Animal Madness: How Deciphering Mental Illness in Our Fellow Beings Helps Us Become Better Versions of Ourselves
By Maria Popova
One of the two dogs in my life has a decided fear of the dark and a paralyzing phobia of storms — quite literally: he goes catatonic, except for his uncontrollable trembling, his eyes the wide-gaping opening to a bottomless well of terror. My other canine companion is the most angelic yet most anxious creature I’ve ever encountered, capable of obsessively licking her paws for hours on end, trying to self-soothe against the unbearable weight of the world, her eyebrows permanently moulded into question marks that seem to perpetually ask when the other shoe will drop. Because, in her mind, it’s never a question of whether it will drop — only the anguishing inevitability of when it will.
If this seems like far-fetched anthropocentrism, a field of science that has been gathering momentum for more than 150 years strongly suggests otherwise. That’s precisely what Senior TED Fellow Laurel Braitman explores in Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves (public library | IndieBound). Braitman, who holds a Ph.D. in history and anthropology of science from MIT, argues that we humans are far from unique in our capacity for “emotional thunderstorms that make our lives more difficult” and that nonhuman animals are bedeviled by varieties of mental illness strikingly similar to our own. With equal parts rigor and compassion, she examines evidence from veterinary science, psychology and pharmacology research, first-hand accounts by neuroscientists, zoologists, animal trainers, and other experts, the work of legendary scientists and philosophers like Charles Darwin and Rene Descartes, and her own experience with dozens of animals spanning a multitude of species and mental health issues, from depressed dogs to self-harming dolphins to canine Alzheimer’s and PTSD.
Braitman’s journey begins with one particularly troubled nonhuman animal — Oliver, the Bernese Mountain Dog she adopted, whose “extreme fear, anxiety, and compulsions” prompted her, in the way that a concerned parent on the verge of despair grasps for answers, to explore whether and how other animals could be mentally ill. Considering the tapestry of evidence threads she uncovered during her research, she writes:
Humans and other animals are more similar than many of us might think when it comes to mental states and behaviors gone awry — experiencing churning fear, for example, in situations that don’t call for it, feeling unable to shake a paralyzing sadness, or being haunted by a ceaseless compulsion to wash our hands or paws. Abnormal behaviors like these tip into the territory of mental illness when they keep creatures — human or not — from engaging in what is normal for them. This is true for a dog single-mindedly focused on licking his tail until it’s bare and oozy, a sea lion fixated on swimming in endless circles, a gorilla too sad and withdrawn to play with her troop members, or a human so petrified of escalators he avoids department stores.
Every animal with a mind has the capacity to lose hold of it from time to time. Sometimes the trigger is abuse or mistreatment, but not always. I’ve come across depressed and anxious gorillas, compulsive horses, rats, donkeys, and seals, obsessive parrots, self-harming dolphins, and dogs with dementia, many of whom share their exhibits, homes, or habitats with other creatures who don’t suffer from the same problems. I’ve also gotten to know curious whales, confident bonobos, thrilled elephants, contented tigers, and grateful orangutans. There is plenty of abnormal behavior in the animal world, captive, domestic, and wild, and plenty of evidence of recovery; you simply need to know where and how to find it.
Braitman is careful to acknowledge that such a notion is likely to unnerve our notions of human exceptionalism and offers a wise caveat:
Acknowledging parallels between human and other animal mental health is a bit like recognizing capacities for language, tool use, and culture in other creatures. That is, it’s a blow to the idea that humans are the only animals to feel or express emotion in complex and surprising ways. It is also anthropomorphic, the projection of human emotions, characteristics, and desires onto nonhuman beings or things. We can choose, though, to anthropomorphize well and, by doing so, make more accurate interpretations of animals’ behavior and emotional lives. Instead of self-centered projection, anthropomorphism can be a recognition of bits and pieces of our human selves in other animals and vice versa.
She later adds:
We’ve inherited a bias against identifying with other animals that isn’t useful, and it’s high time we discarded it.
It’s worth noting that while Braitman is very much interested in how understanding mental illness in nonhuman animals can help us better treat our own, her approach isn’t one of self-interest but one of genuine compassion for the inner worlds and anguish of our fellow beings. In fact, there’s an undercurrent of the opposite aspiration — an effort to use what we do know about humans, who are, at least linguistically, far better-equipped to articulate their psychoemotional conditions, to understand those of animals and alleviate their anguish. Underlying this is the subtle suggestion that such an osmosis of understanding between species can foster greater understanding among our own species by making us better, more empathetic versions of ourselves and who we are to one another.
