Laurel Braitman on Animals and Mental Illness

August 04, 2014

This week, Point of Inquiry welcomes Laurel Braitman, a TED fellow with a PhD in History and Anthropology of Science from MIT, and the author of Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves.

It might sound strange to say that animals suffer from mental illness, but the brain systems that regulate anxiety, attachment, and arousal are evolutionarily ancient. If faulty neurochemistry compounded by stress can lead to mental illness in humans, why not in other animals?

Today we look into the minds of our fellow animals. What do their minds and mental illnesses teach us about sanity, insanity and the concept of consciousness?

This is point of inquiry for Monday, August 4th, 2014. 

Hello and welcome to Point of Inquiry. A production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein. And my guest today is Laurel Braitman, author of Animal Madness How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots and Elephants in Recovery Help US Understand Ourselves. Laurel is a TED fellow with APHC in history and anthropology of science from M.I.T.. May sound strange to say that animals suffer from mental illness, but the brain systems that regulate anxiety, attachment and arousal are evolutionarily ancient. If mental illness in humans is the result of faulty neurochemistry compounded by stress, it stands to reason that the brains of other animals can malfunction in similar ways. The drugs we used to treat psychosis, anxiety and depression in humans are tested on animal models. If a drug can make a beleaguered mouse, keep swimming in an experimental pool instead of giving up to drown. The drug has shown promise as a human antidepressant. By the same token, many of the drugs used to treat human anxiety and depression also use compulsive and self-destructive behaviors in other animals. The same drugs that can help a human who can’t stop washing her hands can also work on a dog who can’t stop licking its paws, or a cockatoo that can’t stop plucking its feathers. The demand for pet psych meds is so great that you can buy veterinary Prozac in such delicious flavors as triple fish to appeal to canine and feline patients. The maladaptive behavior of animals in captivity raises many of the same ethical and philosophical questions as seemingly insane. Behavior by humans in inhumane conditions. Is an aggressive captive elephant or a paranoid human being in solitary confinement suffering from a mental illness? Or are they just reacting sensibly to an intolerable environment? Laurel was moved to write this book when her beloved 120 pound bermann mountain dog, Oliver, seemed to lose his mind, laying waste to her apartment and even ripping out an air conditioner and leaping out of a fourth floor window in frenzied separation anxiety over became a kind of inverse guide dog reading laurel into an obscure world of zookeepers, scientists and a menagerie of sad cats, mad dogs, bad elephants and oversexed dolphins. She’s here today to talk about it all. Laurel, welcome to the program. So you had a rather unusual guide on this on this journey through animal madness. Tell us about Oliver. 

However, was a rescue dog. He was burning down. And I adopted him well over a decade ago now, actually. And for the first six months with us, he was just a dream dog. He was affectionate and playful and seemingly well-adjusted. And then about six months then he quite spectacularly began to lose his mind. He developed stability, separation anxiety and leave him alone. He started suffering from hallucinations. 

He became a really destructive force in our house and unto himself, variety of other things as well. And he’s rather large dog. Right. 

Yeah. He was about a hundred and twenty pounds. 

So when he was upset, he could really make that displeasure felt. 

Absolutely. He he clawed through two wooden doors. He tore up the wooden floor of her apartment. These are things I didn’t even know a dog could do. He really is. Anxiety culminated in one day. We left him alone for a few hours and he was with someone who he really liked, our downstairs neighbor who wanted to run to the farmer’s market. And Oliver was left by himself for about two hours and he pushed our window air conditioning unit away and he quod of all through the metal screen in our apartment. And then he jumped out the window. And that was about 55 feet from the ground. So there is really nothing he couldn’t do to try and expresses his distress. 

And he survived the fall. 

He did miraculously when that my husband, I went to go pick him up the veterinary clinic. Know, we were just shocked and saddened and there were all these like vet residents there to look at it because they couldn’t believe the dog of inside could fall, could survive a fall like that. And when I asked him what we should do. He said, well, you should move to a first floor apartment. 

And then he also gave us a present prescription and it didn’t turn out to be enough. What happened next? 

It was it was not enough. Well, first of all, we couldn’t move to a first floor apartment because we couldn’t get out of our lease. And I also was concerned that our first floor apartment. You know, he may not jump again, but he was certainly going to keep breaking windows if we can get to the bottom of what was going on with him. So we we tried to provide prescription. 

I well, we really try to everything you can try for a dog like him. We took him to a veterinary behaviorists, just sort of like a psychotherapist as a non-human animal kingdom. We had him on there next to his thunderstorm anxiety. Thunderstorms have sent him into a panic. We tried doing behavior modification therapy with him, so retraining him around the things that scared him. We tried more exercise, more time outside, more time with him. They can do with schedules, really. We tried everything from getting him another dog, which A, we couldn’t do again because we renters and B, because the dogs didn’t seem to help. His separation anxiety happened when he was lost by people. He didn’t really care about other dogs. 

Did you eventually find out what it was that was causing all this distress for this poor animal? 

Yes and no. You know, what I found out was that we can’t ever really know, which is that, you know, I put the other two to three for Oliver. You try to piece together what had happened in his life before he came to us. And, you know, he was an abused dog. He had been the center of his family’s world, the daughter in the family whose teenager had a baby and Oliver was, which is very common in lots of household displaced by this new infant. So he was receiving less affection and he wasn’t getting as much attention as he was used to. And he started to act up, you know, like many people who mean the best for their animals, but who often get it a little confused and practice rather than give him more attention. They locked him up to, quote unquote, punish him for his bad behavior. And the more they isolated him and the more they they kept him in the garage or in a crate, the more anxious he became and the more he fought for attention. And, you know, a dog fighting for it tend to do things that dogs do, like poop and pee with it up, opposed to chew things up that they know are not food. Tried to get your attention in whatever way possible. And so Oliver was doing that, you know, but he was loved. I mean, certainly that’s not good treatment of a dog. But, you know, another dog would have been OK, would have survived, you know, being displaced from the center of the family’s affection and not develop all these problems. But all over one another dog. So that’s really what taught me, which is that other animals are as individual as we are. And, you know, two people, two soldiers can be deployed. They could be the same idea, closer than one is going to come home and have debilitating PTSD and the other person is not. 

And that’s just a mystery of human experience and an individuality that it turns out we’re not the only ones to have that. 

For some people, the idea that the animal could have a mental illness in the same way as a person is really controversial. What do you say to those kinds of critiques? 

First of all, I don’t think that PTSD and say a dog veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan is the same as PTSD and a human veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. And frankly, to people’s experience of PTSD are really, really different anyway. So I don’t want to equate other animal mental illness with human mental health at all. I think it oversimplifies even just the experience of mental illness among people at the head. You know, this isn’t anthropomorphic or the projection of human concepts onto other animals, but that doesn’t mean it’s not based in sound science. 

Frankly, you know, a lot of mental illness in humans are different manifestations of fear and anxiety disorders, for example. So after addiction, that’s actually the most common classes of mental disorders in the United States. And fear and anxiety are really common throughout the animal kingdom because they help us to feel fear in a situation is dangerous. That’s a really good animal impulse because it moves you away from something that can hurt you. The problem is that we can all develop fear and anxiety in situations that are not dangerous. And that’s when they begin to interrupt our normal life. So I just don’t think it makes sense that humans are the only creatures who feel senhora anxiety that we can tip into life altering levels. It just doesn’t make any sense. Why would we be the only ones? 

Darwin wrote a lot about the emotions of animals. Was he also was he also believer in the idea that animals could succumb to mental illnesses or mental illness like states? 

Yes. And in fact, it took me years to find out what Darwin had to say on the topic, on the expression of the emotions in humans and other animals. This is a fantastic book, and I thought it would be in there because half the book is about animal emotion. 

And he includes a giant chunk of the book of mental illness in people because he thought humans who were mentally ill were, you know, quote unquote expressing the most pure forms of mental illness because they weren’t self conscious. And emotion. So he really felt we can learn a lot about emotions by by looking at how they they’re expressed in what he called the human insane scene. But interestingly, in that book didn’t write about animals who were insane. And it took a few years later. And actually, when he was revising descent of Man, he included a little aside about the fact that he thought other animals could be mentally ill like humans. He didn’t use mental illness that term. That’s no reason. But that it didn’t happen to them as often as it did in humans, but that they could certainly lose their minds. 

It seems like a lot of the cases of the mental illness that you documented in books in the animals of the Disturbances were really examples of animals behaving more or less normal in environments that were totally unsuited to them, like the elephants and the primates. 

Yes. I mean, I think obviously humans and other animals, both are going to be more susceptible to mental illness when they’re in an environment that’s not healthy for them, whether it’s not, you know, their ideal habitat. And that’s true for us, too. But that’s but that’s only part of the story. You know, I do talk a lot about domestic animals and then in that case, they are living in their ideal environment. 

You know, a cat or a dog who lives with a person in this day and age. You know, they’re domestic creatures. They have evolved to live with us. And, you know, two dogs who are both living in a in a home where all of their needs are met. One of those two can develop like a debilitating four vacuum cleaners. And the other one is going to be fine. But you don’t need to abuse an animal or mistreat an animal for them to develop what can look a lot like mental illness. It’s just that it’s easier to identify in animals that we have a normal baseline for. So in order to understand when an animal’s behavior has gone, one thing you need to understand what their normal is. And that’s really hard to do with a free living orgo or a wolf. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t suffer from emotional thunderstorms. It just might mean that it’s really hard for us to notice. Certainly looking in situations where animals are treated well or they don’t get enough exercise or they’re living under strict confines. Definitely you’re going to see more mental illness, just like you do in institutionalized humans who don’t have adequate access to adequate social life or they don’t get enough exercise or all manner of things that have institutionalized people. 

And then there’s the whole sort of normative dimension of how mental illness is defined, that people in the book you talk about hysteria as being taboo. It was defined for women, often in react behavior that was in reaction to abnormal or in optimal constraints placed on women, rather than being a mental illness that was intrinsic to them women themselves. 

Absolutely. You know, I mean, the idea of normalcy has never been objective. Right. So on the one hand, do I think that we can all develop all kinds of life altering behaviors and emotional thunderstorms that can make our lives difficult? Absolutely. But sometimes, you know, when we’re given a diagnosis that has nothing to do with what we’re actually experiencing and it’s it’s a question of control or you behaving in a way that is inconvenient for others. And that’s definitely can be true with animals. You know, it’s very easy to mythologize a dog who, you know, eats the furniture and pees inside on your favorite rug. But if they were chewing on sticks outside and talking outside, that would not be disturbing behavior. I wouldn’t be abnormal, you know. So you also have to be very careful and look at your own motivations for diagnosing odd behavior in the animal kingdom, which is are you saying that this animal is crazy because it Asperger needs to say that just because they’re refusing to get with the program that they just may not like? Or are they actually suffering emotionally? 

And can you help them to separate stories of elephants in your book who seem just hell bent on getting out of the elephant enclosure, which didn’t seem crazy to me. 

Oh, yes. Like tip of Central Park. Yes. I mean, I think sometimes losing your mind to becoming aggressive is the most stinging response to an insane circumstance. So that’s a clear case where I think that we even though everyone in New York in the late 19th century was saying that this elephant was mad. I mean, I think that’s a perfect example of using deploying mental illness or the stigma of madness as it where it doesn’t belong. 

You know, I think he was he was upset and suffering and acting out and trying to kill the person responsible for his suffering was actually proof of sanity. 

Now, was it this elephant, whether it was a public debate in the media where there were the sort of nation animal protection people who are making essentially a not guilty by reason of insanity argument for saving the elephant. And then there were people on the other side making a moralistic argument that he was evil and should be killed. 

Yes, exactly. That was him. It was New York City’s first publicly owned elephant, and that is did. This was front page news in The New York Times. You know, it’s just incredible. Thousands of people came out on a day where he was executed. To see it. And, you know, I mean, in many ways, in the late 19th century, you know, these animals were public figures because there were so few of them. When he arrived in New York, he came off of a boat and Chelsea and the thousands of people came to see him and then followed him through the streets to Central Park. Same with gorillas who would arrive, you know, 10, 20 years later. They they were covered like political figures or earth celebrities. 

And people really wanted to know what was going on inside their heads. And they identified with them and argued about how they should be treated. And this was major news at the time. 

And then all these years later, there was a similar controversy almost with Gus, the polar bear, the Central Park Zoo. Exactly. 

He said he joked Letterman in so many ways, you know, that they were new under the sun. And I think what we’re seeing now, in some sense, is a return to thinking about animals and a lot of ways that they were thought about and talked about in the late 19th century. In some sense, this is like the new Victorian age, except we’re using MRI this rather than an anecdote and letters to zookeepers. But I think you what Darwin and his peers were talking about and you know, what’s exemplified in a case like this is that some people for a very long time have believed that animals are self-aware enough to be considered guilty for their crimes. Which is fascinating. And I think that that’s a piece of the personhood debate that’s interesting. You know, now that’s unfolding around Save the Great Apes. Should they be given grant and personhood or whales and dolphins? And I you know, I’m I’m for that in many ways. I certainly don’t think that they should be treated as property, which they are now. But if if we do grant personhood to a chimpanzee, then that chimpanzee kills someone, you know, do they go to chimp prisons? Do we then consider them guilty of their crimes? So, I mean, I think, you know, this is this is a really thorny and interesting and complex conversation that’s happening right now. 

Definitely. It’s interesting that in the Victorian era, though, the two camps of sort of the compassionate, the compassionate animal rights kind of oh, no, he’s insane versus the moralistic. He’s evil. But there was none of what we saw in the 20th century of animals or automaton. Or we can find we can know nothing about what goes on inside animals minds. 

You know, it’s definitely how we think about other animals. Thinking and feeling is not a progressive history. It’s more like a pendulum swing. 

And that’s been swinging back and forth for a very, very long time in terms of what we’re comfortable granting them in terms of intelligence, self-awareness, complexity of thinking, emotion, empathy, morals, the capacity to reason things they’re morally. So, you know, at the same time that, you know, in the 20th century and frankly, back at the 17th century or 16th century, people were arguing that animals were machines that were just as many people arguing that they weren’t. And that’s true now, too, for as many people who say, oh, you know, we shouldn’t anthropomorphize those links. All you have to do is turn on the Internet. 

You can online, you know, I say like it seems like every other post on something like Facebook or Reddit, veto is an animal and a little heart. Think something, you know. And so if if someone was going to sort of parachute into contemporary times right now and just look at the quantity of communications that we have about animals, they would think that we are deeply, deeply anthropomorphic. You would only have to look at maybe two percent of the national conversation about animals, find people who aren’t granting them emotions or giving them voices or whatever it may be. So there’s always room for thought in society. There always has been for people who think different things at the same time. 

I’m always curious about the historical roots of people who think that animals have no inner life whatsoever. I mean, I can sort of understand why the behaviorists might say that as a methodological postulant, but just doing science here, we can only deal with observables. They can’t talk to us. But what are the historical? Context for people who literally believe that animals are autonomous automata, just kind of. And maybe I’m committing presentism here, but it really seems hard to me to believe that. As a matter of truth, having ever met any kind of animal. 

Yeah. I mean, I agree with you. That’s why I don’t think it was ever one way or the other, which is that even if you were going back and you’re talking to the cart about animal, certainly whoever kill milk that go toward the carts, breakfast probably would have told you that goats have emotions. I mean, it’s one thing to look at who’s writing and who’s publishing and talking about it publicly. And it’s another to then look at who are taking care of animals and what they think. And those people do tend to write books. You know, this isn’t to say that for a long time everyone thought of animals for atomic bombs. I just don’t think that would be true. But if you look at the historical record, you know, it depends who was taking notes and leaving them around. 

So, you know, I think in the Western world, a lot of it might may stem from the Bible and the belief that animals, non-human animals didn’t have a soul. 

I find it very interesting. It’s alive theological debate in some Christian sects about whether or not you’ll get your pets back in heaven. 

Yes, I mean, it doesn’t seem to make you know, I’m I’m the last person you talked to about this because I am. That couldn’t be further from a religious scholar. But I do think that’s interesting because on the one hand, you know, you have to say, you know, the Catholic Church thing, that animals don’t have a soul or teaching teaching that animals don’t have a soul, although they may have come around about that. Now, I don’t even know. But then you also have, you know, Saint Francis of Assisi blessing the animals. Think of St. Francis. You know, so nowhere are we more contradictory as a species and when it comes to what we think and how we treat other animals, one of the most interesting parts in the book is the chapter. 

But animal suicide. Can you tell us a bit about what research is being done on that topic these days? 

Sure. You know, that seems to be the sort of most taboo, both authority weird is question, which is why I wanted to dove in and I really became interested in this, is that can you commit suicide without having a concept of death? Or how proving that you have a concept of death? And, you know, first of all, we can’t know really if other animals have a concept of death. And I’m willing to bet when they do, it’s probably not like ours. And certainly they’re not even ever. You read upon human definition of death. Exactly. Brain death is a part. That’s what happened to us after we die. I mean, these are these are open questions for most of humanity. 

And also children have to be told about whatever it is that their culture believes in words, which makes family suspicious that animals have a concept of death if they don’t have language. 

