The Mystery of the 'Dog Suicide' Bridge
Overtoun Bridge in Scotland is kind of like the Bermuda Triangle of bridges, specifically for dogs with a death wish.
Overtoun Bridge: Lairich Rig, CC By 2.0; Dog photo: Ray Larabie, CC By 2.0
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
"I've walked the bridge," says Jenna, 20, from Glasgow. "The first time I reached a point, and it was as if the air got thinner and my stomach jumped, a bit like when you miss a step going down a flight of stairs. The second time, I just couldn't stop feeling like something bad was going to happen. There was a woman with a dog at the edge of the bridge, and the dog would not take a step forward. Later, I found out that a couple of dogs had jumped to their death from the bridge that weekend."
The bridge in question, Overtoun Bridge, spans the Overtoun Burn, in the village of Milton, near Dumbarton in West Dunbartonshire, Scotland. Designed by the acclaimed landscape architect H.E. Milner, with stone parapets 18 inches thick, it was completed in 1895 and sits on the approach road to Overtoun House, at Scot's Baronial country house and estate built 33 years prior. The house itself sits on a hill, overlooking the River Clyde. If you’ve never been there, you might know it from its use in 2012's baffling sci-fi epic, Cloud Atlas.
The house is said to be haunted, obviously. In Scotland, everything old and Scottish is said to be haunted. But the bridge? There's supposedly much more to it than just a garden-variety haunting.
The structure has a tragic past. In 1994, a 32-year-old man threw his infant son, Eoghan, to his death—on a clear day, between the last two parapets of the bridge—claiming his child was the antichrist. The man tried to kill himself twice, first by following his son off the bridge—which he was stopped from doing by his wife—then by slashing his wrists with a knife he'd found. The child died in hospital the following day. The man was found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity in a unanimous verdict and committed to Carstairs psychiatric hospital in South Lanarkshire.
Yet, whatever is going on in Milton, it’s not humans who are at risk so much as dogs, which has brought the area notoriety in weird news circles around the globe. Since the 1950s, around 50 dogs have died after leaping off the 50-foot-tall bridge. During the same period, some 600 dogs have made the same jump and survived. Sometimes the dogs have made the jump, survived, come back up and jumped again as soon as they could.
All of the dogs reported to have taken the jump are long-nosed breeds—dolichocephalic types, like German Shepherds and Scottish Terriers. The dogs all jump from the same spot, between the two ramparts on the right-hand side of the bridge, at the very end. And it has to be a clear day. Nobody can explain why.
The most common theory is that smell is luring the dogs to their demise. Squirrel, mice, and, most pungently, mink are known to nest below the bridge, the scent of which is attractive to dogs. A scientific test has been undertaken, where ten long-nosed pups were given a variety of scents to follow. Seventy percent of the dogs made for the mink. This theory ticks a variety of boxes. Mink were introduced to the area in the 1950s when the jumps began, and the smell of mink would be strongest on clear or dry days.
But why Overtoun Bridge and not any of the many bridges around Scotland with mink living beneath them? And why do the dogs always jump in the same place?
Are animals even able to deliberately end their lives? Canine psychologist Dr. David Sands says dogs cannot. Yet there is some historic precedent within the animal kingdom. A story from the Daily Mail reports that, in 2009, over a period of three days, 28 cows deliberately walked off a cliff in the Swiss alps. In the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, released the same year, dolphin trainer Richard O'Barry talked of how Kathy, the dolphin most used in the 1960's television show Flipper, drowned herself in his company. There's an insect, the sap-sucking Acyrthosiphon Pisum—the Pea Aphid to its mates—that will make itself explode when under attack from ladybugs, to protect other members of its colony. And there are reports of dogs ending their own lives. An 1845 report of a Newfoundland dog in the Illustrated London Times claimed the dog killed itself by throwing itself into water, before "preserving perfect stillness of the legs and feet." Each time it did this, the dog was saved. Then it just held its head underwater until it stopped breathing.
Dr. Sands travelled to the bridge with a documentary crew in 2005, in order to conduct his own investigation, something the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have done too. There, standing at the point of the bridge where the dogs jump, he says, "Just me as a person, forget a dog—all your senses are on fire… it's got a strange feeling."
He also eliminated other proposed explanations. Sight, he said, wasn’t a factor, since from a dogs-eye view you couldn’t see beyond the wall, just the ivy-covered granite. He ruled sound out, too. A proposed theory that nearby Faslane Bay, home to the UK’s Trident SSBN nuclear submarines, was creating a frequency only animals could hear was shut down after experts in acoustics were brought in to test the length of the bridge, finding nothing unusual in their tests.
"Local people have mixed feelings about the bridge," says Jenna. "There are some who are too frightened to walk their dog over it, and avoid it completely. I’ve never wanted to go back after the experience I had. They need to put up a fence or something, they really do."
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