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Saturday, August 9, 2014

"On the Minds of Beasts" (on the minds of animals and animal madness)

on the minds of beasts


Vint Virga The Soul of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human (New York: Crown, 2013)

Laurel Braitman Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014)


Vint Virga was working as a busy veterinarian when a retriever named Pongo, the victim of a hit by a car, was brought into his clinic. Although he found no signs of trauma, and the lab work and X-rays were “unremarkable,” the dog was clearly in crisis; Pongo barely had a pulse. Virga continues his description,


                      His pupils gazed beyond me unfocused. His shivering skin felt icy

                      cold. In response to a moment’s pressure from my thumb, his dry,

                      ashen gums blushed a gloomy gray-pink. Pongo was in progressive

                      shock, if from nothing more than the sheer concussion of his impact

                      with a speeding truck.


Determining that he could do little but let the dog react to the medicines and fluids that were being administered, Virga told the dog’s owners to go home, promising to call them if there was any change.

     After a few hours of caring for other sick animals and checking on their welfare, Vingt returned to Pongo, whose conditions seemed to have worsened instead of improving. “I was losing my patient,” reports Virga.

     At three a.m., tired from a busy day, but still determined to update his medical records, the doctor sat down next to the dog to work, his right arm draped loosely over the dog’s chest, “lifting and falling with labored breath.”

      Within the hour, miraculously, he began to see real changes in Pongo, his pulse strengthening, his rate slowing. He weakly wagged his tail and licked Virga’s hand as he spoke his name. “In medical terms, he became more responsive. But, simply put in other words, Pongo grew present in body and spirit.”

      Those hours the veterinarian shared with the dog under the blanket made him realize that there was far more to doctoring than his medical knowledge, that, perhaps, simply “those moments we shared, a soft word spoken, a simple touch,” had saved Pongo’s life.

       That realization, along with others, transformed Virga’s life, turning him from a simple veterinarian to a major figure in veterinary behavioral medicine.

       Without simply anthropomorphizing his animal patients, Verga began to see them as sentient beings with minds capable of knowing and empathy. Since animals, however, cannot tell their doctors what ails them, Virga began to carefully observe his patients, which as his 2013 book The Soul of All Living Creatures demonstrates, have come to include not only domestic animals such as dogs and cats but suffering zoo beasts such as ocelots, wolves, leopards, and elephants. Instead of simply medicating and operating, Virga began to spend long hours observing his patients—gathering information from his animal guardians, including dog and cat lovers, zoo keepers, and caretakers—as well as simply watching for long hours, sometimes arriving at zoos before they were open to the public.

       Virga’s recounting of these animal engagements makes not only for fascinating reading, but builds his case for the fact that, even if they are notably different at times from their human counterparts, that animals have feelings, are emotionally effected by their surroundings, and can be helped by the careful use of pharmaceutical drugs and simple human kindness and touch. Time and again the author shows us that if animals cannot speak of the illnesses from which they are suffering, they can and do show us and demonstrate possible solutions to their conditions.

       Some of Virga’s behavioral suggestions result is stunning changes in the suffering animals. Recognizing that the sudden alteration in the behavior of two previously loving “bookend” cats, Sabrina and Rosalind, might have had had something to do with the introduction of an over-enthusiastic hugs and chasings of young child, Virga suggested the parents play a game with their daughter in which she would “whisper kitty” as opposed to imposing “lavish hugs.” Giving the now skittish cat more room, along with a quieter world in which to live, transformed the relationships not only the animals but the entire family.

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     But just as often, an answer to an animal’s problems is not in human reach. An ocelot who refused to eat with this fellow beings, hiding for hours in a tree, and only occasionally joining the other cats, frustrates the doctor in his and caretakers’ attempts to lure him into the other ocelot’s world. Virga even contemplates the possibility that the ocelot named Yaku may be delusional. The author has to come to the conclusion that despite all his medical knowledge that some animals simply refuse to respond because of the instincts of his species and his own personality:


              From Yaku’s reluctance to come out of seclusion, one might well believe

              that he failed to respond. Based on our efforts to change his environment,

              the months we invested conditioning him, and the countless hours we

              struggled and sweated, searching for why he remained so withdrawn, his

              progress in two years was hardly impressive. And yet, I’d assert he was

              highly responsive. Notwithstanding the plans that I’d laid out for Yaku,

              he chose to hide most days deliberately. In tune with his ocelot instincts

              and senses, Yaku perceived a discernible threat and mindfully heeded it

              with due discretion.