To be sure, Braitman’s journey to this insight is far from a smooth and Pollyannaish one. She returns to Oliver, who jumped out of her fourth-floor window one warm May afternoon, after gnawing a hole through the mesh wire of the screen and squeezing his 120-pound body through it. Though he survived the fifty-five-foot fall rather miraculously, it was the beginning — or, rather, the reveal — of his lifelong struggle with mental illness.
Braitman had always dreamt of a Bernese Mountain Dog to call her own, but such purebred pups ran for around $2,000 each — a cost unthinkable to Braitman and her husband, whose respective jobs in an environmental conservation nonprofit and a government geological agency placed them in exactly the income bracket one would imagine. When a local breeder offered them Oliver, an adult dog, for free, along with some tempered story of why his previous owners could no longer keep him, it seemed like a deal too good to be true — but having fallen in love with Oliver at first sight, they did what the lovestruck do and dismissed the warning signs. Braitman writes:
We’d fallen for Oliver at first sight. It felt more like a physical sensation than a conscious decision. It certainly wasn’t rational. We brought him home that same afternoon… It wasn’t until a few months into our relationship with Oliver that his truly bizarre behavior started to manifest. But once it did, it spread like spilled molasses: sticky, inexorably expansive, and difficult to contain.
She recounts the first serious red flag, discovered by sheer serendipity one day after she and her husband left for work:
I said goodbye to Oliver and locked the house, only to realize as soon as I reached my car that I’d left the keys in our apartment. As I headed back up the block to our building I heard a plaintive yowling — not feline or human and not from the National Zoo, a few blocks away. It was a bark that sounded like the squeak of an animal too large to squeak (this was before I knew any elephants), and it was coming from our apartment.
When I stepped onto the front porch the barking stopped and was replaced by a loud skittering sound. As I climbed the steps to the top floor, the crablike skittering got louder. It was, I realized, the sound of Oliver’s toenails on the wooden floor as he sprinted back and forth along the length of the apartment. When I opened the door he was panting and wild-eyed. He bounded up to me as if I’d just returned from a months-long expedition, not a five-minute trip to the car. I picked up my keys, walked Oliver back to his dog bed, petted him a bit, and then got up to leave. When I reached the sidewalk I sat on the porch and waited. After about ten minutes of quiet, I stood up in relief. Then suddenly, after only a few steps, there it was — the yowlingsqueakbark. Again and again and again. I looked up and saw Oliver’s giant head pressed against our bedroom window, his paws on the sill. He was looking down at me with his tongue lolling. He’d waited to bark until he saw me leave the porch. I was already late for work. As I walked down the sidewalk I kept turning around. Oliver had moved to the living-room window so that he could watch me walk farther down the street. The barking increased when I turned the corner, and the whole drive to my office I could hear it inside my head.
As Oliver’s Rube Goldberg progression of destruction and self-destruction hastened over time, Braitman found herself tangled in the age-old quest to understand what goes on in the minds of animals and the often unpredictable relationship between their thoughts and their actions. Turning to Charles Darwin’s pioneering studies of animal emotion, Braitman points out how radical his proposition in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals was, less than two centuries after Descartes had advanced the notion that animals are mere automata — thoughtless, emotionless moving machines, driven by emotion alone. Braitman writes:
Darwin described surliness, contempt, and disgust in chimps, astonishment among Paraguayan monkeys, love among dogs, between dogs and cats, and between dogs and humans. Perhaps most surprisingly he argued that many of these creatures were capable of enacting revenge, behaving courageously, and expressing their impatience or suspicion. A female terrier of Darwin’s, after having her puppies taken away and killed, impressed him so much “with the manner in which she then tried to satisfy her instinctive maternal love by expending it on [Darwin]; and her desire to lick [his] hands rose to an insatiable passion.” He was also convinced dogs experienced disappointment and dejection.
He went on to document grief-stricken elephants, contented house cats, pumas, cheetahs, and ocelots (who expressed their satisfaction with purring), as well as tigers, whom he believed did not purr at all but instead emitted “a peculiar short snuffle, accompanied by the closure of the eyelids” when happy. He wrote about deer at the London Zoo — who approached him because, he believed, they were curious. And he talked about fear and anger in musk-ox, goats, horses, and porcupines. He was also interested in laughter. “Young Orangs, when tickled,” reported Darwin, “. . . grin and make a chuckling sound” and “their eyes grow brighter.”
