I’ve decided to head back to some meaty non-fiction this month. Having a slightly anxious and crazy Irish terrier, I couldn’t resist picking up Animal Madness: How anxious dogs, compulsive parrots, and elephants in recovery help us to understand ourselves by Laurel Braitman. After four years with Baxter I am still trying to understand how his mind works. I still feel like I have had only a glimpse into why he behaves like he does at times.
It’s been a fascinating but not an easy read so far. I am about a third of the way in and I have put the book down three times as I found the content so distressing. Yes, I confess I am a bit of a wuss when it comes to animals, so I’m going to find stories about any mistreatment of animals tough; I have already reeled at some of the tales.
The author begins by discussing her dog, Oliver, a Burmese Mountain dog. This breed is huge, like a Newfoundland. Its paws are the size of plates, and it’s big and boofy and has loads of hair. But Oliver was anxious about being left alone. So much so that when alone in their apartment he managed to drag the air conditioner away from the window, chew though the screen and leap out. The window was two storeys up. Amazingly he survived, but life becomes difficult when you have a dog that you can’t ever leave.
Last night I stopped reading the book after learning about a gorilla named John Daniel, born in the early 1900s. His mother had been shot when he was only two years old. Gorillas breastfeed their young until they are three, so that highlights how dependent he still was on his mum. He was shipped to England, where he lived in a department store window until a family purchased him. If left alone at night he would shriek with fear, which was presumed to be a result of being left alone in the department store at night. He quickly learned to brush his hair, turn taps on and off, handle a fork and drink out of a glass. He could roam freely throughout the house, and he seemed happy and got excited when visitors arrived, taking them by the hand and showing them around the house. But this story had a shocking ending: he ended up in a circus, where he sat in a corner and faced a wall.
There are more positive stories, such as that of a professor who studied rats and proved that they giggle when he laid them on their backs and tickled their tummies.
And there are instances of animals that have been horrifically mistreated but, through more positive human intervention, have gone on to live happier lives.
It was once believed that animals didn’t experience the emotions that we do. We often use language to express our emotions. But how can we fully comprehend how an animal expresses their emotion without fully understanding how they think? And the inconceivable thought – for me anyway – that animals wouldn’t have a similar range of emotions to us, such as happiness, lust, anger, and most of all love, seems very arrogant. An animal can’t rationalise to the extent that we do, but that doesn’t diminish the intensity of their emotions, such as fear and anxiety, overwhelming happiness, or feeling safe and loving another being.
This book has made me confront the way that humans have treated – and still treat – animals. It’s made me think more about how we place our misguided beliefs upon them and try to relate what they do to our own behaviour. We would never condone treating a human the way that many animals have been treated throughout history and still in our present day.
Will I keep going with the book? Yes, as these are stories that need I need to know about and understand. And at the end I think I will better understand myself and the human species.