Laurel Braitman: What Does Animal Madness Teach Us About Our Own? From compulsive bears to self-destructive rats, science historian Laurel Braitman studies animals with mental health issues and asks what we can learn from them.
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What Does Animal Madness Teach Us About Our Own?

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What Does Animal Madness Teach Us About Our Own?

What Does Animal Madness Teach Us About Our Own?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

So, I mean is there some truth to that poem?

LAUREL BRAITMAN: Absolutely - I adore that poem.

RAZ: This is Laurel Braitman. She started writing about animal behavior seven years ago, right after she met Oliver.

BRAITMAN: Oliver was a Bernese Mountain dog that I just absolutely fell head over heels in love with. I adopted him with my ex-husband and he was affectionate and sweet and playful and I really did feel like he was the best dog I'd ever met.

RAZ: Laurel and her husband and Oliver had a really solid six months.

BRAITMAN: We played hide and seek in the apartment and we took him on long walks and took him on long hikes and we just loved the hell out of this dog.

RAZ: And Laurel was no stranger to animals. She'd grown up on an avocado farm with dogs and cats and donkeys. So, she thought after six months that she knew Oliver pretty well. Until one morning when she left for work.

BRAITMAN: And I always sort of just petted him on the head and made sure he had some snacks out and some toys and some water and then I locked the door and I got down to street level and I realized that I'd forgotten my car keys. And I turned around and that's when I started to hear, like, a really loud skittering sound and also a really sad kind of howl whine and I hadn't heard that before. A kind of like (imitating peculiar whining noise). Sad, just sad, terrible sound and as I walked up to my apartment door - we lived on the third floor, with every successive floor, the skittering got louder. And when I opened the door I saw he had been sprinting back and forth on the other side of the door so intensely that he had carved grooves into our wooden floor.

RAZ: Wow.

BRAITMAN: With his nails. And so, you know, I walked him over and I led him back to his bead and I sort of calmed him down. And I locked door, I got my keys and I walked down to the front porch and I sat there and I was just totally quiet, and I was like, OK, this was just a momentary thing, he must have been anxious for something that's now passed. And then as soon as I stepped one foot off the porch I heard it again. And I looked up -and he was a 120 pound dog, and he had basically wedged his whole body into the window frame, so he could look for me.

RAZ: Every time Laurel left the house Oliver would struggle. Eventually he got terrified of thunderstorms, he began to swallow plastic and hand towels and all kinds of things around the house.

BRAITMAN: At one point Oliver pushed our window pushed our window air-conditioning unit out of the way in our apartment and he chewed a hole through the metal screen and somehow held the sash up and then he jumped out of our kitchen window. Which wouldn't have been a big deal except our kitchen window was on the third floor of our apartment building and so he fell 55 feet, actually into the basement stairwell of the first floor apartment.

RAZ: Amazingly Oliver survived that fall and when Laurel took him to the doctor he proscribed Oliver some pain medication and for his anxiety, Valium, which helped a little. But Laurel, who had just finished her PhD dissertation in anthropology decided that she would try to figure out everything she could about what was happening to Oliver's mind.

BRAITMAN: You know, I went and I talked to neuroscientists and neurosurgeons and I talked to dog behaviorists and I talked to trainers and I talked to zookeepers and I ended up going into the archives of some of our nation's oldest natural history museums. I even read a lot of Charlie Darwin who believed that other animals could be insane.

RAZ: So, it started as a fight to help Oliver, turned into a bigger question about whether animals struggle with mental illness. And that question became the central idea of a book Laurel wrote called "Animal Madness." Which she describes in her TED Talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BRAITMAN: And I spent the last seven years actually looking into this topic of mental illness in other animals. Can they be mentally ill like people and if so, what does it mean about us? And what I discovered is that I do believe they can suffer from mental illness and actually looking and trying to identify mental illness in them often helps us be better friends to them and also can help us better understand ourselves. Many of us think that we can't know what another animal is thinking and that is true but any of you in relationships - at least this is my case, just because you ask someone that you're with or your parent or child how they feel doesn't mean that they can tell you. They may not have words to explain what it is they're feeling and they may not know. It also turns out that thinking about mental illness in other animals isn't actually that much of a stretch. Most mental disorders in the United States are fear and anxiety disorders and when you think that about it fear and anxiety are actually really, extremely helpful animal emotions. Usually we feel fear and anxiety institutions that are dangerous and once we feel them we then are motivated to move away from whatever is dangerous. The problem is when we begin to fee' fear and anxiety in situations that don't call for it. Mood disorders too may actually just be the unfortunate downside of being a feeling animal. And obsessive-compulsive disorders also are often manifestations of a really healthy animal thing which is keeping yourself clean and groomed. This tips into the territory of mental illness when you do things like compulsively over wash your hands or paws or you develop a ritual that's so extreme that you can't sit down to a bowl of food unless you engage in that ritual. One in 5 Americans is currently taking a psycho-pharmaceutical drug. From the antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications to the antipsychotics. It turns out that we owe this entire psycho-pharmaceutical arsenal to other animals. These drugs were tested in nonhuman animals first and not just for toxicity but for behavioral effects. Today Sea World gives mother orca's anti-anxiety medications when their calves are taken away. Many zoo gorillas have been given antipsychotics and anti-anxiety medications. But dogs like my own Oliver are given antidepressants and some anti-anxiety medications to keep them from jumping out of buildings or jumping into traffic. But like with humans, sometimes it's six months in before you realize that the person that you love has some issues. And most of us do not take the person that we're dating back to the bar where he met them or give them back to the friend that introduce us or sign them back up on match.com.

