Have Animals A Foreknowledge Of Death?

[April 30, 1892.]

In a recent Spectator there is a quotation from Pierre Loti to the

effect that "animals not only fear death, but fear it the more because

they are aware that they have no future." Pierre Loti is a brilliant

novelist, but I am not aware that he is a scientific naturalist, and I

trust his idea is a mere chimera. Loti would take from the brutes the

one privilege for which men may envy them,
and endows them with a

knowledge of the aftertime that we have only by revelation. However, two

common-sense naturalists have published their belief that the lower

animals have a foreknowledge of death, and one of them goes so far as to

give an account of an old horse committing suicide. He says the animal

frequently suffered from some internal disease, and that it deliberately

walked into a pond, and, putting its nostrils under water, stood thus

till it dropped dead from suffocation. The incident, I think, is easily

explained. Many horses drink in the manner described, and in old horses

heart-disease is not uncommon. I imagine the stoppage of respiration

caused a sudden and natural death from heart-disease.

I should like to ask naturalists who think animals know that they must

die, where they draw the line. They must stop somewhere between a dog

and a dormouse. Poets have made far more frequent allusion to the

subject than naturalists, and they may be quoted on both sides. Philip

James Bailey, in illustration of his contention that hope is universal,

says: "and the poor hack that sinks down on the flints, upon whose eye

the dust is settling, he hopes to die." But we have on the other hand

Shelley's Skylark, with its "ignorance of pain," because it differs from

men who "look before and after." Wordsworth's little girl of eight knew

less than her dog, if she had one, for, says the poet, "what could she

know of death?" I admit that when the carnivora have crushed their prey

to death they cease to mangle them; but I fancy that is only because

there is no more resistance; and a bull will trample on a hat and leave

it when it becomes a shapeless mass. The nearest thing I ever saw to an

apparent foreknowledge of death, was in the case of that least

intelligent of dogs, a greyhound. I had to shoot it to prevent useless

suffering from disease. It followed me willingly, but when I led it to a

pit prepared as its grave it instantly rushed off at its best speed. I

suggest that it saw instinctively something unpleasant was about to

happen, but it does not follow that death was present to its mind.

Domestic poultry will furiously attack one of their number that

struggles on the ground in its death-agony. They do not dream of death;

they think its contortions are a challenge to combat.