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Made for Each Other
Olmert Da Capo Press, 288 pp., 2009; $26

Your dog loves you. The regular kibble, the long walks in the park and the intense games of fetch certainly help, but at the end of the day, your dog is hardwired to love you. When early humans dared to invite wolves into their caves—or perhaps followed wolves into theirs? —an evolutionary metamorphosis was set in motion. And after thousands of generations of humans and dogs hunting, working and playing together, we have each become genetically predisposed to care for the other.

But it isn’t just dogs. We share a special bond not only with our companion animals, but also with the horses we ride, the prey we hunt and the primates from whom we descend. In her new book, Made for Each Other, Meg Daley Olmert explores humanity’s connection to the animal world by drawing on myriad branches of science, from zoology and psychology to anthropology and neuroscience. And what she discovers is that our relationship to animals—what E.O. Wilson terms biophilia—has not only been practical; it has also been good for our well-being, mostly by catalyzing the release of the hormone oxytocin in humans: “[O]ur pets almost double our flow of oxytocin. We humans simply can’t reach this oxytocin high by ourselves or with the best intentions of others.… In situations where competition and territory rule, we become vulnerable to stress related illnesses. That’s when pets can be better medicine than medicine.”

Have you ever wondered why babies are instinctively drawn to animals, why centuries of early cave paintings are almost entirely composed of animals or why we are so fascinated by dolphins? The answer to all of these questions ultimately is oxytocin. Long thought simply to be the hormone of breast-feeding mothers, new research proves that men and women are both capable of making oxytocin throughout their lives. This is significant, since oxytocin can bolster our immune systems, raise our pain threshold and lower our blood pressure.

Olmert uses this incredible new understanding of oxytocin to meticulously explain how it connects us to animals. Drawing on texts as diverse as Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize–winning exploration of human societies, Guns, Germs, and Steel, and Nicholas Evans’ popular novel The Horse Whisperer (and the real horse trainer on whom the story is based), Olmert creates a compelling case for our seemingly innate attraction to animals. She then buttresses intuition with science, painstakingly detailing studies on everything from lactating rats to the skull sizes of wolves, from the effect of pets on Alzheimer’s patients to the effect of zoo animals on children with attention deficit disorder.

In fact, in a book as fascinating as Olmert’s, the sheer volume of evidence presented could be considered a flaw. By cycling through time—from quite literally the state of nature all the way to the current moment—and back again as her case unfolds, Olmert seems eager to jam in every study or scrap of thought on the topic without curating for maximum impact. Still, Made for Each Other ultimately achieves lasting value with its emotionally gripping narrative of the very intense relationships we have built with animals who have ensured our survival as a species.

Olmert ends with a call for a renewed sense of respect for our fellow travelers on this planet. In an age in which corporate farming disengages us from our primal relationships, it is easy to take animals for granted. But, Olmert is quick to remind us, “clinically speaking, animals are a homeostatic necessity. Like breathing, they can be denied for just so long.” But then, any good dog person already knows that.
 

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 53: Mar/Apr 2009
Sacha Zimmerman Scoblic is a Washington, D.C.-based writer/editor.

Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond

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