Why bonding with animals makes us better human beings.
Neurologist Akhtar (Animals and Public Health, 2012), deputy director of the Army’s Traumatic Brain Injury Program and a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Public Health Service, makes an impassioned and moving argument that empathy with animals deeply affects humans’ health. Drawing on interviews with a wide range of individuals, including prisoners, a serial killer, a vegetarian chicken farmer, animal researchers, and victims of PTSD; scientific studies; and her own experience as a sexually abused and bullied young girl who bonded with an abused dog, the author examines the physical, emotional, and psychological responses that occur when humans connect with any animal, not only common house pets. Animals, she writes, “calm us by lowering our blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormones. We relax with animals” because they “defuse a lot of the human-generated pressure in our lives.” The beneficial response, one psychologist suggests, comes from the release of oxytocin, a hormone that “increases social interaction, generosity, bonding, and attachment. It also improves trust and decreases aggression, fear, and hyperarousal.” Many organizations, writes Akhtar, promote human-animal connection, such as K9s for Warriors, a nonprofit group that “pairs dogs with military veterans who have PTSD”; Feeding Pets of the Homeless; Rowdy Girl Sanctuary, which rescues farm animals; and FORWARD, an organization that establishes cat sanctuaries in prisons, where inmates care for and socialize abandoned or abused cats. The cats, Akhtar notes, “provide the only physical contact and affection many of the inmates receive.” The author’s research uncovers much animal cruelty at the hands of individuals and in the livestock industry, which she describes in sickening detail. “It is the same mind-set that encourages cruelty toward animals and toward other humans,” she asserts, whereas empathy encourages kindness: “Animals remind us that the world is larger than us. They can teach us to look beyond the racism, poverty, and cruelty in our lives.” A brief appendix offers readers suggestions for positive change.
A heartfelt call for compassion for all living species.