A few months ago I was walking down a coastal trail north of San Francisco when I realized I was in love. The object of my affection was trotting ahead of me on a mysteriously urgent errand to smell a blackberry bush.
His name is Cedar and I am his human and he is my dog and he looks, depending on whether he’s curling his tail up over his back, like a tiny Akita or a dark fox.
It was my friend Vanessa who made sure I adopted him. I’d been in Portland less than two hours when she loaded me into her van and drove me to the Oregon Humane Society. I’d been talking about adopting a dog for a while but I was hesitant. When you’ve known loss—messy, broken, snot-sobbing loss—it takes bravery and more than a smidgen of self-delusion to let yourself become completely and totally enamored with someone else again. Even if, maybe especially if, that someone is a dog. For reasons that this book will make clear, opening myself up to another canine took me awhile. I was hesitant, cagey, and a little nervous. I was not, however, cynical.
I didn’t notice Cedar on our first visit to the shelter. Instead I’d asked to see a glossy black Labrador that turned out to radiate anger at other dogs simply for existing. It was on our second visit that we saw Cedar. He was mopey and sharing his cage with a shepherd mix. I took this as a sign that he wasn’t inherently angry. He also had soft pointed ears and looked like he was wearing white athletic socks on his front paws. When Vanessa pressed her hand against the chain-link of his enclosure, he padded over and leaned his weight into her, casting his eyes mournfully upward and sneezing. In the cement meet-and-greet area Vanessa gave him bits of cheese from a tube while I followed him around asking pointedly: “Are you my dog? Can you tell me if you have separation anxiety? Please don’t have separation anxiety. Also, are you housebroken? Please be housebroken. How do you feel about boats? Cats? Strangers?”
According to his chart, Cedar had been given up twice, once at six weeks old, and then again two years later. He’d been microchipped and when the shelter called the number linked to his chip they were told, “We don’t want him anymore.” No one would tell me why. It’s possible that no one knew but I think that it’s more likely no one was talking because they wanted this furry, sad little creature to find a home where people expected the best of him.
For some reason I cannot entirely explain, I did.
So far it’s working out really well. This is mostly because I hired a dog trainer to teach us how to behave. Her name is Lisa Caper and when she pulled up to my house for the first time, wearing a T-shirt with a version of Shepard Fairey’s iconic Obama/Hope image reimagined as a terrier with his head cocked and the word adopt written in giant block letters—I felt like everything was going to be okay. Things are also working out simply because Cedar is being himself. He has an inner calm and sturdy athletic confidence that my last dog did not. Most of Cedar’s problems, or I should say, my problems with Cedar, stem from the fact that living with him is sometimes a bit like living with a very tall raccoon. He loves to get his paws wet and then
put them all over everything and he will eat anything and everything left out on the counter. He also hates speeding road bikes and their spandex-clad riders, though I don’t really blame him, and he thrills at the scent of cat, turkey sausage, and the dead seabirds that sometimes wind up on the beach near our house. He rolls on their remains until the wet feathers and tiny bones stick to his coat like a dead-bird costume. Already, after just a few months, I can’t imagine my life without him.
The truth is that I wouldn’t have adopted Cedar if not for this book and the readers who wrote to me with their own stories of dogs, cats, and other creatures they loved who tested their patience, the limits of their affection, and their preconceptions of animal minds. The stories of people helping phobic horses confidently face pedestrians with umbrellas, dogs cheering up elephants mourning lost companions, or goats rousing donkeys from deepest depression, blanketed me with hope not just for the ability of creatures to heal from emotional suffering but also the lengths that people and other animals will go to mend each other’s broken spirits.
One Texan rancher called into a public radio station in Houston to tell me that all of his dogs have personality quirks, some of them verging on mental illness but that “a dog is just God coming at us ass-backwards.” Whether you believe in God with a capital G doesn’t really matter. In every dog—and possibly every donkey, kangaroo, or dolphin, there is a chance, often far more than one, for grace, forgiveness, and recovery.
Mac, the miniature donkey, can be kind of a jerk. He bats his eyelashes, angles his long furred ears toward you, flatteringly, like TV antennas, and pushes his belly up against your thighs. Then, just as you’ve grown comfortable with his small, stocky presence, his burro smell of sagebrush and sweet alfalfa, something dark and confusing stirs within him. He stiffens, whips his head back, and bites down hard on the bony part of your shin and doesn’t let go. Or he rears to stamp his hooves on your toes, or he kicks his back legs like sharp springs in the direction of your kneecaps or into your actual kneecaps. If this wasn’t painful, it would be funny. Mac is, after all, the size of a goat. But because you can’t predict when it will happen, he is also a little scary. Mac shifts so suddenly from being affectionate and needy to violent and aggressive, transformations that don’t seem to be triggered by anything in particular, that some people have taken to calling him “schizo donkey.”
I am not one of these people. But I believe that he’s disturbed. This, however, is not Mac’s fault. Not entirely anyway. His mother,
a stoic Sardinian miniature donkey, lived on the ranch where I grew up. She died within days of giving birth to Mac, and he was given to me to raise. I was twelve years old and saw this tiny donkey as a living stuffed toy. I spent hours bottle-feeding him and playing with him, until I got distracted by Anne of Green Gables books and my seventh-grade crush, a tan boy who skateboarded behind the local McDonald’s. Mac was weaned too quickly, exiled to a corral without a donkey mother to show him the ropes—a small, unself-confident creature among indifferent adults. Another donkey may have been fine, but Mac wasn’t another donkey. Eventually he began to turn his attacks on himself, biting his own fur off in chunks when he became frustrated or erupting in violent outbursts against people and other animals, outbursts that kept him from receiving the affection he also seemed to crave. Now, more than twenty years later, I know that Mac’s experience and the disturbing behavior that resulted from it, is far from unique.
Humans aren’t the only animals to suffer from emotional thunderstorms that make our lives more difficult, and sometimes impossible. Like Charles Darwin, who came to this realization more than a century ago, I believe that nonhuman animals can suffer from mental illnesses that are quite similar to human disorders. I was convinced by the experiences of many creatures I came to know, from Mac to a series of Asian elephants, but none more persuasively than a Bernese Mountain Dog named Oliver that my husband and I adopted. Oliver’s extreme fear, anxiety, and compulsions cracked open my world and prompted me to investigate whether other animals could be mentally ill. This book is the tale of what I found: the story of my own struggle to help Oliver and the journey it inspired, a search to understand what identifying insanity in other animals might tell us about ourselves.
There isn’t a branch of veterinary science, psychology, ethology (the science of animal behavior), neuroscience, or wildlife ecology dedicated to investigating whether animals can be mentally ill. What
I have done in this book is draw together evidence from the veterinary sciences and pharmaceutical and psychological studies; first-person accounts of zookeepers, animal trainers, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, and pet owners; observations made by nineteenth-century naturalists and contemporary biologists and wildlife scientists; and many ordinary people who simply had something to say about animals doing odd things around them. All of these threads, when pulled together, suggest that humans and other animals are more similar than many of us might think when it comes to mental states and behaviors gone awry—experiencing churning fear, for example, in situations that don’t call for it, feeling unable to shake a paralyzing sadness, or being haunted by a ceaseless compulsion to wash our hands or paws. Abnormal behaviors like these tip into the territory of mental illness when they keep creatures—human or not—from engaging in what is normal for them. This is true for a dog single-mindedly focused on licking his tail until it’s bare and oozy, a sea lion fixated on swimming in endless circles, a gorilla too sad and withdrawn to play with her troop members, or a human so petrified of escalators he avoids department stores.I
Every animal with a mind has the capacity to lose hold of it from time to time. Sometimes the trigger is abuse or mistreatment, but not always. I’ve come across depressed and anxious gorillas, compulsive horses, rats, donkeys, and seals, obsessive parrots, self-harming dolphins, and dogs with dementia, many of whom share their exhibits, homes, or habitats with other creatures who don’t suffer from the same problems. I’ve also gotten to know curious whales, confident
bonobos, thrilled elephants, contented tigers, and grateful orangutans. There is plenty of abnormal behavior in the animal world, captive, domestic, and wild, and plenty of evidence of recovery; you simply need to know where and how to find it. Oliver was my guide, even if he was too busy compulsively licking his paws to notice.
Acknowledging parallels between human and other animal mental health is a bit like recognizing capacities for language, tool use, and culture in other creatures. That is, it’s a blow to the idea that humans are the only animals to feel or express emotion in complex and surprising ways. It is also anthropomorphic, the projection of human emotions, characteristics, and desires onto nonhuman beings or things. We can choose, though, to anthropomorphize well and, by doing so, make more accurate interpretations of animals’ behavior and emotional lives. Instead of self-centered projection, anthropomorphism can be a recognition of bits and pieces of our human selves in other animals and vice versa.
Identifying mental illness in other creatures and helping them recover also sheds light on our humanity. Our relationships with suffering animals often make us better versions of ourselves, helping us empathize with our dogs, cats, and guinea pigs, turning us into bonobo or gorilla psychiatrists, or inspiring the most dedicated among us to found cat shelters or elephant sanctuaries.
For me, the realization that mental illness and the capacity to recover from it is something we share with many other animals is comforting news. When, as humans, we feel our most anxious, compulsive, scared, depressed, or enraged, we’re also revealing ourselves to be surprisingly like the other creatures with whom we share the planet. As Darwin’s father told him,
“There is a perfect gradation between sound people and insane. . . . Everybody is insane at some time.” As with people, so with everyone else too. I.
In this book I refer to abnormal behavior as the people who spend time with these animals do: as madness, mental illness, evidence of mental disorders, insanity, and more. These are generic words unfurled like leaky umbrellas over a whole host of behaviors considered abnormal. They’re obviously unable to describe the ever-shifting patterns of the animal mind, not to mention the social expectations of what is normal in humans and other animals. Madness is a mirror that needs normalcy to exist. This distinction can be a murky one.