Monday, January 5, 2015

Review: Animal Madness by Laurel Braitman

Those of us who are pet owners and consider our animals to be a part of the family have no trouble believing that animals do possess the consciousness that means they are capable of independent thought and the ability to feel emotions. But this also means that we believe that they possess the capability to suffer from mental illness, much in the way that human beings do. It is this sad idea that Laurel Braitman explores in her book, Animal Madness.

Braitman and her then husband adopted a Bernese Mountain dog named Oliver. He was being surrendered by his current family but Braitman was given little information about why. It turned out that Oliver suffered terribly when left alone, even going so far as to jump out of a closed window in their apartment, plummeting to the cement below. Miraculously, he survived his fall but his anxiety and terror didn't abate at all. Although they tried everything to help Oliver, nothing worked to calm him. His clear, unmanageable, life long distress sent Braitman on a search into the origins and treatments of mental illness in animals.

In addition to her own dog and other canines, Braitman looked at whales, dolphins, elephants, birds, horses, and primates, among others, and the documented problems they suffer as domesticated or captive animals. Taking newspaper reports, interviews with keepers, and communications with experts in the fields of animal behavior, veterinary medicine, and mental health, Braitman discusses the problem of diagnosing animals without anthropomorphizing them, the ways in which their diagnoses parallel human mental health biases of the time, the option of medicating or changing the behavior of the animals, and the ways in which human interference with wild animals has led to so many of the atypical, extreme behaviors we need to control or alleviate.

Using anecdotal stories to support the wider neurological theory underpinning her conclusions, Braitman covers animals suffering from mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, OCD, and PTSD and even discusses the idea of whether or not animals can be suicidal. Although the book purports to suggest that understanding animals will help us understand ourselves, there is only a very tenuous link to that idea. Since animals cannot tell us what they are feeling, human beings must extrapolate solely from observations what is going on. It is therefore not surprising that it is all framed in the same terms that human mental illness is described.

All of these observations have, by necessity, taken place on animals either living in captivity or that have been domesticated to one extent or another rather than factoring in any animals in the wild who manifest the same behaviors. Is this because they don't have these issues in the wild? Is it because it is too hard to study the same wild animals over extended amounts of time? Is it because these animals don't survive long in the wild? These are questions that Braitman doesn't address or acknowledge, making the book less complete than it should be for the conclusions it draws. There is certainly no doubt that the ways in which we bend animals to be what we want and expect of them, in zoos, parks, and our homes, does them no favors mentally and her indictment of our role in animals' mental anguish is not without basis for sure but as she cautioned in the very opening pages of the book, she seems to be anthropomorphizing quite a bit herself. It is sad to read about the variety of ways that animals harm themselves and others of their species and interesting to read about the ways, some more palatable than others, that we people try to help them conquer these atypical behaviors. Over all, the book opens a small window into the discussion about the well being of animals, specifically those under human care, living lives we don't recognize as normal, rich, and satisfying for them.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting yet it does sound like kind of a painful read!


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