Through experiential and anecdotal evidence, science historian and senior TED fellow Braitman takes measure of the emotional thunderstorms that cramp or even curtail the normal lives of animals.
“Every animal with a mind has the capacity to lose hold of it from time to time,” writes the author in this investigation into the literature of abnormal animal behavior, both the scientific and the observational. There is much here that will remind readers of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson—a gift for storytelling, strong observational talents, an easy familiarity with the background material and a warm level of empathy—and Braitman emphasizes that it doesn’t require an enormous leap of faith to feel our kinship with these beasts, particularly the suffering ones. Her recital of the historical tales of animal mental disorders is engaging, and into it she threads the experiments of cognitive ethologists, neurologists and behavioral biologists, as well as the troubling story of Oliver, her Bernese mountain dog who exhibited considerable signs of madness. What was at play in her dog’s behavior—a constricted gene pool, the neurological misfirings of breeding? Braitman infuses her narrative with humorous ruminations—“we felt like perverts at the dog park—dogless people who came to look at dogs, luring other people’s pets over to be petted with clandestine pockets of treats”—and she takes anthropomorphism just so far while casting a wary eye on “Pet Pharm” and the long, ignoble past of doping our pets. The author may gesture toward what “animals might tell us about ourselves,” but she is thankfully willing to allow them their mystery, “that other animals have many special abilities that we don’t have and this may extend to emotional states.”
Braitman’s gradual accretion of reasons to believe in animal emotional states that we can relate to, including the loopy ones, gives pause and sparks curiosity.