At a time when we’re seeing the real-life perils of battling a virus pandemic, the tenacious tendencies of viral online stories become all the more apparent; They seem to spring from nowhere and ravage the population before a refutational ‘vaccine’ can be prepared. By then, the damage is done and many won’t swallow, or even see, rational analysis. This means it will rear its ugly head time and time again. Occasionally it’s repackaged with a new twist, but frequently just regurgitated with a retweet, a share, a copy & paste, or some other form of convenient thumbfoolery.
The skeptic community is comparatively small, informal, and limited in reach. Fortunately, there’s an army of like-minded allies out there for us to collaborate with, to amplify, and to lean on at times when the fight against misinformation overpowers us; academics, investigative journalists, fact-checking organisations, science communicators, and researchers, to name a few.
As such, it’s doubly disappointing when one of those allies drops the ball. The most recent and high profile fumble comes from the hugely popular educational podcast Stuff You Should Know as they disappointingly regurgitated the story of Scotland’s Dog Suicide Bridge.
For a podcast which has built its success (millions of downloads every month) on diligent research and tentative declarations of truth with a deference to experts, they unfortunately failed to address the most fundamental question you should ask when investigating something: did it actually happen?
Tall tail signs
As with many of the best yarns to be spun, some reports of dogs jumping to their death from Overtoun Bridge near Dumbarton are true. Sadly, it has happened a non-zero number of times. Unfortunately though, the truth has been submerged by sensationalism, a sprinkling of paranormal activity, and even the distasteful leveraging of a genuine human tragedy that took place at the bridge in the mid 90s.
Regarding the number of canine casualties, the Stuff You Should Know hosts confidently declare “at least fifty that have been definitely documented”. Such documentation does not appear to exist, and they may well have happened upon that figure by simply reading old articles on the subject which make the same claim. Interestingly, doing just that gives us a fascinating insight into how viral stories can quickly spiral into the realms of the nonsensical, and periodically resurface to spread around a brand new audience.
Origin of the specious
The first mention we see of the story is a random comment on a blog post in 2005 in which someone mentions that they heard about the story of the bridge elsewhere. However, it was 2006 that saw the story truly surface into mainstream media, and it has been an ever-present since then.
Here are some selected examples. Many more are available with a quick Google:
- 2006: Daily Mail (death toll 50): Why have so many dogs leapt to their deaths from Overtoun Bridge?
- 2008: TV Documentary (death toll 50): Dog Suicide Bridge Scotland
- 2009: Cracked.com (death toll 600): Overtoun Bridge makes it in to the Six Creepiest Places on Earth
- 2010: Psychology Today (death toll 50): Do Dogs Commit Suicide?
- 2011: Huffington Post (death toll 50-600): Creepiest Mass Animal Deaths EVER
- 2012: Science20.com (death toll 50): Why Do So Many Dogs Commit Suicide Off This Bridge In Scotland?
- 2013: Historic Mysteries (death toll 50-600): The Overtoun Bridge Dog Deaths
- 2014: Slate (death toll 50): The Dog Suicide Bridge of Dunbartonshire
- 2015: Daily Express (death toll 600): – What’s caused 600 dogs to hurl themselves off this bridge?
- 2016: The Sun (death toll 600): Why have 600 dogs jumped off this bridge?
- 2017: The Sun – again (death toll 600): The mystery of the Scottish bridge where hundreds of dogs have jumped to their deaths… and nobody knows why
- 2018: The Daily Record (death toll 600): Mystery of Scotland’s ‘dog suicide’ spot – Why 600 dogs have jumped off Overtoun Bridge
- 2019: The Independent (death toll 50-600): ‘Dog Suicide Bridge’: Why do so many pets keep leaping into a Scottish gorge?
The staggering ‘six hundred’ number is the one that seems to be sticking most recently. The origin of that number appears to be the 2009 article in Cracked. The author asserts without evidence that the jump rate has been one a month since the 60s, which totals up to “around 600 mutts”. This number has been picked up by many of the tabloids (the bigger the better, right?), and even the New York Times (another occasional ally who should know better) had a 2019 article which cited hundreds of deaths.
Vetting the data
It’s 5.45pm on a Friday and my phone rings. My working week is done, but for Debbie McDonald (BVMS MRCVS) of Glenbrae Veterinary Clinics there’s more to be done. Despite that she carved out a few spare minutes to talk to me about her perspective on the Overtoun Bridge story. Having worked at the closest practice to Overtoun Bridge for over two decades, she’s in a perfect position to speak with authority on the subject. In all that time there have only been two incidents from the bridge that came to her attention; one where the dog survived, and another where unfortunately it had to be euthanised due to the severe injuries.
Debbie is also a dog owner herself, and lives near the bridge. Having walked her own dogs over the bridge many times without incident, and having spoken to many other dog owners in the area who have done the same, she strongly doubts the huge numbers being quoted in the press. In her time working as a vet she’s dealt with many more dogs who have fallen from cliffs when out hillwalking with their owners. No suspicion of suicide, haunting, or anything else tabloid-worthy in those cases.
As for the handful of incidents that have actually happened at the bridge, Debbie’s explanation is simple and plausible: the bridge is an “optical illusion” of sorts, insofar as when you approach and cross it you may not even know you’re on a bridge until you look over the walls on either side. Many dogs may think they’re simply jumping over an obstacle to their explorations and expect to hit ground at the same level on the other side.
Thankfully even the tabloids have managed to report that suicide is, as far as we know, an exclusively human trait, and therefore not something we can attribute to the unfortunate dogs who perish in falls. They don’t appear to take the paranormal explanation seriously either, but tend to favour a suspicion that the dogs have caught scent of something and are bounding off to explore. Anyone who’s ever owned or met a dog will testify to how common that is.
The Overtoun window
The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA) also confirmed that they have no records, or reports to their helpline, of incidents involving dogs at the bridge. They did however offer the following statement from their chief superintendent Mike Flynn:
“Overtoun Bridge has a low point which, unfortunately, some dogs have managed to jump over in the past, resulting in their deaths.
“As far as we are aware, there is no evidence to support the theory that these dogs were committing suicide.
“Given previous incidents, we would advise pet owners in the area to keep their dogs on a lead to ensure their safety.”
Kennel of truth
In conclusion, there’s not really much to see here. Dogs are unpredictable, and better kept on a lead when there’s any doubt about their safety, or the safety of those around them. The rural myth of the Dog Suicide Bridge is as unlikely to die as most of the dogs that cross it, but we should hope that those allies of ours who genuinely value accuracy will delve a little deeper in the future.
I haven’t come here to bury the Stuff You Should Know podcast though, and much of what they do is praiseworthy. On a personal note, the dulcet tones of hosts Josh and Chuck have helped me through many bouts of insomnia over the years. They are unfalteringly kind, compassionate, honest, and have a good track record of acknowledging mistakes made. There are however times in the past when they’ve mentioned “the skeptics” in a less than flattering tone, which may speak to the fact that we skeptics are not always as polite and diplomatic as we could be.
Perhaps we can all do a little bit better.