      Virga’s love and empathy for his patients is so apparent that anyone who loves animals cannot but find these various reminiscences, laced with wonderful Korean tales of folklore, as endearing. Along with a whole new generation of animal behaviorists and theorists, Virga refuses the often entrenched notion among scientists who—beginning with René Descartes’ assertion the animals were mere automatons with no feeling and self-awareness, operating unconsciously—refused to allow the possibility that animals, like humans, could be effected by their surroundings and the treatment they were forced to endure. Virga, along with other contemporary writers, pushes closer to an understanding that not only do animals have a great deal in and on their minds, but express their emotions in ways that human beings cannot only come to comprehend but can learn from.

     No matter how much one admires Virga, however, it is in his last assertion that takes him into somewhat questionable territory that vaguely undercuts his careful analyses of animal behavior. Surely we cannot dismiss a sensitive being who, as he admits, often cries with the owners over the condition of the animals he attempts to heal (if I could afford him, I’d invite Virga any day to come and observe our sickly cat, Lily, who spends hours of her life releasing nearly blood-curdling cries), but when these feelings pour over into new age-like manifestos, he vaguely loses me. It’s not that I would not “spiritually” agree with some of his statements, but then I tend to find less solace in the “spiritual” than in a rational-like assessments of situations. And his calls for “connection,” “mindfulness,” “responsiveness,” “adaptability,” “integrity,” “forgiveness” and “presence”—all of which he perceives as qualities emanating from the animals he observes—sometimes seem more like a seven-step program of human improvement than a level-headed presentation of just how close to animals in mind and behavior the human primate actually is.

         In many respects, Laurel Braitman’s 2014 book, Animal Madness, begins and ends similarly to Virga’s book, with a very personal and touching story of her own dog, Oliver’s illnesses and a relation of how his separation anxiety, his fear of thunderstorms, and his chasing of nonexistent flies transformed her life. Oliver, she suggests, may even have attempted suicide by jumping out of a fourth-storey apartment window—and surviving! As in Virga’s book, the author tells her story and those of others, with a great deal of empathy and even, at times, tears. Although he are certainly pained by much of her story about her dog, the guilt she feels about his eventual death, and the effects it had even upon her own human relationships, it sometimes becomes difficult for us to totally engage in her own obvious sorrow. The important thing is that, as with Virga, it leads her on a journey to study other animal madness.

        Like Virga, moreover, Braitman believes in a nuanced anthropomorphism, which, while recognizing animal differences, ties humans to other species. Anti-Descartian (when it comes to animals) Braitman, as I sure Virga might, embraces Darwin’s arguments in his book Expression that ties animals to feelings of surliness, contempt, disgust, love, disappointment, and even revenge. In short, there is a great deal on the minds of beasts suggests Braitman. And like Virga, she asks, even in her sub-title—“How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves”—that we understand these animal feelings as having connections to our human lives.

      Yet Braitman, a science historian, fills up the pages in between her very personal testimonies with an almost circus-like parade (a metaphor I am sure will make Braitman wince) of animal-human and animal-animal relationships that is not only stunningly entertaining but so educational that by book’s end it is hard to imagine why any human being, particularly trained scientists, could or would diminish human-animal links. Indeed, as Braitman detailedly reminds us, scientists have used animals for centuries to explore not only human reactions and behavior, but drugs and medicines that might cure what ails us.  And, although Braitman, like Virga, doesn’t disdain humans analyzing animal illnesses in terms of human equivalents, she reminds us that our own definitions of what and how we suffer have changed over the centuries, that what the Victorians, for example, diagnosed as hysteria, melancholia, nostalgia, and even madness in elephants and dogs, as well as human beings, is very different from the conditions which today we describe as PTS (Post Traumatic Stress), OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), depression, and insanity.

      Along the way, Braitman quite intelligently takes us through the experiments of and developments of numerous noted scientists, whose work often centered on humans but gradually embraced the use of and interest in animals. Dozens of case histories of suffering beasts in zoos, circuses, and Thai logging camps reveal not only animal cruelty but how the masses witnessed and perceived different species. Wonderful stories of beloved gorillas such as John Daniel—treated like a human child in the home of the British woman Alyse Cunningham and her nephew, Major Rupert Penny, only to be exploited by Ringling Brothers Circus, who ultimately saw the animal die from what was then described as “homesickness”—are peppered throughout with Braitman’s personal encounters with elephants and their mahouts throughout Thailand. Specialists in animal message are sandwiched in between fascinating tales of overplucking parrots, chickens, and rats. The problems plaguing sea-lions, whales, and dolphins alternate with stories of self-sacrificing horses. It is clear that Braitman is not always asserting the authenticity of the animal-stories she tells, but reporting the wide variety of human assessments and interactions with animals at least since Darwin.

