In Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves author Laurel Braitman explores the possibility that animals can suffer from mental illness, just as humans do, and what this means for the human race’s role in the animal kingdom.
My interest in reading this book developed out of my passion for wildlife rehabilitation and my desire to know what is happening inside the minds of animals. Much like with humans, survival for an injured or orphaned wild animal largely depends on their mental health. Some species, like rabbits, who are easily spooked simply stress themselves to death. Even if they are otherwise healthy, they die because they are too terrified to live. I often think if we could just find a way to communicate, or if we knew more about what the animal was experiencing mentally, we could do a better job of comforting them so they survive long enough to be released into the wild, where their instincts can be fulfilled.
I was hoping to find scientific research, breakthrough studies in the field of animal psychology and ethology (the study of animal behavior), but the book was mostly anecdotal , recounting stories about animal abuse that lead to extreme and abnormal behavior by the abused. The pages were so full of these tales of abuse toward animals that I considered putting the book down and never picking it back up again. It felt like an ASPCA ad, and I just kept thinking, “this isn’t mental illness in animals, this is abuse victims doing the only thing they could to survive.”
In between the stories of wretched human treatment of animals throughout the centuries there were some gems of insight, though, so I kept reading and am glad I did. I may not have gotten the scientific data I was hoping for, but I realize now that’s not what the point of the book was.
Braitman’s goal was not to prove that mental illness exists in non-human animals, but to discuss what the implications of it are for human beings. In her interviews of prominent animal medical professionals and research into past behavioral studies she finds that the mental welfare of wild, captive and domesticated animals has a great deal to do with our relationship to them and to the environment in which we all live.
She spends a large amount of the beginning chapters defining and explaining anthropomorphism, the attribution of human characteristics of behavior to animals, and its pitfalls. An example of this might be thinking that because we humans would prefer to live indoors and be fed rather than hunt, animals must also feel the same. So we put them in zoos or try to keep wild animals as pets, often with disastrous outcomes.
However, a certain degree of anthropomorphism is required for the simple fact that there is a language barrier. Humans use language to talk to one another. We use language to describe symptoms to our doctors, to explain our fears to our therapists, to help others understand what we want or need. Since we can’t use language to communicate with animals, we are left only being able to observe and draw conclusions based on our own experiences. In this way it’s almost impossible not to use definitions of human behavior to explain why an animal may not be thriving when no physical reason exists.
The best part of the book, for me, was the epilogue. She so eloquently explains why I have become so fascinated with animal behavior and the rehabilitation of wildlife.
“Could we affect the mental health of both captive and wild animals for the better, not simply by striving to do no harm but by seeking to rectify our mistakes?” – Laurel Braitman
This is core to why I believe wildlife rehabilitation is so critical. We can no longer attempt to live by a “do no harm” philosophy when almost everything we do in the name of progress affects wildlife in such a drastically negative way. For example massive quantities of neuro-pharmaceuticals have made their way into the rivers, lakes and oceans. Seals, otters and even whales have had their brain chemistry altered by these drugs causing them to swim in circles until they die or beach themselves. Obviously we never intended these consequences but there they are. Now what do we do about them? We must make a priority of undoing the harm we have done since we continually, even without knowing it, turn habitat against the creatures that live in it.
Even though this book tends to be more on the anecdotal side rather than the scientific, it’s still worth the read. The biggest reason there are so few studies included is that ethology hasn’t been accepted into mainstream scientific study. Part of that is, I think, because of the question of ethical testing on animals. How do you do experiments on animals that cannot communicate with you about any pain, anxiety, despair or fear they may be feeling? Many studies have been done on animals to help us understand more about the human condition, and so many of those studies resulted in severe harm to the animals being tested. How do we develop tests for animals that are fair and ethical? A great question.
I would recommend Laurel Braitman’s Animal Madness to anyone interested in conservation, animal behavior, or wildlife sciences. You may not agree with everything she has to say, but she does bring up some good points about our responsibilities to wildlife and the steps we need to take to ensure the mental safety of the creatures we share this planet with.