Author Plumbs The Human Psyche Through 'Animal Madness'

Laurel Braitman's new book was born out of a near-tragedy: her frantic dog almost leaped to its death from a third-story window. She talks to NPR's Don Gonyea about mental illness and Animal Madness.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Oliver was anxious all the time. He demonstrated compulsive behavior, and he howled every time his parents left him alone at home. Oliver was a dog - a Bernese Mountain Dog.

But he, like many animals, displayed some amazingly human psychological traits. That was the inspiration for Laurel Braitman's new book. It's called "Animal Madness." It looks at the mental states and behaviors of animals and how they sometimes mirror our own. Laurel Braitman joins me now from KQED in San Francisco. Welcome.

LAUREL BRAITMAN: Thank you so much for having me.

GONYEA: So you begin the book by talking about your dog, Oliver. How long did you have Oliver?

BRAITMAN: We had Oliver for three years.

GONYEA: And what happened?

BRAITMAN: My ex-husband and I had a wedding to go to in South Carolina, and we left him with a human he really liked - our downstairs neighbor. But our neighbor had to go to the farmer's market and left him alone for about two hours. And Oliver just panicked and ended up pushing a window air-conditioning unit out of the way and chewing a hole through the metal screen, holding a sash up and then jumping out of our apartment. And we lived on the third floor of a Brownstone.

And he survived, which was, in a lot of ways, miraculous. But a year after that, he developed bloat during the middle of an anxiety attack. And the damage to his internal organs was so extreme that we were forced to put him down.

GONYEA: You did learn something from this, and it set you on a path toward kind of trying to find out what this is when an animal - in this case, an animal that you owned, had such troubles.

BRAITMAN: He really cracked open my world. And he really set me on a path of seven years of research in historical archives, speaking to everyone from dog trainers to neuroscientists, trying to put together the story, which is can other animals be mentally ill? And if so, how similar is it to our human forms of mental illness?

GONYEA: You don't just write about dogs. You write about gorillas who've been neglected and then who have trouble connecting to other gorillas once they grow up. How do you think understanding this kind of behavior helps us maybe even understand humans?

BRAITMAN: It helps a lot. The gorillas at Boston's Franklin Park Zoo, for example, have a human psychiatrist. He treated Gigi, an elderly female gorilla at the Franklin Park Zoo, for what he believed is a panic disorder, PTSD, and a mood disorder.

And what he said was that it was very, very similar to diagnosing these issues in his human patients. He couldn't necessarily do an oral interview. But so much of how he diagnoses people who wind up in his office is through observation.

GONYEA: Is anthropomorphizing animal behavior like that maybe a distraction, though, to maybe getting to what's really going on?

BRAITMAN: I think that we can anthropomorphize well or we can anthropomorphize poorly. And recognizing suffering or something like an obsessive-compulsive disorder, whether that's a dog compulsively chasing his tail or a mouse who's compulsively washing her paws, this can be similar to humans also engaging in OCD behaviors.

Many of these things are grooming behaviors gone awry. So taking care of ourself is a really healthy animal activity. The problem is that when we start to do it to a point where it interrupts our normal life.

GONYEA: In the book, you talk a lot about how we can understand animal behavior by looking at it through the lens of human behavior. What about - what about the opposite? How does this research help us to understand humans?

BRAITMAN: Well, first of all, what I learned was that almost everything that we know about the unhinged human mind, we learned from watching other animals. So everything from a concept of emotional resilience, which really stems from Ivan Pavlov's work in dogs in the early 20th century, to a lot of what we've learned about the kinds of things that infants need for healthy development, we learned from watching monkeys. A monkey who has been denied affection just won't become a healthy adult. So those are just some examples.

But really, almost everything that cheers up your dog is also going to cheer you up. So things like exercise and if you're a social animal, getting to know another social animal who may be a little bit more emotionally healthy than you is really helpful. And that doesn't even have to be the same species as you. So, you know, goats can cheer up dogs and tortoises can cheer up hippos. It's not just the stuff of Internet forwards and memes is what I discovered.

GONYEA: I wonder, how has writing this book changed the way you interact with animals, if it has?

BRAITMAN: Well, first of all, I'm a really weird zoo-goer. You can be like every other person there, which is, first, you know, we always pull out our hand and we do, like, a jaunty open-palmed human hello, as if they're going to wave back to us. And then we pull out the camera phone. And then we nudge the person next to us. And we say, look, they're just like us. And then we keep walking on.

But actually, if you want a slightly more meaningful encounter, you should try to be a slightly more entertaining person. And if you do something like - you take off your shoes, for example. A lot of apes want to see your toes. A lot of animals will be interested if you hold up a young infant to the glass.

At the Bronx Zoo, according to the docents, the gorillas' favorite day of the year is Halloween, when adults and kids come to the zoo dressed in costume. All the gorillas come up to the glass and they're curious because for one day out of the year we're interesting. That's just one tiny example. I have so many in the book of all of the ways that this work surprised me into more complex views of the creatures around me.

GONYEA: All right. Laurel Braitman. Her new book is called "Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots And Elephants In Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves." Laurel, thank you.

BRAITMAN: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANIMAL")

MIKE SNOW: (Singing) I change shapes just to hide in this place, but I'm still - I'm still an animal. Nobody knows it, but me. When I slip...

GONYEA: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: