Animal Madness Summary and Review

by Laurel Braitman
Has Animal Madness by Laurel Braitman been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. For so many years, human beings have thought that mental illness is something unique to humans and that mental illness is dependent on psychological traits that animals don’t have. It’s believed that you can’t become mentally ill if you don’t have the same conscious abilities as humans, and that you can’t experience melancholy if you don’t have something akin to a soul. And it would be impossible to be suicidal if you didn’t have a concept of life and death. In the past, many people – including notable scholars – believed that animals weren’t smart enough to experience disorders equal to what humans can experience, other than just normal annoying behavioral issues. However, in recent years we’ve learned a lot about how intelligent many different animals actually are, so now it’s important to recognize that animals can experience mental illness too. This summary by Animal Madness by Laurel Braitman will introduce you to the puzzling phenomenon of animal madness. You’ll find out:
  • about a mortally homesick gorilla;
  • why a kangaroo mother might hit her babies, despite her love for them; and
  • why people many decades ago would hang homicidal elephants.

Animal Madness Key Idea #1: Animals have minds and experience emotions despite what some people believe.

A child might feel bad for missing their cat’s birthday, but the cat probably wouldn’t care. However, does this make it safe to assume that all animals don’t feel like humans do? Some people would agree with this, and it would be because they are accustomed to an anthropocentric philosophy. This is the idea that human beings are the only creatures with a mind and emotions, while all animals are driven simply by instinct. Philosopher René Descartes held the belief that human beings held the unique ability to reason. Because he held this belief, he merely saw animals as biological machines that didn’t possess the capacity for self-awareness. However, there are many other schools of thought about this; plenty of people describe animals’ behaviors and experiences as being akin to those of humans. This view is called anthropomorphism. For example, what if you walked in on your dog chewing on your favorite hat. The dog would probably become uncharacteristically meek and most likely wouldn’t make eye contact with you. Could this be due to guilt? This could be entirely possible and there’s definitely no problem with believing that he could feel guilty about his actions. There are plenty of reasons to hold the belief that animals have similar characteristics to humans, and that they have their own feelings and minds. We’re very close relatives with some animals, as Charles Darwin found when he pointed out that humans are just another animal species. On top of that, we have a very similar brain structure to some animals, especially other mammals. Because of this similarity, it’s entirely possible that we share some abilities and emotional experiences. There was an MRI study which found that when dogs were reunited with their human guardians, they showed elevated brain activity in the same regions that process joy in the human brain. Animals also possess a remarkable capacity for intelligence. For example, there are plenty of species that are able to use tools. Apes use sticks to dig for food and may even be able to recognize themselves in mirrors, which indicates that they have some concept of self.

Animal Madness Key Idea #2: Animals have the ability to go mad, become homesick, and even have suicidal tendencies.

Have you ever heard of Scotland’s Overtoun Bridge? Well, if you have, it’s probably due to its infamous history: it’s the site for multiple dog suicides. People tend to be fascinated by stories of disturbed, world-weary animals, and therefore, these stories tend to spread fast. Behavioral issues in animals used to be called madness. The word was used to pinpoint mental issues in multiple species, but it was used especially for elephants. In recent years, it’s become clear that this “madness” in elephants is usually caused by mistreatment or by musth, which refers to a period in elephants when there is an influx of male hormones, which lasts several weeks. There are even cases of elephants being violent and even killing their human caretakers, where the animal was held accountable for their actions due to the fact that people saw them as capable of reasoning. This means that not only were they held accountable for their murders, but they were punished as humans would be, through electrocution, or even hanging. This doesn’t mean that all emotional problems in animals result in such brutal ends. Homesickness is another common emotional issue for animals. For example, let’s look at John Daniel, the gorilla. After being captured in the wild in 1915, he was raised by a family in London, and although he did very well in the family’s home, he soon got too big and strong to be safely left alone. He was then sold to a circus representative who was posing at a park employee, who promised that John would be comfortable and cared for. However, within weeks of loneliness in the circus, John unfortunately died and it’s believed that the cause of death was “homesickness.” Finally, there have been plenty of cases in animals where animals have exhibited suicidal tendencies. Many animals exhibit things that we would consider self-harming behavior, and some have even died this way. From dogs refusing to eat, to scorpions stinging themselves with their poisonous tails, to whales beaching themselves in masses, just to die on the shore, animals all have their own self destructive behaviors. In 1901, a circus lion named Rex was found hanging in his cage; he had choked to death by hanging from his neck chain. While cases like these appear to be suicide to us, we are unable to know for sure whether or not these animals actually intended to kill themselves. In animals, a simple diagnosis of mental illness requires closely examining their habits and life history. We’ve established that animals can suffer from mental illness, however, a veterinarian can’t play the part of a therapist and ask an elephant about what might be causing such behavior. Because of this, diagnosing an animal with mental illness means careful observation. Some disorders, like tic disorders, are easy to diagnose. The author was able to meet Sunita, a high strung tigress, who lives in a wildlife refuge in San Andreas, California. Sunita suffered from facial tics when she was stressed out that caused her to do things involuntarily, such as twitching her mouth. Sometimes though, observing an animal more closely is necessary to see whether the disorder is pathological or whether it might be caused by other factors. For example, a tree kangaroo in the San Antonio Zoo appeared to be beating her babies every time a visitor approached the enclosure. However, once her behavior was observed closer, it was clear that she was instead scrambling to pick up her children for their protection, but her paws were too short to reach them. This happened because tree kangaroos, as their name suggests, raise their young in trees in the wild, so they wouldn’t need to pick them up off the ground to keep them safe. So, really, she was behaving rationally, but she wasn’t adapted to that environment. Another factor that can cause a disorder in animals is the breed of the animal, due to the fact that some breeds are predisposed to certain issues. For example, in dogs, German Shepherds have a natural tendency to snap at non-existent flies, and Bull Terriers often chase their tails. Looking at an animal’s past can help you to understand why they’re behaving a certain way. Behavioral issues can come from past mistreatment and traumas. The reason the tigress, Sunita was always on edge was due to past trauma. In her past, she was imprisoned by an animal hoarder and kept in a crowded room that caused her to be abused by other tigers. Persistent stress like this can lead to an increase in stress hormones, which can lead to brain damage and anxiety. Being able to see how the past can affect an animal’s present is essential to figuring out a treatment for these mentally ill animals.

