Book Review: Animal Madness by Laurel Braitman

For every book or article on dogs’ physical well-being, there are only a few that address mental health. Perhaps that’s because dogs seem to have, well, a few adorable quirks, but they’re generally so sane — happy and energetic, cooperative, resilient. They live in the moment, they adjust to changes, they soldier through pain. They forgive us our trespasses.

But sometimes a dog seems to have serious emotional problems. For author Laurel Braitman and her husband Jude, trouble came in a large package, her Bernese Mountain Dog, Oliver. He experienced truly terrible separation anxiety, first by destroying things inside their apartment, later by desperate attempts to escape. Most frighteningly, he once propelled himself out the window of their fourth-floor apartment, landing on the concrete stairs leading to the basement. Amazingly, he survived, but during his long recovery, his owners began a determined quest to figure out how to understand and abate Oliver’s symptoms.

One result of their struggle eventually was divorce, caused in part by the tensions created by their differing perspectives on Oliver’s problems and how to handle them. Another result is her recent book, Animal Madness (Simon & Schuster, 2015), an exploration of mental illness in a variety of species, mainly elephants, cetaceans, primates and dogs, but others as well. Braitman studied the literature on the topic, both scientific and anecdotal, and traveled to a number of exotic locations to interview keepers, owners and veterinarians on the methods they have used to restore disturbed animals to sanity. 

Braitmann has good credentials for undertaking the task she set herself. She is an author, historian, and anthropologist of science with a PhD from M.I.T. She is currently a Writer-in-Residence at the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the Stanford University School of Medicine and her latest TED talk has been watched by over a million people. She has been involved with animals all her life, and for this book traveled extensively to meet and learn from mahouts in Thailand, primatologists in Africa, and many other experts as well.

Braitman begins from the position that: 

…[H]umans and other animals are more similar than many of us would think when it comes to mental states and behaviors gone awry. …Abnormal behaviors…tip into the territory of mental illness when they keep creatures — human or not — from engaging in what is normal FOR THEM.

Identifying “abnormal” behaviors is difficult, of course. Since animals can’t talk to us, diagnosis has to involve, first, making careful and extensive direct observations (if possible) and getting a history of the animal and descriptions of its behavior from individuals who have lived with it. Sometimes technology can be used to measure brain activity, though of course this is expensive and therefore uncommon.

In addition, as with some human diseases, we infer the nature of a disease from observing the effect of medicines used to treat it. For example, in humans, Parkinson’s Disease can be differentiated from similar “Parkinsonisms” by whether it responds to levodopa. Many medications developed for human use (Haldol, Prozac, Zoloft and many others) have been used to treat mental problems in animals. In fact, not a few pharmaceuticals have been developed for human use through testing their effects on animals, and then “come full circle” to be used medically on the animals themselves.

The core of the book is an exploration of a variety of forms that animal mental illness may take. Among them are separation anxiety, depression, obsessive behaviors (such as licking, rocking, pacing), aggression and other antisocial behaviors. Interwoven with this exploration is discussion of the likely causes of abnormal behavior — maltreatment (neglect, captivity, impoverished environments, cruelty, extreme stress, isolation from others of the animal’s own kind or from inter species “friends,” etc.). 

Zoos come in for Braitman’s most serious indictment of human actions that imperil animals’ sanity.Too often they exemplify many of the conditions least conducive to normal existence for animals–captivity, close containment (even chains), improper diet, squalid conditions, and isolation.Braitman believes that zoos, even those offering enriched environments for the creatures held captive in them, are really just a way of making us forget that the animals we’re watching don’t have normal lives or relationships nor do they have any control of their conditions. She would prefer they be abolished in favor of creating places where creatures that “thrive in our presence” can be observed, or replaced with “teaching farms urban dairies, and wildlife rehabilitation centers.”(She doesn’t mention it, but perhaps someday we can observe wild animals in virtual reality.)

Zoos aren’t the only target of her concern: inhumane farming practices are also called to account. In the United States and Europe, there are estimated to be about 16 billion animals in farms and labs.Among them, abnormal behavior is actually normal:91.5 percent of pigs, 82.6 percent of poultry, 50 percent of lab mice and 80 percent of minds exhibit abnormal behaviors.

Even our much-loved pets may suffer, as Braitman’s Oliver exemplified.What she believes she learned about his symptoms is interesting.She argues that the fear that overcomes some dogs when left alone is not so much a matter of being separated from a particular person.Rather, it’s the sheer terror that grips a highly social animal when it is entirely alone. She says that a dog like her Oliver, when finding itself alone, experiences a wave of intense anxiety, and it is to escape these bad feelings that it engages in destructive behavior. In this situation, the presence of any human (or other non-threatening creature) may be calming.(Destructive behavior like Oliver’s is not the only manifestation of the extreme anxiety created by loneliness, however. A few creatures will retreat into themselves, becoming depressed and despondent. Often, they refuse to eat. As one expert, Dr. L’Elise Christensen (DVM) said, “Emotional eating in dogs is not eating.”)

Although much of the discussion in the book is uncomfortable to read, not all human effects on animals are harmful.Braitman offers many touching stories of the loneliness of wild animals held captive in zoos and of domesticated animals taken or sent away from their human families. But she alsoshe also shares many heart-warming examples of the restoration of lonely animals to health and happiness when they find new homes or congenial companions, of animals’ resourcefulness and resilience, of their intelligence and generosity to other creatures.

These tales indicate a distinction that Braitman mentions infrequently but does not discuss as fully as this reviewer would wish — the distinction between wild and domesticated animals, particularly our pets. As obviously as she believes that animals in general need social interaction with companions of their own kind, she also clearly thinks pets can be happy with humans, even in the absence of others like themselves. And she points out cases where wild animals in captivity have had tight bonds of friendship (for want of a better, less anthropomorphic term) with a wild or domesticated animal as a companion. What are the boundaries being drawn here? Which species can live as friends and which can’t? What creates the conditions for inter-species friendships, including human-animal ones? 

After her intellectual and physical odyssey in writing this book, Braitman offers a conclusion that is compelling and appealing.We have to live with wildlife, she points out, because we have spread so widely over the earth that there are few spaces left where they are not close to us.As for domestic animals, we want to live with them, having learned over time that we ourselves experience health benefits (including better mental health) from their presence and our interaction with them.Predictably she deplores those who are cruel to animals, and she encourages us to act to as to change corporate farming and other practices that result in unnecessarily and excessively tortured lives for the animals that sustain us.

Finally, she counsels contemporary pet owners to be aware that our lives do not always allow our companions to live their own best lives.She believes we should do what we can but forgive ourselves for the shortcomings that the modern world imposes.Instead of guilt, though, she proposes we take action – to “stop leading the sorts of lives that cause large numbers of our pets to end up on psycho-pharmaceuticals.”It’s a good point.When you think of it, in fact, who among us doesn’t wish we could “spend more time walking and playing with them and less time on our phones, checking email and watching television.”Improving our lives in ways that would also improve their lives will, she promises, be entirely worth it.

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