Not long ago, Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, MD, looked at the connections between human ailments and those suffered by other animals. In the process, she coined a new word, zoobiquity, to describe that nascent field of study. The 2012 publication of her book of the same name marked an awakening interest in exploring the “animal-human overlap.”
Now, as an apt complement to that work, comes Animal Madness by Laurel Braitman, a science historian with a PhD from MIT. In her book, Braitman explores the ways in which the human mind and its disorders are inextricably linked with those of other social animals. She was launched into this line of study by her struggle to understand and heal Oliver, her compulsive, phobia- and anxiety-plagued Bernese Mountain Dog. Through caring for Oliver, Braitman experienced firsthand the challenges that animals with extreme mental illness present to themselves and to the people who love them.
Oliver’s trauma began when he was pushed aside by his first family after the birth of a child, an event that severely affected his mental and emotional life; Braitman and her then-husband only learned about this after adopting him as a four-year-old from his breeder. When the dog’s intense separation anxiety caused him to leap out of the couple’s fourth-floor apartment window, it became clear that it was almost impossible to leave him alone. As a result, their lives were increasingly constrained by Oliver’s fears, anxieties and compulsions. In trying to understand just how to best to help him, Braitman began to wonder how similar Oliver’s experiences were to those of humans with mental and emotional problems.
As the subtitle notes, the scope of this book spans multiple species—not just anxious companion animals but also, compulsive parrots, depressed great apes and donkeys, suicidal sea mammals, jealous elephants, and many others. While Oliver’s plight—which Braitman admits had her acting like a service animal for her own dog—runs through the book, she also covers topics like Charles Darwin (a firm believer in animal emotions), anthropomorphism (not a bad thing at all, since it allows us to understand “the other” better) and animal-pharma (an industry that has become quite pervasive in the treatment of animal psychological problems). Regarding the latter, she notes that initially, these drugs—which are projected to reach $9 billion in annual sales by 2015—were only prescribed by vet behavior specialists but are now readily available from most general-practice vets.
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While some of these stories can be difficult for animal lovers to read, most have mediated recoveries. However, taken together, they make a salient case for acknowledging the “parallels between human and other animal mental health,” which, as Braitman notes, “is a bit like recognizing capacities for language, tool use and culture in other creatures.” And, given how important emotional enrichment is to all social animals, she definitely has qualms about the capacity of any social animal to lead an emotionally stable life in captivity in a zoo environment.
In the hands of an observant and engaging writer like Braitman, this story is an outstanding example of a rigorous investigation presented in a most accessible way. Readers will also be rewarded by the deep compassion and gratitude she shows for all her subjects, both the animals and the humans who care for them. As she humbly observes, Oliver was “one anxious dog who brought me the entire animal kingdom. I owe him everything.”
For more insights, see the Q&A with Laurel Braitman.