How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves
by LAUREL BRAITMAN
As a lifelong student of sociology — the study of individuals as formed and developed within the groups in which they are born and are socialized — I was drawn to a fascinating book called Animal Madness by Laurel Braitman. Her credentials include a doctorate from MIT in the history of science and contributor to such publications as Orion and the New Inquiry, among others.
This book is both a history and a study of animal emotional behaviors that have been both denied (“animals are too dumb to feel”) and, often at the same time, used to understand and treat the same behaviors in human beings. Turns out, after centuries of observation and documentation, the same things that make animals “crazy” make people crazy, too. Things like abandonment, cruelty (both physical and emotional), abuse, isolation and estrangement ultimately result in behaviors that are what we would now call psychotic, aggressive, depressive and, eventually, life-threatening.
The subtitle of this book gives a clue to the span of author Braitman’s discussion: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves. But dogs, parrots and elephants are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg of the range of animals whose behaviors are now recognized as important parallels to how primary social relationships make healthy or unhealthy (emotionally, psychologically and physically) the individuals they mold and influence.
A wide range of anecdotal stories ll the book, particularly of rescue pets that seem normal at first, then begin to exhibit separation anxieties or withdrawal or aggressive responses to particular people, situations or stimuli. Often these behaviors can be traced to treatment or threatening environmental situations in the animal’s history.
The human parallels are undeniable. And the patient, long-term re-socialization process that a cure may demand is similar. Obviously, those who work with both pets and persons must be committed to stay the course with consistent love, trust-building habits, and strong but kind boundaries.
Studies such as the author presents — studies over many decades — are culminating in new vocations in animal care, sort of counseling centers for pet owners and behavior therapy for pets. Pharmaceutical companies are addressing the needs of animals that are “crazy” with stress and anxiety. But like treatment for anxiety-ridden human beings, drugs alone will be ineffective without drastic changes in the emotional climate in which the patient lives.
And, as with human beings, a diagnosis is just the beginning. Something—probably everything— will have to change that has created the unhealthy symptoms in the first place.