Animal madness

Braitman Laurel - Animal madnessPUBLISHING YEAR: 2014

SUMMARY: A science historian digs into the annals of animal psychiatry after her dog’s descent into mental illness.

AUDIENCE: The book was written for the layman and will give solace to the owners of pets struggling with behavioural disorders. It would be a great influence to the harsher dog behaviour professionals who bother reading it; hopefully shifting their view of the students from misbehaving rascal to struggling patient.

01 Owner


The author: Laurel Braitman has a PhD in the history of science. She was in fact still a PhD candidate when her dog Oliver started showing troubling behaviour.

Style and contents: The book takes us through Laurel Braitman’s and her then-husband’s journey into animal madness. Oliver, their hitherto perfect Bernese mountain dog, had been silently suffering from extreme separation panic. One day, Laurel Braitman was hit with the hardest possible reality check: her dog had dislodged an air conditioning unit and plunged through the window of their several storeys-high apartment. Just to escape being home alone. Oliver also had a deep fear of storms and would damage himself and anything that stood between him and ‘escape’ in his fits of panic. Laurel and her husband reached out to dog sitters, trainers, behaviourists, veterinarians and vet behaviourists but nothing seemed to alleviate Oliver’s profound phobias.

Upon Oliver’s death, Laurel’s world and marriage shattered, so she decides to embark upon a journey of understanding animal mental illness.

The book was jam-packed with well-researched facts about:

  • The history of animal consciousness research;
  • The history of mental health;
  • The history of psychopharma;
  • A who’s who of animal behaviour; and
  • Well-publicized examples of mental breakdown in animals.

Not only did she cover the historical aspects with brio, but she also navigated the controversies and subtleties without falling into the usual traps:

  • She exhorts the reader to rethink the blanket ban on anthropomorphism, and to be wary of anthropocentrism instead. A profound and necessary stance for a book focusing on comparative psychiatry.
  • She lifts the curtain of behaviourists’ own pets and their mental health issues.
  • She gives an honest evaluation of zoo animal welfare.
  • (always a winner for me!) She fully cites easily traced references to every statement and studies mentioned. And there were a lot: Laurel Braitman surveyed a broad swathe of the literature. The book is bursting with unmissable references.
  • She travelled far and wide to talk with the world’s leading specialists on each topic: the book obviously enjoyed a generous – and well-deserved – budget.

The gems: Dr. Braitman has the gift of the pen. The book will leave you at once laughing, pensive or depressed. Here are some extracts:

  • “Besides faithful dogs and other companion animals, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century stories of brokenheartedness centred around zoo animals, possibly because these creatures lived closely with people and weren’t destined for the dinner table. There may have been less incentive to recognize humanlike brokenheartedness in a future steak or chicken breast.” (p. 84)
  • For a bit of a chuckle, she opens chapter three with: “Mel Richardson mentioned orangutang masturbation within fifteen minutes of our first meeting.” p. 97
  • About conformation-driven dog breeding: “What would happen […] if a small group of people were made to have children with another small group solely based on the length of their forearms, the colour of their leg hair, the shape of their ears, the shade of their palms or backsides, or the size of their feet?” p. 109
  • Comparing Toxoplasmosis gondri (a parasite found in cat faeces can make its host – humans included – take increased risks) to a “protozoan puppeteer” p. 180
  • (heartbreakingly recognizable for animal mental health professionals) “…psychopharm for pets can be a useful way station on the road to recovery, or a stopgap measure on the way to the gas chamber.” p. 215
  • On page 217, she compares the owners of mentally ill pets as the “animal’s companion animal”. An analogy in which my clients will recognize their roles as buffers and protectors of their fragile companion against the big wide world.
  • “Many dog owners are content to meet a dog on human terms but are unwilling to do so on the dog’s terms. […] we are thrilled when dogs are excited to see us at the end of the workday, but we don’t want them to be running and jumping in circles, tails wagging explosively, paws everywhere, when we’re at work. Instead, we hope they’re sleeping soundly, calmly grooming themselves, or perhaps taking a gander through the living-room window, not in longing but just to see what’s there. This expectation isn’t fair. It reminds me of times I’ve fallen for men whose idiosyncrasies intrigued and captivated me at first, but as time wore on, those same traits began to drive me nuts.” p. 218
  • About the plight of zoo animals: “The plastic toys in the arms of the octopus or in the toothy grip of the aquarium seal are here not only to occupy the animals’ minds, but also to make us feel better about ourselves watching them” p. 238
  • “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.” p. 281

And those were but a few of the many, many, many gems in Animal Madness.

Possible improvements and sub-optimal things 

Some passages were a little confusing: take the one referring to Tinbergen as a ‘behaviourist’ (p. 21). Tinbergen being the patron saint of ethology, and ethology being the polar opposite of behaviourism, this was a little… confusing.

The chapter on animal suicide was ridden with logical leaps. For every example of animal suicide given, I could think of simpler – more proximate if you want to be all ethological about it – non-suicide explanations. I found this chapter much less rigorous than the rest of the book on the science front.

Laurel Braitman seems to subtly poo-poo psychopharmacological and hormonal help despite them having a legitimate place for the right cases.

The verdict: The book reminded me a lot of Zoobiquity (a popular science book about comparative medicine) but then with a sole focus on mental health. A gripping, profound and depressing read that will really make you think about animal welfare and cognition. It will make you rethink the human-animal ‘gap’ and hopefully open your eyes to their capacity for suffering from some of the mental disorders that have us lie on the shrink’s couch and reach for Prozac.

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Author: Braitman Laurel
Genre: autobiography, pop science
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