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Smart Reads: Laurel Braitman’s ‘Animal Madness’


Mad elephants, anxious dogs, compulsive bears: do their minds come unspooled the same way that a person’s does? After her experience with a disturbed pet, science historian Laurel Braitman set out to explore the roots of animal mental illness—and the ways that we can treat it.

We spoke to Braitman recently about her new book, Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves.

(Note: this interview has been lightly edited and condensed.)

WSF: Was there a particular incident that sparked your interest in animal madness?

LB: I’ve always loved difficult animals more because they challenge us. But the genesis of the book was Oliver, a Bernese Mountain Dog my ex-husband and I adopted. Six months after we got him, he developed this debilitating separation anxiety. We couldn’t leave him alone; he’d lick and chew himself until he developed wounds.

One day we left him with a petsitter, and he pushed our air conditioner out of the kitchen window, chewed a hole through the metal screen and jumped out of the house. He fell four stories (he survived). Then the vet gave us a prescription for valium and Prozac.

WSF: Was Oliver’s response to Prozac like a person’s?

LB: Well, yes, in that it didn’t help him. In many people, going on antidepressants is like going on a scavenger hunt to find something that works for you. And just like what works for one person isn’t going to work for another, what works for one parrot is not going to work for another parrot.

WSF: How developed does a mind have to be, to be capable of going mad? Can a lobster go mad?

LB: I’m not a neuroscientist, so I want to be careful with that question. But it seems that if you’re capable of grooming yourself, you seem to also be capable of grooming yourself to a point of compulsion. If you’re capable of experiencing anxiety and fear—and this is true of most of the animal kingdom—you seem to be capable of feeling debilitating fear and anxiety.

In order to understand if an animal is mentally ill, you have to have some understanding of what their normal is. This isn’t to say that a lobster couldn’t be mentally ill—in fact, just this week, a paper came out about crawdads feeling anxious and responding to anti-anxiety medication. But often the creatures that end up with these diagnoses are zoo animals or pets, because we observe those animals.

WSF: In a similar vein, then, it’s probably hard to say if a wild bear or a wild dog is mad.

LB: Exactly: how would we know? That said, there are cases where we have seen mental illness in wild animals because their behaviors become extreme. I do have a bunch of those cases in the book. Here in Northern California, they’ve had record numbers of California sea lions who’ve been exhibiting extremely self-destructive behavior: Sea lions who hop up on cop cars, who come ashore on freeways, sea lions who swim straight out to the Hawaiian Islands and don’t stop to eat. And that may be a function of brain damage associated with high levels of nerve toxins in their diet, but it’s mental illness all the same.

In fact, it ties in with the forefront of a lot of this research in humans, trying to understand the relationship between mental illness and our environment. How many cases of schizophrenia are related to environmental pollutants?

WSF: When we look at mental illness in animals versus humans, do we find a lot of analogous brain structures involved?

LB: Absolutely. The reason we have the psychopharmaceuticals we do is that they worked in other animals first. While I first thought I was giving my dog a human drug, what I figured out quickly is that the people around me are taking monkey, dog and rat drugs.

WSF: While researching this book, did you come across any stories that blew your mind?

LB: Going into this, I thought that most of the animals with disturbing behavior would have been mistreated by humans. And I did see that, but I also found other cases: You’d have two dogs, raised in the same litter, same house, exposed to the same things, and one of those would develop a life-altering fear of vacuum cleaners, and the other one would be fine.

What I came away with was an idea of individuality that extended far beyond humanity. I’ve always figured animals have an emotional range—we might not have the human language to describe it, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have it.

We shouldn’t be scared of anthropomorphizing, as long as we don’t do it self-centeredly. I think identifying with the animals close to us is one of the best things we can do for them. I don’t mean we should put our dogs in outfits; more that we shouldn’t feel ashamed about the voices we use to talk to our dogs or cats. That’s proof of our humanity—using our animal natures to try and understand the animals around us.

Check out this excerpt from Animal Madness, where Braitman explores the case of Gus, a troubled polar bear at the Central Park Zoo:

Gus lived in a 5,000 square foot enclosure—less than .00009 percent of what his range in the Arctic would be. He was a major predator that, despite being born in captivity, no doubt still felt predatory impulses. In fact, when Gus first arrived at the zoo from Ohio in 1988, his favorite game was stalking children from the underwater window in his pool. ‘He liked to see them scream and run in terror—it was a game,’ the zoo’s animal supervisor told a reporter. But the zoo staff didn’t want Gus to scare children or their parents, so they put up barriers to keep visitors farther away from the window. Gus soon started to swim in endless figure eights and stopped doing anything else.

Hoping to curb the neurotic behavior, the zoo hired Tim Desmond, an animal trainer who had trained the orca who played Willy in the film Free Willy. Desmond was able to reduce Gus’s compulsions by giving him new things to do, such as bear food puzzles or snacks that took him longer to eat: mackerel frozen in blocks of ice or chicken wrapped in rawhide. The zoo also redesigned his exhibit and installed a play area stocked with rubber trashcans and traffic cones that Gus could pretend-maul. The zoo also put him on Prozac. I do not know how long he was on the drugs, or even if they had as much of an effect as his new exhibit and entertainment schedule did, but eventually Gus’s compulsive swimming tapered off, though it never quite went away entirely.

Braitman’s Animal Madness, published by Simon & Schuster, is available in stores and online now.




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