Next came another scientist, the Scottish physician William Lauder Lindsay, whose experience made him particularly well-suited for the job of understanding emotion in nonhumans. Lindsay, who had been appointed medical officer at an asylum for the insane in an era when mentally ill humans were treated like animals, went on to argue in a seminal scientific paper published in 1871 that “both in its normal and abnormal operations, mind is essentially the same in man and other animals.”
But perhaps the greatest champions of the twentieth century were two women — Jane Goodall, whose work with chimpanzees helped shift public perception of the emotional and cognitive range of nonhumans, and Rachel Carson, whose writing was key in galvanizing the modern environmental movement. Today, one of the leading scientists working to understand — and advocate for — the psychoemotional experience of animals is neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, who too began his career at a mental institution for humans. Braitman points to a particularly remarkable video of him tickling a few chubby rats into laughter:
She explains the importance of Panksepp’s research:
After decades of research, Panksepp is convinced that most animal brains, from Oliver’s to a ticklish mouse’s, likely have the capacity for dreaming, for taking pleasure in eating, for feeling anger, fear, love, lust, grief, and acceptance from their mothers, for being playful, and for some conception of selfhood, an argument that might have seemed painfully unscientific just forty years ago. Panksepp believes that emotional capacity evolved in mammals long before the emergence of the human neocortex and its massive powers of cognition. He is careful to say that this doesn’t mean that all animal or even mammalian emotions are the same. And when it comes to complex cognitive skills, he believes that the human brain puts all others to shame. But he is convinced that other animals have many special abilities that we don’t have and this may extend to emotional states. Rats, for example, have richer olfactory lives, eagles have impressive eyesight, and dolphins can sense the world via sight, sound, sonar, and touch. These abilities may translate into more and different feelings associated with their various sensory or cognitive experiences. Panksepp believes that rabbits, for example, may have bigger or different capacities for fear while cats may have larger capacities for aggression and anger.
Citing other scientists’ research on everything from compassion in chimps to altruism and morality in bonobos, Braitman frames the scope of the broader inquiry and its cultural significance:
A number of recent studies have gone far beyond our closest relatives to argue for the possible emotional capacities of honeybees, octopuses, chickens, and even fruit flies. The results of these studies are changing debates about animal minds from “Do they have emotions?” to “What sorts of emotions do they have and why?”
This line of thinking, Braitman points out, is neither surprising nor far-fetched — after all, emotions evolved to help our survival, be it by signaling danger and evoking the proper flight response or by incentivizing us to bond and mate with the appropriate creatures. They most likely co-evolved with consciousness as the two phenomena honed one another, which means the evolutionary chain is strewn with emotional experiences. We, as a culture, are slowly coming around to recognizing this — take, for instance, the landmark Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness signed in 2012 by an impressive roster of prominent scientists, seeking to establish definitively that mammals, birds, and even creatures like octopuses are conscious and capable of experiencing emotions. Which brings us back to Oliver. Braitman chronicles his descent into the dark night of the soul after his fall:
As I watched Oliver’s disturbing behavior grow more intense, his nightly relentless paw licking, for example, or his frenzied concern over being left by himself, I puzzled over what was going on in his mind. Like so many other animals, he was a furry enigma. And yet discovering the particularities of what he was actually thinking didn’t matter that much when it came to helping him. The reality of Oliver’s raw, self-inflicted sores and my inability to distract him from making them worse was enough to tell me that he was too focused on something that was doing him harm. On one particularly bad evening, he gnawed on the base of his tail until he’d made a hole the size of a tennis ball.
Despite our efforts to help him, Oliver’s anxiety at being left alone only increased in the years he lived with us. His storm phobia reduced him to a shaking, inconsolable mess, and it took him hours, sometimes days to recover. We’d taken him to a veterinary behaviorist, given him first Valium, then Prozac, then both. We practiced behavioral modification and training in an attempt to manage his anxiety. We played him recorded sounds of storms to desensitize him to thunder and jingled our keys even when we weren’t planning on leaving the house. We took him on long walks, then long hikes. We tried to socialize him with other dogs. We gave him toys and treats. We gave him affection. We thought about getting him another animal companion and then decided against it. We tried, and failed, to give him certainty.
