Friday, September 19, 2014

#49 [2014/CBR6] "Animal Madness" by Laurel Braitman

" Oliver Wendell Holmes says, a weak mind does not accumulate force enough to hurt itself." (61)

I am an animal lover, so when I first spotted Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves (2014) by Laurel Braitman at my local Costco, I was intrigued. I imagined in-depth stories of animals that have made miraculous recoveries. I wanted inspiring tales of elephants with new best friends and dogs who become miraculously happy and well-adjusted. I was really looking forward to reading this one.

So, let's just call those expectations unrealistic and optimistic. It turns out that most animals become crazy, at least the animals we know about, because people are doing something horrible to them. Another title for this book could be "A History of Animal Abuse." Perhaps if I had thought it through a little more, I wouldn't have been so surprised, but this was not what I was expecting.

The book begins with a personal story of how the author's dog jumped out of a four-story apartment building window because it had gone crazy with anxiety when left alone. The dog miraculously lives, and I appreciate the personal aspect of the story, but it's hard to read about. And it just gets worse from there. After the poor dog, there is story after story of poor lab animals: shocked until they go insane; mistreated; and stuck in cages with no companionship for their entire lives. Then there are the circus animals beaten into performance, and zoo animals drugged up to deal with the boredom and stress of living lives so far from what nature intended.

To be fair, there is a lot of interesting information in this book. Braitman goes through the history of people's views of animals and their emotional lives, how these views changed as people's lives changed, and how drugs for depression, anxiety, and psychotic disorders were first tested on animals and then used widely on animals--just as they expanded their use with people.

Yet, even if I could enjoy dwelling in the pain of so many animals, I wasn't too impressed by the writing. Again, I think this has a lot to do with my expectations, which might not be fair, but it is how I saw the book. I wanted more depth and more explanation. I would have been much happier if Braitman has chosen the story of just five or so animals and went into great detail about their lives, what was going on in their heads, how they relate to people, etc. Instead, as I read, I felt that the book was all over the place. First, there's the history of animal abuse, then a long treatise against zoos (I kind of agree with Braitman here, but, again, it wasn't what I was expecting). The lack of purpose and depressing stories about animals combined with my initial high hopes left me disappointed with this one.

"We could also, and most important, make a lasting peace with Darwin's belief that humans are just another kind of animal, different only by degree." (284)

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