      A long chapter titled “Animal Pharm” (“Pharm” as in pharmacy and a pun, of course, of Orwell’s political fable), set in the very middle of Braitman’s book, gave me pause. But the author presented such a brilliant summary of the development of drugs such as Miltown, Xanax, Valium and Antipsychotics, tying their development throughout the 1950s primarily as a way to deal with womens’ “problems,” that I soon felt she might do well to write an entire book of this subject alone. The fact that animals were used in most the tests to develop these and later drugs such as Haldol, Librium and other tranquilizers, and now, in turn, are used on animals in zoos—a dirty secret that most such institutions will not readily reveal—and supplied by drug satisfied humans to their own pets, is a startling revelation that should force all of us to rethink our relationship not only to drugs but to the animals around us. Although the drug companies have become fabulously wealthy off of the sale of these drugs to humans, their sale to zoos and pet owners have recently outpaced their pharmaceutical division for humans. “Year sales of Pfizer’s animal pharmaceuticals,” Braitman reports, “are worth roughly $3.9 billion, with companion animal meds representing 40 percent of the total.”

      If these facts trouble us, Braitman somewhat cynically reminds us, we should perhaps not worry. Both we and our animal friends may soon all be nicely drugged out of our minds by the fact that these and other drugs, flushed down toilets and tossed into landfills, annually reach our water supplies and oceans, gradually making its way up the food chains to reach not only shell-fish, ocean fish, and other creatures such as dolphins and whales, but enter our own systems through our bellies.

AnimalMadnessDonkey.jpg      Far less frightening and more satisfying are this author’s examples of how not only humans help cure animal madness, but how other animals help their own species (the tale of the elephants “Noon Nying, Her Man, and Her Watermelon” is my favorite), and how animals are cured through inter-species relationships such as racing horses being calmed by life-time attachments to goats, donkeys, and pigs.

      Like Virga, at the end of her work Braitman also embraces a sense of “forgiveness” in her heart-warming story of the Baja, Mexico gray whales—which throughout the mid-nineteenth century and well into the first half of the 20th were attacked and killed by whalers—who suddenly in the early 1970s began greeting local fishermen with gentle lifts of their boats, allowing themselves and their calves to be touched and petted while raising just above the surface their large, baleful eyes to gaze into those of the sailors.

      If animals like these can forgive our historical abuse of so many species (there were even fragments of harpoons embedded in the sides of a few of these long-living mammals), then perhaps we can also forgive ourselves, suggests Braitman, realizing that we enjoy being around and observing one another.

     “This should not let us off the hook,” warns the author. “We could stop teaching elephants 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 least stop deluding ourselves that it’s out right to see exotic wildlife like gorillas, dolphins, and elephants in every major American city.” Braitman suggests that we replace the wildlife so often tortured by zoo confinement and imprisonment with farm animals and domestic pets like horses, donkeys, llamas, cows, pigs, goats, rabbits, raccoons, rats, squirrels, pigeons, and possums, fortified by parklands where children might take classes in cheese making, beekeeping, gardening, veterinary science, and wildlife ecology.     

     Having read both Virga’s and Braitman’s sad tales of how zoo animals gradually lose their minds when removed from the territories in which they were born to inhabit, I believe these suggestions have real currency—although given our unsympathetic and unethical history with living beings, even of our own kind, such radical changes are unlikely to occur. But I am sure Virga would gladly give up his job as a doc to zoo leopards and ocelots!

     Even before reading these two sometimes sentimental but always big-hearted books I had determined that anthropomorphism—if balanced by a skeptical awareness of the differences between animals and us—was perhaps better to the notion that the behavior of animals was something we could never truly comprehend, or, even worse, the idea that their was something over which they had no control. I knew that eagle of the roof of our building (“An Eagle on the Roof”), just through his cry, was not happy, that somehow he felt disoriented or, at the very least, displeased by his situation—that we wanted to be somewhere else. And I felt and still feel no guilt or sense of stupidity for imposing that view upon the situation. I can only hope that he (or she) found a place which he liked better. But I very much appreciated his or her showing up, and calling me out to see him, letting me observe one of his species close up and alive for the very first time.  


Los Angeles, August 9, 2014

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