Laurel Braitman — the author of Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves — adopted a Bernese Mountain Dog called Oliver. He was so much like other dogs, enjoying his walks, treats, and human-company. But, unlike other dogs, he suffered from a melange of mental disorders that Braitman, Oliver’s vets, and animal behaviorists couldn’t pin down.
When Braitman, and her ex-husband were at work, Oliver, who couldn’t manage separation anxiety, jumped out from a window. Her house was in the fourth floor, Oliver survived the 50 feet fall, with no fractures, much to the surprise of his vets. But, when Braitman had to visit her family, and when Oliver had to be left at a kennel, he swallowed quite a few toxic wooden pieces. Owing to complications that ensued, he had to be euthanised.
After Oliver’s demise, Braitman wallowed in guilt. Despite trying myriad methods to help Oliver cope with the disorders, she couldn’t improve his quality of life. That remorse made her embark on a journey around the globe. She met numerous ethologists, psychiatrists, zoo-keepers, trainers, and loads and loads of folks, who worked with animals. She was on a mission. Braitman was determined to learn what caused mental illnesses in animal, how could it be managed, and what humans could learn from their sufferings. The book, which is replete with accounts on Braitman’s research material, interviews, and moving personal struggles, is important. Just like its title, the book is powerful.
Now it feels like I walk around with a few different drafty spaces in my chest. One is in the shape of a dog, and there’s at least one more in the shape of a man. And yet, in the years since my dog died, I’ve fallen in love again anyway — with a half dozen elephants, a few elephant seals, a troop of gorillas, one young whale, a couple of long-dead squirrels, and a handful of men and women who came into my life as if they’d been tugged there by invisible leashes. I am not sure I would have found any of these creatures otherwise. Losses and disappointment can do that if you’re lucky. Before you know it your pain has welcomed the world. That’s what happened to me, anyway.
Throughout the book, Braitman explains the mental disorders that plague chimps, gorillas, bonobos, rabbits, rats, parrots, elephants, who live deplorable lives in confinement. Braitman offers her understanding on the kind of medicines that are tried on them, and to what degree they helped the animals in distress. She shares her insights from her interactions with animal experts around the world. Every now and then, Braitman underscores what humans learn from animals’s mental illness, and what kind of cruel tests are done on animals, only for the benefit of humans.
One has to be courageous to read Animal Madness. It is certainly not for over-sensitive, and weak-hearted readers. Sample these to get a prelude of disturbing, yet enlightening stories that Braitman shares.
Jennifer Hemmett now owns a posh dog boutique, but she used to be a primate keeper who loved working with great apes. After ten years at an East Coast zoo, she reached her breaking point. He was a lowland gorilla named Tom. Because Tom’s genetic material would be a good match for another zoo’s female gorillas, the AZA ordered him to a zoo hundreds of miles away where he knew no one. He was abused and neglected by the other gorillas, stopped eating, and lost more than a third of his body weight. The transfer was deemed a failure and Tom was sent back home, where Jennifer and the other keepers spent months nursing him back to health. They felt that Tom was in no shape to be moved again. He was emotionally sensitive and didn’t do well among other gorillas and human staff that he didn’t know. But Tom was sent away again anyway. A few months later, when Jennifer and a few of his other keepers visited him at the new zoo, Tom caught sight of them through the fence of his exhibit and started to cry. This was no quiet whimpering. Tom howled and sobbed and ran toward his old keepers. He continued to follow Jennifer and the other from his side of the fence, step for step, as they circled the exhibit, bawling the whole time. The other zoo visitors complained and told the keepers to “stop hogging the gorilla.” Jennifer returned home and gave her notice to the zoo two days later. Administrator’s at Tom’s new zoo informed the keepers that they were barred from visiting the gorilla exhibit again; it was too upsetting for Tom.
