preloader

Animal Madness

By Laurel Braitman

Click here to buy Animal Madness

There isn’t a branch of veterinary science, psychology, ethology (the science of animal behavior), neuroscience, or wildlife ecology dedicated to investigating whether animals can be mentally ill. What I have done in this book is draw together evidence from the veterinary sciences and pharmaceutical and psychological studies; first-person accounts of zookeepers, animal trainers, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, and pet owners; observations made by nineteenth-century naturalists and contemporary biologists and wildlife scientists; and many ordinary people who simply had something to say about animals doing odd things around them. All of these threads, when pulled together, suggest that humans and other animals are more similar than many of us might think when it comes to mental states and behaviors gone awry—experiencing churning fear, for example, in situations that don’t call for it, feeling unable to shake a paralyzing sadness, or being haunted by a ceaseless compulsion to wash our hands or paws. Abnormal behaviors like these tip into the territory of mental illness when they keep creatures—human or not—from engaging in what is normal for them. This is true for a dog single-mindedly focused on licking his tail until it’s bare and oozy, a sea lion fixated on swimming in endless circles, a gorilla too sad and withdrawn to play with her troop members, or a human so petrified of escalators he avoids department stores.

Every animal with a mind has the capacity to lose hold of it from time to time. Sometimes the trigger is abuse or mistreatment, but not always. I’ve come across depressed and anxious gorillas, compulsive horses, rats, donkeys, and seals, obsessive parrots, self-harming dolphins, and dogs with dementia, many of whom share their exhibits, homes, or habitats with other creatures who don’t suffer from the same problems. I’ve also gotten to know curious whales, confident bonobos, thrilled elephants, contented tigers, and grateful orangutans. There is plenty of abnormal behavior in the animal world, captive, domestic, and wild, and plenty of evidence of recovery; you simply need to know where and how to find it. Oliver was my guide, even if he was too busy compulsively licking his paws to notice.

Acknowledging parallels between human and other animal mental health is a bit like recognizing capacities for language, tool use, and culture in other creatures. That is, it’s a blow to the idea that humans are the only animals to feel or express emotion in complex and surprising ways. It is also anthropomorphic, the projection of human emotions, characteristics, and desires onto nonhuman beings or things. We can choose, though, to anthropomorphize well and, by doing so, make more accurate interpretations of animals’ behavior and emotional lives. Instead of self-centered projection, anthropomorphism can be a recognition of bits and pieces of our human selves in other animals and vice versa.
Identifying mental illness in other creatures and helping them recover also sheds light on our humanity. Our relationships with suffering animals often make us better versions of ourselves, helping us empathize with our dogs, cats, and guinea pigs, turning us into bonobo or gorilla psychiatrists, or inspiring the most dedicated among us to found cat shelters or elephant sanctuaries.

For me, the realization that mental illness and the capacity to recover from it is something we share with many other animals is comforting news. When, as humans, we feel our most anxious, compulsive, scared, depressed, or enraged, we’re also revealing ourselves to be surprisingly like the other creatures with whom we share the planet. As Darwin’s father told him, “There is a perfect gradation between sound people and insane. . . . Everybody is insane at some time.” As with people, so with everyone else too.

All Excerpts

Coming soon   /   View all

  • Tibetan Caravans
    Tibetan Caravans

    Born into an eminent merchant family in Ladakh in 1918, Khwaja Abdul Wahid Radhu, often described as ‘the last caravaneer of Tibet and Central Asia’, led an unusual life of adventure, inspiration and enlightenment. His ancestors and elders, and later he, had the honour of leading the biannual caravan between Ladakh and Tibet, which carried […]

Connect with us

Join the Speaking Tiger Books mailing list: