In 2005 I was asked by a television director, Matthew Burgess of Making Time TV,
if I believed it was possible for dogs to ‘commit suicide’. My immediate reaction was
to reply that it was impossible for a dog to premeditate its own death. I discussed
with Matthew that whilst many animals appear to be able to ‘sense’ that their death
is imminent it is wrong to humanise a dog in terms of human behaviour. It is also true
that some infirm animals are known to seek out a quiet sheltered place to experience a
final resting place in what we would call a dignified end to life. An example of this
is that some African elephants, when they are nearing the end of life, are known to
make one last journey to a place referred to as ‘the elephant's graveyard’.
Instinctively, these giants, the largest of land mammals on this planet, appear to
know that this rather sad mission has to be made. It is also known that domesticated
animals, pet dogs and cats, may search out a ‘bolt hole’ from which to leave this world.
However, in contrast the people in the majority of human suicide cases are recognised
not to have made the same type of instinctive decision. In the mist of acute depression
suffers cannot make rationale decisions and ‘ending it all’ becomes a dreadful option
because they cannot ‘see’ a way out of their situation. So when I replied ‘no’ so
emphatically my next step was to ask Matthew why he wanted to know whether I believed
that dogs could commit ‘suicide’ or not. He then explained that a number of dogs, over
a period of decades, had inexplicably lost their lives ‘jumping off’ Overtoun Bridge,
near Dumbarton, in Scotland. Locals had believed in a range of conspiracy theories -
dogs were mesmerised or attracted to the sound of water or some kind of ‘optical
illusion’ - others believed that nearby electricity pylons produced something that
confused the dogs. There was even the suggestion the bridge might be haunted as a
local man, now sectioned under the Mental Health act, had thrown his baby off the
bridge. However, I was looking for a more scientific explanation. The preliminary
guesswork, based on my research as a human and animal behaviourist, eventually proved
to be the most likely explanation.
When I first stepped onto Overtoun bridge, on a cold winters morning, I was struck by
its striking Gothic structure. Behind me, Overtoun House was, quite literally, shrouded
in a Hammer House of Horror fog. The building, once home to Lord and Lady Overtoun was
left to people of Dumbarton by the wealthy Victorian philanthropist. I was eventually
joined on the bridge by Donna. She was one of the people who, on a family walk the
previous year had lost a lively Border Collie named Ben. She gently described how she
and her husband walked happily onto the bridge with their young son as the dog explored.
Suddenly, without warning, Ben jumped onto the parapet wall and dropped out of sight.
It was not difficult to imagine their sense of panic as Donna's husband struggled down
the steep bank to the gorge river below.
When Donna left me alone on the bridge and strolled back towards the grand house I
walked its full length and tried to put my mind into that of a dog. The entry point at
the far side of the bridge stands at the end of an innocuous looking tarmacadam pathway
lined either side by trees and impenetrable bushes. The path slopes downwards and curves
away until it disappears. A family with a dog would approach the walkway like any
other in a local park with the same pathway. A lively dog would probably criss-cross
from either side and explore the undergrowth. There are no slopes or cliff edges on
this approaching path. Once on the bridge at the first of four sets of parallel
parapets, my first thoughts were that the solid stone walls would create both visual
and sound barriers to a dog. In addition, the initial top of the bridge walls are
covered with ivy that could add an optical illusion. A casual look down, from human
height, makes it obvious that on the other side of the walls and semicircular parapets
there is 40-50 foot drop to the gorge below. A dog might not be made aware of that
factor until the last moment when momentum would carry it too far. Another factor that
struck me was the presence of the continual sound of water rushing between the river
bound boulders. This sound dominates the air and dense foliage chokes the scene
immediately beyond the bridge and serves to hide all but the largest of the water falls
down below in the gorge.
I had predicted from the onset there might be some type of strong scent around the
parapets that was over-stimulating a dog's senses. However, I needed some evidence of
something more tangible. I knew there would be scenting from rats, squirrels, stoats,
pine-martins or the related, but much large, mink. The latter creature first introduced
from North America into the UK for farming and inadvertently (or
into our countryside.
The dogs death-records date back to the onset of mink farming
and this factor offered an additional clue. Evidence of mink
was confirmed in the area
not only by a naturalist,
who spotted droppings beneath the bridge, but also by Kenny,
who explained as an angler that the top hill quarry had lakes that contained trout
(perfect mink diet). James, my brother in law, confirmed the presence of mink who
calmly watched one follow a trail behind me as I was being filmed. The acoustic sweep
suggested nothing untoward.
During the making of the program to be screened later this year I supervised various
experiments with dogs at Lords House Farm at Rishton (East Lancashire) including ones
based on wall-jumping and scent-reacting. The answer to the so-called ‘dog-bridge
suicides’ is a secret but it lies in a combination of factors. This story is one that
I know fascinates dog owners around the world. I enjoyed my research and investigations.
Suffice it to say my final verdict is one of misadventure rather than suicide.