(LAUGHTER)

BRAITMAN: We love them anyway and we stick to it and that is what I did with my dog.

RAZ: In fact Laurel's experience with Oliver convinced her that the way she was thinking about him and maybe the way most of us think about animals is wrong. That story and what eventually happened to Oliver in moment. I'm Guy Raz, our show today, Animals and Us. It's the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR.

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. Today on the show, animals hand us stories and ideas about the way we interact and how those interactions define us.

So when we left off, Laurel Braitman was try to figure out what was going on with her Bernese Mountain Dog, Oliver, who seemed to be dealing with a severe case of mental illness. And Laurel soon found out that Oliver wasn't alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BRAITMAN: Lots of creatures - this horses is just one example, develop self-destructive behaviors. They'll gnaw on things or do other things that may also soothe them, even if they're self-destructive which could be considered similar to the ways that some humans cut themselves. Plucking - turns out, if you have fur or feathers or skin, you can pluck yourself compulsively. And some parrots, actually have been studied to better understand Trichotillomania, or compulsive plucking in humans, something that affects 20 million Americans right now. Even veterans, canine veterans, of conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan are coming back with what's considered canine PTSD and they're having a hard time reentering civilian life when they come back from deployments. They can be too scared to approach men with beards or to hop into cars. And here is a place where I think, actually, that veterinary medicine can teach something to human medicine. Which is, if you take your dog who is, say, compulsively chasing his tail, into the veterinary behaviorist, the first action isn't to reach for the prescription pad. It's to ask you about your dog's life. They want to know how often your dog gets outside. They want to know how much exercise your dog is getting. They want to know how much social time with other dogs and other humans. They want to talk to you about what sorts of therapies, largely behavior therapies, you've tried with that animal. Those are the things that often tend to help the most, especially when combined with psychopharmaceuticals.

I want to be careful and be clear though. I do not think that canine PTSD is the same as human PTSD. But I also do not think that my PTSD is that like your PTSD or that my anxiety or my sadness is like yours. We are all different.

Two dogs raised in the same household, exposed to the very same things - one may develop, say, a debilitating fear of motorcycles or a phobia of the beep of the microwave and another one is going to be just fine.

RAZ: Do you think that our relationship with animals is still, like totally - like, in some ways totally primitive, like we really haven't evolved to think about them in the way that we should be thinking about them?

Yes. I think we're on our way though. So much has changed. I think in a lot of ways, the last 150 years has been this like, kind of big, slow scientific U-turn back to the 19th century and what people like Charles Darwin were saying. Which was that humans are different from other animals, not in kind, but by degree. And I really think that we haven't made peace with that yet as a species. You know, certainly there some exceptions, but once we do we'll be forced to reevaluate so much of our activities with the rest of animal-kind.

RAZ: So back to Laurel's dog Oliver - one Christmas a couple of years after his troubles began, Laurel and her husband went to California to visit her parents. And they left Oliver in a kennel. And while he was there Oliver got sick with a case of bloat, which basically his stomach was starting to suffocate itself. So the doctors performed emergency surgery and they eventually called Laurel.

BRAITMAN: The surgery that they'd performed had already cost about, you know, $10,000 and they estimated a total of $15-20 thousand. We didn't have the money and more importantly than that, the vet thought his prospects were really pretty bad. So we had to decide to put him down from afar.

RAZ: Did you move on, or did you eventually get another dog?

BRAITMAN: I still haven't gotten another dog. I want to. I think that I needed to finish writing my book and to go on this kind of odyssey around the world with all of these different species and all the people that come together to help them, in order to feel like I could get another dog.

RAZ: Yeah.

BRAITMAN: We're actually going to look at a shelter today.

RAZ: Wow. Are you nervous about going to the dog shelter?

BRAITMAN: Nervous and excited. You know that feeling before you go on a first date?

RAZ: I haven't had it in a long time, but, yeah I remember.

BRAITMAN: (Laughter). You know, like, kind of like, expectation of like -will I meet him or her? And if so what am I in for that I just have no idea about?

RAZ: Laurel Braitman's book about the similarities between our animal relationships and our human ones is called "Animal Madness." Check out her talk at TED.com

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