Book: Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves *[This is a link to the book on Amazon, but please consider buying this book from a local bookstore.]
Authors: Laurel Braitman
The inspiration for this book was Laurel Braitmen’s dog, Oliver, who suffered from separation anxiety and a number of other mental health issues. As Braitmen searched for relief for Oliver, she began to research the history of animal psychology, psychopharmaceuticals and current research into animal emotions. The result of this research is Animal Madness, which she took over seven years to write. You can see a “cliff notes” version of this work in Braitmen’s TED talk here.
It is evident that Braitmen put a lot of research into this book. The citations at the end of the book are 72 pages long! Unfortunately, I found that this work suffered under the weight of all this information. As Braitmen jumped from anecdote to factoid to anecdote, the story became disorienting at times and there was no clear linear narrative past the first chapter. This book would have benefited greatly from a simpler and stronger organizational structure to help the reader synthesize the vast amount of knowledge presented here.
While Braitmen’s diverse accounts of animals in all sorts of human societies were utterly engaging, I was a little unsure of the overall message of the book when I finished it. Braitmen hastily concluded her epilogue with a plea to meet our pets’ emotional needs more effectively and not support organizations that promote mental illness in animals, such as zoos and large-scale farming practices. However, there was an enormous conflict between Braitmen’s opinion of zoos and animals kept in homes for me.
Braitmen is critical of the way zoos have kept animals and dismissive of attempts to improve zoo animals’ lives as placation for our consciences. Braitmen provides many episodes to highlight failings of zoos but she is particularly critical of the use of psychopharmaceuticals. For Braitmen’s own dog, however, psychopharmaceuticals were highly valuable in managing his debilitating mental illnesses. The behavioral modification programs compiled for Oliver by a veterinary behaviorist were, in many instances, too difficult for Braitmen to consistently or effectively perform.
The correlation between Oliver’s mental illness, as well as the thousands of other companion animals that suffer from mental illnesses, and the mental illnesses endured by zoo animals is hard to ignore. As in humans, mental illnesses in animals (exotic or otherwise) likely have genetic and environmental components, both of which are profoundly impacted by humans. I was bothered by Braitmen’s cynicism towards zoos while offering her failures as a pet owner in an empathetic light.
Upon reflection, I understand the recurring theme of this book: humans have a crucial role in the mental wellbeing of animals and our increasing knowledge of animals’ brains can make us better caregivers. The reflective value of this knowledge is the concept that our emotional abilities as humans are probably only a shade or two off from the emotional abilities of animals. This could have been presented a more forthright manner throughout the book but, disregarding Braitmen’s negative attitude towards zoos, it is a fascinating read.