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2008-08-27 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

by Joanne Anderson

PETS, PETS, PETS Joanne Anderson

Imagine writing a letter to Charles Darwin and having him answer. This particular 1874 inquiry was about dog suicides. Odd topic, wouldn’t you say? An 1888 magazine contains an essay where Lillie Devereux Blake, a writer and suffragette, expresses her belief that distraught dogs do kill themselves. 

   Blake writes to none other but Darwin to ask his opinion. The father of evolution actually responds with doubts about her animal suicide theory. She “sticks to her guns” anyway, citing more case histories of depressed dogs ending their own lives because they were upset or jealous.

    My search for Sensation and the Westminster Kennel Club clubhouse in Babylon has led to intriguing tangents and other dog discoveries. Since I collect authentic copies of old journals and newspapers with references to Westminster Kennel Club’s Babylon roots, other stories, like this dog suicide piece, catch my eye.           

     Lillie Devereux Blake’s article “Canine Suicides” is in the April-Sept., 1888 Outing (a once popular recreation magazine) that I purchased from an antique book vendor because an original copy of a 13-page article by C.S. Pelham-Clinton about Westminster and the Babylon clubhouse is part of the bound volume. There’s also a fabulous, illustrated installment about the history of dog collars.

      Blake’s dog suicide anecdotes would not win any points with the ASPCA. She opens her article describing an encounter years earlier with an elderly physician who told her about Jack his faithful Terrier who ran away after he beat the dog for tearing up a valuable rug. The doctor searched for the dog the next morning but learned sad news from a grocer who had fed the fugitive and then shooed him home. According to the grocer, instead of heading home, Jack “deliberately” trotted onto a railroad bridge, and despite the cries of the grocer and others, was killed by an oncoming train. The dog was familiar with the tracks, so the guilt-ridden doctor was convinced Jack intentionally sought death rather than face him again. 

     After Blake recounts this incident to Darwin, his response comes from Down, Beckenham, Kent on Feb. 18, 1874. (That date would be after the 6th edition of The Origin of the Species, so he’s already famous.) Here’s an excerpt from Darwin’s reply:

     “Dear Madame, —I am very much obliged for your kindness in having sent me so many curious particulars with regard to animals…..With respect to the suicide, I do not think anyone of a sceptical {sic} frame of mind will believe in such cases. The dog which was killed on the railroad may have been paralyzed with terror, or been on the point of suffering from epilepsy, to which dogs are liable, and such wild explanation seems to be more probable than that a dog should know what death is, and voluntarily incur it. With many thanks for your kindness, I remain, dear madame, 


                     Yours very faithfully,


                   CHARLES DARWIN”

     Keep in mind that in 1858 Blake’s first husband shot himself in the head, an alleged suicide. At first she refused remarriage and, as a way to support herself, became a Civil War correspondent. So her fervent suffrage and suicide views may have been influenced by personal experience. She wasn’t about to drop her dog suicide theory when Darwin failed to agree with her. Perhaps in defiance, Blake began collecting newspaper reports from all over the country.

     Her Outing piece goes on to tell about two dogs that ‘jumped” out of a third- and fifth-story windows—the first because tormentors in New Orleans had given him turpentine; the other because the pooch refused to stay with a new owner. Next she mentions a Newfoundland who steps on to the train tracks ‘on purpose” like Jack the mean doctor’s Terrier. Another is a case of sibling rivalry. A dog is upstaged by a new pup so the dog “decides” to take up residence in a hotel, but he too meets his demise when hypnotized by the spell of the nearby train. Finally she includes a jealous Poodle who can’t stand to see the new dog get more attention than him. The situation becomes so unbearable that the Poodle hurls his little body over a cliff, falling 50 feet to his death.

    Actually when going through 19th C. microfilm looking for Westminster clues, I saw similar suicidal interpretations of dogs killed on the Babylon tracks printed in our local paper the South Side Signal. Perhaps such profound anthropomorphism was a Victorian mindset.

    Yes, dogs can grieve and die of broken hearts, but whether they actively plot to do away with themselves seems a bit far fetched. In the meantime, Blake who later contributed to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Woman’s Bible reminds us here “that our canine friends have such warm and sensitive spirits that when cruelly treated they prefer death to a life of torture or the loss of affection, it behooves all lovers of the “noble brute’ to see that their dog friends are kindly treated.” Amen. Even Mr. Survival of the Fittest could have agreed with that statement.

    For Adoption: Look closely and you will see a NY Senator endorsing this week’s canine candidates at Babylon Town Shelter (643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon. “Chelsea” in Cage 35 is a young Shepherd mix, still energetic and puppyish; while “Hillary” in Cage 27 is a more mature Husky/Beagle with 1 blue and 1 brown eye.  She’s about 2 yrs. and seems to mesh fine with kids and other dogs. The shelter has plenty of “Demo-cat” and “Re-pup-lican” delegates needing homes.

Female: Shepherd/Dobie pup Cage 42; “Fluffy” in C-9 - longhaired black cat. Her owner is deceased.

Male: “Spike” German Pinscher mix Cage 24- SPCA seizure; “Panda” Cage 7; “Scooby” tan Pit Cage 4; purebred Wirehaired Fox Terrier Cage 13;  handsome Maine Coon in the Cat Colony- from a big eviction.

Dates to Remember

Call 631-661-6164:

•Sat. 9/13-Low Cost Microchip Clinic -1:30 - 5:30 pm at Last Hope Dog Walk-Wantagh Park.

•Sat. 9/20-Almost Home Animal Rescue Beach Party at Ice Palace Cherry Grove- 4 – 8 pm.

•Thurs. 9/25-“Pesos for Paco” at Don Ricardo’s Babylon -6-10 pm-Last Hope benefit dinner for a special Chihuahua’s orthopedic surgery.




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