Thursday, November 06, 2014

If you think your pet is crazy, you may be right

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, psychology

Our 4-year-old house cat has never been outside on her own. She leaves the house only when we take her to the veterinarian, in her carry-case. Now, you might think a 1600 square foot house with a full basement and a sun porch would be lots of space. After all, she's a lot smaller than we are. But an "outdoor cat" typically roams an area of a few acres, so her world is small. She certainly has more energy than she can expend while kept inside, so she's bored a lot of the time. The condition of our carpet attests to her need to stretch and scratch, a diversionary activity because she can't roam far. And she does something I haven't seen any of our other cats do (I grew up with cats): sometimes she rests with her chin on the floor. She isn't asleep. Her eyes are open but she doesn't move a muscle. It is usually something dogs do when they're bored. She's bored.

After reading Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves, by Laurel Braitman, I realized we are pretty lucky. At least our poor kitty is not psychotic. She doesn't pull out her hair, nor circle or pace like a caged tiger, nor upchuck her food and eat it again, nor demonically attack us out of nowhere. That pacing tiger in the zoo? It or its ancestors had a natural territory measured in dozens of square miles. It has energy to match. What else can it do?

Human insight: Energetic people of all ages need an outlet. For some, it is extreme sports, long hikes (One of my cousins likes to take a 2- to 4-hour hike in the desert. Daily), jogging or aerobics classes. For others it may be joyriding stolen cars, dealing drugs, doing drugs, or other "antisocial" activities. My outlet during my teens and early 20's was splitting logs with an ax. There's nothing quite like setting up a 14-inch-diameter cut of Lodgepole pine when it is -10°F, and popping it in half with a single whack. Several easy splits later it is in 6-8 pieces, ready to burn. Half an hour, half a cord, and I'd be ready to sit still and do my homework. We burned a lot of wood those years!

In humans or animals, "misbehavior" has a reason. Of course, the roots of behavior are a mix of personality and pathology. Some people just seem born to be criminal, and I've written before of the psychopathic young person I knew from age 7, who seemed unable to think of anything legal to take up his time. I reckon animal personalities are similarly variable. There's a room we never let our cat enter. In this room, and this room only, she will seem peaceable for a while, but then get a wild look in her eyes and climb the drapes. We have drapes in other rooms that she ignores.

Ms Braitman began her journey of discovery because of her suicidal dog (I consider purebred dogs to be maniacs in the making anyway). She had a Bernese Mountain Dog named Oliver who clawed through a window frame, pushed aside an A/C unit and jumped from a fifth-floor window onto concrete. The poor dog was too tough to die just from that. Many vet bills later, he was home, but not for long. While still on the mend, he chewed up another window frame and swallowed enough wood to thoroughly twist up his intestines. He had to be euthanized. The Bernese Mountain Dog is a remarkably stable dog for a purebred. But Oliver had a poor life before the author and her husband agreed to care for him, and came to love him, in spite of his extreme anxiety. Suicide, human or animal, doesn't just come out of nowhere.

In her long quest to discover how nonhuman animals, mainly mammals and birds, suffer mental illness, the author traveled the world and spoke with many experts of many kinds. She is an opponent of the existence of zoos, declaring that once you know what to look for, you cannot see a single animal in a zoo that has normal psychology. She seems to have spent quite a bit of time in Thailand with elephants and their mahouts. The stories are remarkable, both of the normal ones and the abnormal. If a working elephant (few wild ones are left in Thailand) is well matched with a sympathetic mahout, the two become like loving siblings. One kind of trouble comes if an elephant, always a very social animal, is a bit overly anxious, and the mahout is hoping to marry. Jealousy can cause distress, destruction or murder. Another kind is a personality mismatch. Some "trouble elephants" have done much better when paired with a different man (hardly any mahouts are female).

Although an element of the author's purpose has been to illuminate human mental suffering, in reality the book provides a wide-ranging survey of mental illness in animals and the efforts of owners and veterinarians, sometimes helpful and sometimes tragically comical, to alleviate it. Fun fact: the normal dose of Prozac for a 50-pound dog is enough to make you sleep for a week, if you wake at all.

So at a circus, or the zoo, if you see an elephant in a small space, standing still and swaying a little back and forth, in her mind she's striding down a forest trail, enjoying the sights and smells she is denied in her tiny enclosure, and for an elephant an acre it tiny. Most captives endure much less.

I find it remarkable that so many animals, in homes, corrals, zoos, nature parks and so forth, do as well as they do. If you were my pet house cat, would you stay sane?

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