There are some things in this world that are simply beyond explanation. Like the fact that in the past 50 years, about 50 dogs have jumped to their deaths from the exact same spot on the 100-year-old Overtoun Bridge in Milton, near Dumbarton, Scotland. In 2005, five dogs had jumped in a span of just 6 months. The canine suicide spot is located between the last two parapets on the right-hand side of the bridge, which is where all the dogs took the fatal leap. And to add to the strangeness, almost all the incidents have taken place on clear, sunny days, the dogs always being long-nosed breeds – collies, retrievers and labs.
The situation, according to the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, is a ‘heartbreaking mystery’. “There are lots of owners whose dogs have died and who are trying to find out why they jumped,” the Society says. One of the victims on the bridge was collie dog Ben, who leaped to his death in 1995 while taking a walk with his owner Donna Cooper, her husband, and her son, Callum. Without any warning, Ben just leapt over the parapet and landed on the rocks below after a 50ft fall. Suffering a broken paw, back and jaw, the vet decided that it wasn’t worth putting him through the pain. “Callum still asks about Ben. He was very upset by the dog’s death and wants to know if his leg has been fixed in heaven,” said Cooper, a year after Ben’s death. The case of golden retriever Hendrix was pretty much similar, although she got very lucky. Kenneth Meikle, her owner, said, “I was out walking with my partner and children when suddenly the dog just jumped. My daughter screamed, and I ran down the bank to where the dog lay and carried her up to safety. Next day, thank goodness, she was fine. We were lucky because she landed on a moss bed which broke her fall.”
Photo via The Animal Behavioral Clinic
Several theories have surfaced, of course, to explain the bizarre effect that Overtoun Bridge has on dogs. The bridge itself was built in 1895 by Calvinist Lord Overtoun. The Victorian structure, 50 ft in height, runs over the Overtoun Burn stream below. The most obvious theory that’s been doing the rounds is that the bridge is haunted – the oldest reason in the book. Rumors state that in 1994, Kevin Moy, a local, threw his baby boy from the bridge, calling him the anti-Christ. Shortly, he made an unsuccessful attempt to end his life at the same spot. He later said the bridge was haunted. Celtic mythology offers and explanation as well – that Overtoun is a ‘thin place’, an area where heaven and Earth are at their closest. Since dogs are more sensitive than humans, they are believed to pick up the vibrations more easily, leading to their strange behavior. The question remains – are the dogs spooked by something supernatural, prompting them to leap to their deaths?
Surprisingly, the phenomenon does not seem to affect all dogs. Psychic Mary Armour took her own Labrador for a walk on the bridge, to test the theory of the supernatural. Nothing unusual happened in her case. “Animals are hyper-sensitive to the spirit-world, but I didn’t feel any adverse energy,” she said. On the contrary, Mary said she felt “pure calmness and serenity” but she did admit her dog pulled a little towards the right. Attempting to debunk the supernatural theory is the more scientific explanation that dogs are able to sense the feelings of their owners. Austrian Dr. Rupert Sheldrake’s famous experiment is often quoted in this case. The experiment had explicitly proved that dogs do pick up on their owner’s thoughts and intentions, even from a great distance. The correlation here being that perhaps the dogs picked up on their owners’ suicidal thoughts and took the plunge themselves. Dumbarton is indeed said to be a place of economic decline and one of the most depressing places to live in Britain. But on further investigation, it was revealed that none of the owners whose dogs jumped from Overtoun Bridge had any suicidal feelings. So that theory has been pretty much ruled out as well.
Canine psychologist, Dr. David Sands, was sent to Dumbarton to get to the heart of the mystery. He conducted a series of experiments, the first of which was to recross the bridge with the only canine known to have survived the fall, 19-year-old Hendrix. This time around, the dog walked happily across, until the exact spot at the end was reached. Over here, she began to tense. It was observed that while something clearly caught her attention, she could not bring herself to jump because of her advanced age. Dr. Sands concluded that one of her senses – sight, sound, or smell – must have been stimulated to such an extent that she had an overwhelming urge to investigate. Sight was eliminated as the cause, since the only thing visible from dog’s eye view at that point is the granite of the parapet. So it had to be either sound or smell, and to determine the culprit, a team of experts from a Glasgow acoustics company and David Sexton, an animal expert, were summoned.
The acoustic experts found nothing unusual at all, after a thorough investigation. But Sexton did find something worth mentioning. In the undergrowth beneath the bridge, he found mice, mink and squirrels; the odor emitted by any one of them could have been the cause. To determine which one, he conducted another experiment, testing the three scents on 10 different dogs. 70% made straight for the mink scent. And so far this has been the most plausible explanation – the strong musty smell emitted by minks, exaggerated on dry and sunny days, must have proved irresistible to dogs. So why would the dogs only want to attack the mink under this particular bridge, when there are 26,000 others in Scotland? Simple, says Dr. Sands, “When you get down to a dog’s level, the solid granite of the bridge’s 18-inch-thick walls obscures their vision and blocks out all sound. As a result, the one sense not obscured, that of smell, goes into overdrive.” Well, it just goes to show that even the strangest of occurrences have the silliest explanations behind them.