Do animals suffer from ‘emotional thunderstorms’ like we do? Anyone who has kept a pet—be it dog, cat, monkey, donkey, horse, bird or any ‘non-human’ animal—will answer that question with a resounding ‘yes’. In this remarkable book, science historian Laurel Braitman seeks to find out the kinds of extreme emotional traumas animals go through—while living in the wild (baboon troupe members coping with a change in leadership for example) and more so while interacting with us, either as pets, or in zoos, circuses and medical research institutions.
Her quest was to find out and understand “what insanity in other animals tells us about ourselves”. It starts at home, with her Bernese Mountain Dog Oliver, who suffered acutely from separation anxiety, and takes her around the world meeting vets, zoo-keepers, animal trainers, psychologists, neuroscientists, and pet owners. She also introduces us to a variety of disturbed animals—depressed and anxious gorillas, compulsive horses, rats, donkeys and seals, obsessive parrots, self-harming elephants and others.
The first issue to overcome is to acknowledge that there are parallels between human and non-human animal insanity. And for that, you need to accept that animals too feel and have emotions, very much like our own. Braitman sensibly tackles the big anthropomorphism bugbear by saying we should “chose to anthropomorphize well and by doing so make more accurate interpretations of animal behaviour and emotional lives”. Anthropomorphism “can be a recognition of bits and pieces of our human selves and vice versa”. More importantly, as she says in her introduction: “identifying mental illness in other creatures and helping them recover also sheds light on our own humanity. Our relationships with suffering animals, often makes us better versions of ourselves.”
Braitman takes us through our own changes in attitudes towards animals and psychology in the last two centuries, from a time when animals were considered non-sentient beings to the present, where you can take your dog to a psychiatrist to sort out his or her problems. The book focuses more on animals that have dealings with us. In the wild, on their own, most animals remain pretty sane, busy with their lives. It’s only when we interfere with their lives that things go (often horribly) awry. Many of the symptoms suffered by these animals are identical to what we suffer from when subject to the same traumas.
Sometimes, as Braitman points out, the solutions have turned out to be simple: Take your dog to the park more often (let it roll in dung!), give a highly-strung racehorse a companion goat or pony, show a zoo-raised gorilla mom how to nurse her baby by demonstrating the process. The author comes down hard on zoos—despite their claims of keeping their animals happy and being necessary for education and captive breeding, she maintains that they really need to be shut down because animals do not live out their natural (and sane) lives behind bars.
She also discusses the development and rise of psychoactive compounds and drugs to deal with the issue—which is now seen more as due to chemical imbalances in the brain, than a life derailed due to external circumstances—the old nature versus nurture debate. Antidepressants, tranquillizers and mood-elevators keep the pharmaceutical industry booming, and a lot of those are prescribed for traumatised animals, usually pets.
Sure, some animals are born nuts (as are some people), though even here, the real reason may be horrific inbreeding. But in most cases, animals go off the rails because something in their lives is not right and it’s up to us to find out what and set it straight. Our track record in our dealings with “non-human” animals has been appalling and in this book Braitman shows us exactly how appalling and how we may redress the balance somewhat.
It’s a hopeful book, and happily, she introduces us to a colourful (if sometimes confusing!) variety of remarkable people who have dedicated their lives to redressing that balance. It’s a book that’s been written from the heart, but with the head held steady and in perfect synch with it too.