Oliver’s story isn’t one with a happy ending — he does eventually manage to stray from the vigilant humans staffed to ensure his safety. After his death, Braitman’s grief — one of the most profound human experiences — only deepens the human-nonhuman similarities she had been exploring. She reflects:
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. One anxious dog brought me the entire animal kingdom. I owe him everything.
Plunging back into the muddy waters of understanding animal consciousness, she turns to another parallel between the human and the nonhuman experience — our history of diagnosing it. Diagnoses, she points out, have a tendency to come and go like fashions. In the Victorian era, for instance, conditions like “mortal heartbreak,” “nostalgia,” and “homesickness” were frequent diagnoses on the spectrum of neuroses — and we’ve applied them just as systematically to animals over the centuries. Braitman cites the particularly common trope of 19th-century newspaper reports on “mad” elephants. She quotes from one such article, published in The New York Times in 1880, recounting the story of an Indian elephant who had begun killing local villagers and demolishing buildings:
[The elephant] was not merely wild — it was “mad,” and as cunning and as cruel as a mad man. But insanity itself is a tribute to the animal’s intelligence, for sudden downright madness presumes strong brain power. Owls never go mad. They may go “silly,” or they may be born idiots; but as Oliver Wendell Holmes says, a weak mind does not accumulate force enough to hurt itself.
Braitman illuminates the deeper, more systematic tragedy this story speaks to:
[Most of these elephants] were not physically ill but more likely reacting against poor treatment and abuse. These mad elephants were newsworthy, not simply because they smashed buildings or cars or trampled people but because they expressed themselves in often spectacular ways — choosing particular individuals on whom to vent their anger or exact revenge, biding their time until they found the right, most devastating moment to act. Captive elephants have been known to suddenly explode into violence, going after their handlers, grooms, or trainers. This is so common that, since the nineteenth century, expressions like running amok came to characterize just this type of event. These accounts were commonplace in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and still appear in the twenty-first.
Citing the story of Tip — the 18-year-old Asian circus elephant sentenced to death in 1894 on account of his explosive temper — Braitman underscores how irresponsible and blind to our own accountability labels like “mad” can be:
He was deemed mad not because he was rabid or demonstrably insane but because he acted violently toward the men who sought to control him, keep him in chains, and diminish his sensory, social, physical, and emotional world to a small barn. His badness caused his madness, and his madness cemented his badness. Tip was a victim of the human tendency to punish what we misunderstand or fear. New York of the 1890s was a world in which elephants killed men out of vengeance and spite, and insanity could leap from animal to human. How Tip was treated for his behavior, his increasingly restrained world, and his eventual execution reflected the anxieties of the people around him who fretted about the causes of madness and just who was susceptible.
One particularly curious 19th-century human diagnosis, eventually applied to animals, was that of “homesickness” — an ailment considered on par with physical illnesses like scarlet fever and tuberculosis, and “thought to weaken, kill, or even inspire suicide.” The Civil War produced five thousand diagnoses of homesickness, with 74 of the afflicted men believed to have died from the condition. At the height of colonialism, when new species from conquered lands were being brought to Europe and America in zoos, circuses, and other forms of human entertainment, many animals soon began exhibiting the same symptoms as humans suffering from homesickness.
Braitman tells one particularly moving story — that of the gorilla John Daniel, who was first separated from his gorilla mother and then from the young woman who had bought him from a department store, with the intention of making him a part of the family and treating him as a human child. He soon became a London celebrity. But as he was reaching adulthood, it became clear to John Daniel’s human mother that she couldn’t provide for him the life that a large, free-roaming silverback gorilla needed. She set out to find him a worthy home. Nothing in her native England seemed suitable, so when a representative from a private park in Florida began courting her to send the now-famous young gorilla there, it seemed like the right fit. But she was swindled — the man turned out to work for a New York circus. It was too late — John Daniel had been sent to America, where he quickly succumbed to unspeakable gloominess. Braitman writes:
The loneliness and isolation John must have felt inside his cage at the Garden was probably crushing. First he’d been separated from his gorilla mother, then he had been raised like a hairy human child and, at four years of age, would have been developmentally like one. What John Daniel felt when he was taken from [his human parents] is likely similar to what a human child of the same age would feel upon being separated from his parents and the only home he knew, to sit in a cold room with only the gaze of strangers to keep him company. John responded to English. He had culture. He knew a gorilla version of love and affection. He also knew a gorilla form of sadness.