Everything changed for Rick O’Barry (popular dolphin-trainer, and the subject of Academy Award-Winning documentary The Cove) when he received a call from Miami Seaquarium, where his favourite dolphin Kathy was being kept. She was not doing well. Her daily schedule had changed, and so had the staff caring for her. She was now isolated in a steel tank, away from the other dolphins that she knew. When O’Barry arrived at Seaquarium, he found Kathy covered in black blisters from sun exposure (she’d been floating listlessly at the top of the tank), barely breathing, and extremely weak. O’Barry jumped into the water with his clothes still on. According to him, Kathy swam into his arms, stopped breathing, and died. “Kathy died of suicide… Dolphins and whales are not automatic air breathers,” O’Barry said. “Every breath they take is a conscious effort. So they can end their life whenever they want to and that’s what Kathy did. She chose to not take that next breath and you have to call that suicide, or self-induced asphyxiation in a steel tank.”
Braitman doesn’t depress the reader by sharing just the heartrending stories. She offers a ray of hope too; she writes a lot about how animals recover, and how thousands of people work toward improving their quality of lives. Animal Madness carries a heap of heartwarming stories too — stories of elephants who lead a peaceful life at the orphanages in Thailand, dogs that forget their stereotypical toxic behaviour (like chasing and biting one’s own tail), and parrots who learn to stop plucking their own feathers.
Beneath the hard-hitting facts, and intriguing theories and arguments that Braitman presents, an important message lies. Braitman seems to have chosen not to shove the message down the readers’s throats. Despite her conscious choice, the message surfaces, and screams about the significance of being kind to animals, making the right choices, and above all of it, she subtly guides the reader to adopt an animal-friendly lifestyle. It’s a message that I deeply respect.
There are many structural elements of our lives with other creatures that cause needless suffering and could easily be done away with. We could stop teaching elephant to paint, dance, and play soccer, and casting chimps in commercials and giraffes in feature films. We could close our nation’s zoos, or at the very least stop deluding ourselves that it’s our right to see exotic wildlife like gorillas, dolphins, and elephants in every major American city. We could stop trying to convince ourselves that keeping animals in cages or tanks is the best way to educate and inform one another about them, especially since it often costs the animals their sanity. We could instead turn these zoos and other facilities into places where people might engage with animals, domestic and wild, who often thrive in our presence, creatures like horses, donkeys, llamas, cows, pigs, goats, rabbits, and even raccoons, rats, squirrels, pigeons, and possums. We could exchange the polar bear pools for petting zoos and build teaching farms, urban dairies, and wildlife rehabilitation centers where city-dwelling children and adults could volunteer or take classes on cheese making, beekeeping, gardening, veterinary science, wildlife ecology, and animal husbandry… We could do away with corporate farming practices so cruel they’re often institutionalized torture…
We could also, and most important, make a lasting peace with Darwin’s belief that humans are just another kind of animal, different only by degree. This kind of change will not be easy or fast. It will take the self-transformative power of chameleons, the resolve of mules, the fortitude of migrating whales, and the ingenuity and compassion of humans. It will be worth it.
I am writing this blog, with my two-year-old mongrel Boo, sitting beside me, looking out the window, throwing a curious glance on birds, squirrels, and my neighbours. Boo is not a regular happy-to-meet-people, happy-to-go-out dog, unlike my Calvin, who passed away this September.
Due to her unusual beginning — she was stranded in an abandoned, locked-up house for the first 3.5 months of her life with no human interaction, and with only her siblings’s carcasses as her meals — she is still skittish, diffident, and aggressive around strangers.
When I rescued Boo, she didn’t trust any of us, but only Calvin. She aped his activities, besides the ferocity which seems to be her innate trait. Braitman has made me realise that Calvin was Boo’s nanny-elephant. If not for him, Boo wouldn’t have fallen in love with us. ❤
Reading books like Animal Madness, gives me some sort of confidence. It tells me that I am not alone in my struggle to help a dog lead a normal life. It tells me that my dog is not exactly what I think. She has a distinctive personality, and she has to be treated that way. Above all, one small change in her lifestyle can make her less anxious, and more sunny.
Animal Madness reinforces my belief that animals are humanlike some times, unique most times, and it is my responsibility to respect them for what they are, instead of thrusting my expectations on them.