Animal Madness Key Idea #3: While many vets will recommend medication as their first line of treatment for these animals, drugs aren’t always the only solution.

Have you ever seen an animal in a zoo enclosure staring off into space as if he’s on drugs? Well, this description may very well be spot on. It’s becoming increasingly common to give animals antidepressants, tranquilizers, and other drugs. While many professionals in the industry have signed nondisclosure agreements, which makes it difficult to obtain specific numbers on the issue, evidence points to extensive use of drugs in animals kept on farms and in zoos. Many animals kept in captivity in zoos, including bears and dolphins, are given antidepressants, as are household pets. Why should it be a problem though, to use these drugs to treat mental problems in animals, if most of these drugs have been cleared for human use through animal testing? The problem is that drugs only treat one aspect of what could be making an animal act the way they’re acting. The drugs only hide the symptoms, and even this effect stops once the administration of the drug stops. It’s therefore important to combine drugs with behavior-modification training, to effectively treat an animal’s behavioral problems. This is a method that would help an animal to either unlearn problematic behavior or learn to behave in a desired way. For example, to stop your dog from barking every time a cell phone rings, you might expose him to these noises over and over again, slowly increasing the volume, which will let your dog get used to the ringtone and he will eventually learn that it is harmless. It’s also important to note that even if an animal is expressing annoying behavior, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a behavior. Just because your dog wants to be near you and misbehaves when he’s left alone, that doesn’t mean he has a disorder, it’s simply that he’s acting like a normal dog. In cases like this, the use of drugs doesn’t make any sense. While drugs can be helpful, they’re not the end all be all to all animal behavioral problems. In order to truly treat an animal, you have to start with what it takes for an animal to be healthy in the first place.

Animal Madness Key Idea #4: In order to be healthy, animals need to be active and have companions.

Just as humans need friends and companions to thrive, animals do too. Most animals find companionship through members of their own species, it’s just as common for animals to be friends with other types of animals as well. For example, anxious race horses are often kept with other animals, such as goats, to calm their nerves. In cases like these, it’s also common for both animals to grow attached to each other, so much so that they can suffer from separation. Many animals can also thrive from having a human companion as well. However, this can also lead to the animal growing possessive of the human they’re closest to. For example, an elephant caretaker might bring his girlfriend for a visit, which could cause the elephant to get jealous and aggressive. In order to avoid this, it’s essential that the animal trusts that the human companion won’t abandon it. Another essential part of a healthy life for an animal is for it to stay busy. Animals need to exert energy to thrive, just as humans do. Animals also need to be able to experience joy, which often comes from play. The legislators who signed the Animal Welfare Actrecognized the important of these things to an animal’s life. The Animal Welfare Actis a US federal law that requires laboratories to give their test animals a distraction from their surroundings, meaning the cages of monkeys used for tests should have mirrors, swings, and other equipment that would make the cages more habitable for animals. In conclusion, animals don’t differ too much from humans when it comes to mental health. This means that when we talk about human rights concerning these things, it’s also important to consider animal rights.

In Review: Animal Madness Book Summary

The key message in this book: Animals show many similarities to humans, especially when it comes to their mental health. Animals can feel anxiety, stress, and even homesickness, so, in order to keep animals in good mental health, it’s important to recognize that they have the same psychological needs as we do, including companionship and play.  Actionable advice: Don’t administer drugs unnecessarily. Most psychotropic drugs have side effects, and cost a lot of money considering they’re usually completely unnecessary. So, if your pet seems afraid of something, make sure your first reaction isn’t simply to find a drug that works. Oftentimes, all he needs is a little cuddling and soothing, which will go a long way to comfort him. Just remember, fear is normal in pets sometimes. Of course, if all options have been weighed and you’ve tried everything, only for your pet to still be suffering, there’s nothing wrong with going to the vet to inquire about medication, but it’s worth trying to solve your pet’s problem without chemicals first.