Soon both circus-goers and the press reported that the young gorilla was literally dying of loneliness.
Three weeks later, he died. New York Times reporters attributed his death to homesickness and poor care. Others speculated he died of pneumonia. Braitman notes the inextricable link between the physical and the psychological:
Both things may be true, as John’s immune system was likely weakened by his loneliness and isolation. In the weeks before his death he had refused food and would crouch on his iron bed, covering himself with a blanket, facing away from the front of his cage and the crowds who came to see him. By the time the wife of one of the circus performers began to spend time with him, putting warm compresses on his forehead and giving him the attention he craved, it was too late. A [circus] employee who knew John said that he had been treated like any ordinary museum specimen and this was the problem: “I think myself that he might have lived if allowed to stick to his former habits.”
But though John Daniel’s story is a tragic one, Braitman cites it as a cautionary tale that reminds us how vital it is to ensure better, happier alternatives — something only possible if we acknowledge, then seek to understand, then begin to alleviate mental illness in nonhuman animals. In the epilogue, she writes:
One of the most encouraging aspects of animal mental illness is that, against all odds, many creatures thrive, or at the very least, exhibit the kind of behavior that looks a lot like resilience.
Her ultimate message is one of optimism and thoughtful advocacy. She recounts a visit to Baja, Mexico, where she encounters a mother whale and her calf — a poignant and beautiful antidote to everything our history with whales should point to. Braitman captures the transcendence of the experience beautifully:
Mass killings at the hands of humans were fundamental events in their natural history. Their choice to approach us in what was once a watery killing field is a fundamental event in ours.
We can call the whales’ behavior resilience or recovery, or we can anthropomorphize it as a kind of human-directed forgiveness. At the very least, the whales are doing something that seems a lot like the expression of affectionate and playful curiosity. Watching a free-living calf swim out of the depths with his mother and, on her urging, look into my eyes while I looked into his is one of the most powerful and mystifying encounters of my life. I believe this is because it was born of choice. Unlike an aquarium beluga, a zoo-dwelling panda, or my neighbor’s Chihuahua, who may make eye contact because there is nowhere else to look, because they hope to be fed or because they fear me, the Baja whales looked at me with, I’m convinced, something like the same wonder and curiosity I had for them.
I thought about our encounters with other animals and wondered what we might do to make these interactions more like those between the humans and whales of Baja. Could we affect the mental health of both captive and wild animals for the better, not simply by striving to do no harm but by seeking to rectify our mistakes?
Reflecting on the many stories and multitude of research, Braitman brings the journey full-circle, back to Oliver, her oracle of compassion:
The weight of all these accumulated stories convinced me that we should pay closer attention to the mental health of other creatures — because what is good for them is so often good for us. Many people have already taken on this responsibility, and the resulting observations — of monkey executives, nervous dogs, relaxed rats, demented sea lions, and more — have quietly influenced how we think about our own unraveling minds and what we might do to stitch them back together again.
Trying to understand Oliver also led me to be a bit kinder to myself and the humans and other animals around me. When we feel kinship with a pig or a pigeon, really feel it, we can’t help but share a bit of that affection with our own animal selves… To selflessly love another creature is to be open to loving other humans, who are animals as much as pandas, cows, or Shih Tzus. This is why I never trust an animal rights activist who is misogynistic or thinks that Homo sapiens are, at heart, more rotten than any other species. Human rights activists are animal rights activists by default. The reverse should also be true.
Ultimately, Braitman reminds us that our choices shape the world we live in and the responsibility embedded in them is to be addressed with equal parts self-compassion for our human fallibility and compassion for the beings with whom we share not only a planet, but also an emotional reality:
It’s simply that falling short is the human condition, and some problems cannot be taken care of by hoping.
This should not let us off the hook. 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 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 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 also stop leading the sorts of lives that cause large numbers of our pets to end up on psychopharmaceuticals. We could spend more time walking and playing with them and less time on our phones, checking email and watching television. We could stop bringing animals into our lives that deep down, we know we cannot care for, and we could recognize, in them and their crazy behavior, our own unhealthy habits reflected back to us…
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
Published June 10, 2014