at some length about the case of a woman who turned up in the lion enclosure at the National Zoo in 1995. The woman was hard to identify because, inconveniently, the lions had eaten her fingertips; she couldn’t be printed. Police soon found, however, that she had been a paranoid schizophrenic who believed herself to be Jesus, or else the sister of Jesus. Jamison points out something I hadn’t really thought about: that schizophrenics of a Christian bent have a particular affinity for lions. For one thing, there’s the biblical story of Daniel, who was divinely preserved in the lion’s den. For another, there’s the tradition of Christians martyred in the arena. Perhaps these connections help explain the case of the atheist lion I mentioned in Deadly Animals.

Jamison has little to say about the behavior of the lions, except to mumble vaguely about territory, feeling threatened, curiosity, “instinct.” That’s all very well, but it doesn’t feel like a complete answer, since the autopsy report listed among the causes of death “soft-tissue loss.” Sounds to me like somebody was hungry. In a playful mood, too, to judge from the medical examiner’s careful remark that “this was not an instantaneous death.”

8 comments:

  1. Gordon, there was a story recounted in one a book I read about man eaters, about a robber who had robbed a zoo and then hopped over a fence; the fence being one side of the tiger enclosure. Essentially the tigers played very rough with the man until he was dead.
    Not all intrusions into exhibits end in fatality though. A man in Buenos Aires went into the lion exhibit with Quique the adult male African lion whereby Quique laid down on the man and when the man would squirm, Quique would give little bites to him. Zookeepers mentioned that Quique didn't see the man as a prey species and so really didn't know what to do with him.

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    1. Sounds a lot like my sister's cat when confronted with a sparrow.

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    2. That's pretty much what I was thinking--house cat with a bug or mouse. Fascinating anecdotes.

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  2. Ricciutti quotes an instance where a man climbed into the Bronx Zoo's lion enclosure and proclaimed loudly that he "knew the lions of Judah" and that the cats would not attack him. The keepers, says Ricciutti, "told him that these lions were not of Judah but of the Bronx" and managed to talk him out of the enclosure before they attacked.

    The lion, of course, is a potent symbol of divine power in both Old and New Testaments (theologian and childrens' author C.S. Lewis chose to personify Jesus as a lion--the original Aslan--in the popular Narnia series.) Not only do lions have a heavy history as "good guys" in pop culture, so that even a not necessarily suicidal, but sad and unbalanced individual with a desperate need to believe in a bond with animals beyond that which an owner shares with a dog, horse, etc (and Lord knows I meet a few of these in the pet business!)might easily be tempted to try and befriend one, but like all cats, when not actually in motion they appear lazy and docile. People also have a hard time grasping that the urge to hunt or kill is not always in sync with the animal actually seeing them as food: we see this most tragically with domestic dogs, where a child screams or runs and this trips an instinctive response in the dog.

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    1. Ah, the old case of the disenchanted human trying to bond with wild animals...

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    2. Yeah. People need to understand that your loving them doesn't mean they love you. Or that their loving you means they won't kill you.

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  3. Whenever I do a presentation with my animals for school kids, 4-H'ers, Boy Scouts, etc., I always point out that "not meaning you any harm" doesn't equate to "wants to be friends." I cite the fact that a normally trusting dog, cat or horse may react in a decidedly ugly fashion under the right set of stressors--how much more so will a wild animal?

    I've come to believe that there is no such thing as a person who has a "way with animals"--there are people whose natural mannerisms and behavior are conducive to working with certain types of animals; or people who are schooled enough with their charges can--to a degree--predict how some animals are apt to act. But the disgusting and exploitative reality show "Fatal Attractions" on Animal Planet does get one thing right: an animal will act pretty much the way Nature has programmed it to do for millions of years, in the wild or in captivity. You'd think we'd be quicker in the uptake.

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    1. I suppose a lot of people get their information about animals only from such TV shows and never have a chance to develop a practical sense of animal behavior.

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