Exactly. But we know animals that live with so many animals. So certainly animals have a concept of different states of being and different states away from what they are currently experiencing. And and animals can hurt themselves and be self-destructive. And so the place that I came to in writing the book is that many species, humans included, are can be destructive, can hurt ourselves, and sometimes we die. Do I speak to other animals, plan and have the complex cognitive abilities to constantly, you know, the weather, the sun will kill them or what angle to hold it and to use all manner of other tools to do themselves? No, I do not think they commit suicide in that way. But some human suicides are awful and I like that. I mean, some people are just so upset that they do they engage in some sort of rash act to end their emotional pain without thinking it through. And I think it’s possible that some animals may do that well. So, you know, we can’t prove it, but we can’t prove those human suicides either. Many human suicides leave us with more questions than answers. Single car auto accidents, overdoses, sponges from high places where people don’t leave notes. Are you sort of left to wonder, do they do it on purpose? Were they just trying to hurt themselves? Was it a cry for help? Did they flip? No other animals to injure themselves repeatedly. And sometimes they injure themselves to the point of death. 

You know, I don’t. Is it a dolphin or a killer whale that rams itself into the walls of its tank until it dies? 

Oh, that was a killer whale. Yeah. 

I mean, to me, that sort of sounded like, you know, you can imagine somebody who’s a cutter, who’s engaging in a ritualistic self harm, that they do want to harm themselves, but they want to sort of self medicate their pain rather than die. And if somebody were to accidentally kill themselves in a cutting incident, that seems sort of you know, that’s my idea of what the whale might have been doing. It does not make sense. 

Absolutely. No. I think that’s correct. I think a lot of these self-destructive behaviors are efforts to make themselves feel that their self soothing. You know, many people were cutting. They report feeling a sense of relief after they cut themselves or released. And I think that’s true. You know, you see a lot of page lab primates who bite themselves by themselves when they get upset because there’s no other place for that frustration to go. So it’s certainly I think that’s true. But sometimes you can’t cut yourself too much and sometimes you can bite yourself too much. And so it’s rather that I I’m arguing for a more elastic definition of suicide or rather putting suicide on a continuum of behaviors that humans and other animals engage with that harm themselves, not like humans suicide. But it’s definitely an effort to hurt oneself. 

So a really interesting passage in the book about whale and dolphin stranding and beaches. And there’s a theory about that. It’s not self-destruction, but kind of distributed self in which they don’t think about self preservation because they count themselves not as individuals, but as a collective. So if anybody is going ashore, everybody goes ashore. 

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think that’s quite possible. And it’s probably not limited to dolphins and whales to it’s just that they live in such really strong social groups. So, you know, we’re so used to this is the way that anthropomorphism I think is critical and can be uncritical of a lot of Weight Watchers. We even in the sciences, you know, we we assume that other animals have our same type of consciousness, which is individual. 

And that may be true with lots of animals. But it’s also perhaps not you know, I don’t know how a schooling fish thinks of itself or if it does, but if it does, it may not think of itself as an individual. I think that we need to give other animals the benefit of the doubt for thinking differently. And that may explain some cases of stranding where you see a really tight commercial pod all come onshore and only one or. Two members of the Potter IL. 

What do you think about the whole ethics of whales in captivity? Just having seen so much distress in captive cetaceans? 

Oh, I think there’s no excuse for keeping cetaceans in captivity and many other creatures, frankly. You know, when you look at a at an orca, there’s just no way that we can meet even a fraction of their emotional and physiological needs intensity. 

What other animals do you think should be on the no go list in terms of living in captivity? 

I think, for example, elephants are a similar species. It’s almost you know, this is controversial. But this is what I think is that it’s impossible to replicate just the tiniest fraction of their environment, the richness of their emotional, social, physical lives in captivity. Any animal that travels far distances, any animal that sociales, any animal that can communicate over long distances. You know, when you put a creature with sonar into a pool where all of their sonar pings back at them, where they they can’t swim or walk the distances that they would otherwise. 

This isn’t to say that life outside of captivity is easy. I don’t think that at all. I don’t have a single, simple minded idea of, you know, captivity equals prison and wilderness equals bounty and pleasure. I mean, it’s hard to be an independent animal. It’s stressful. Sometimes there’s predation, there is bad weather. There are food sources who go missing. There’s climate change. I mean, there’s so many stressors out in the world, but there’s also the ability to make your own decisions. There is the stimulation that comes with having to avoid predators. Predator, you know, a little bit of life stress is good. That’s why so many zoo animals are fat. You know, often often endangering themselves. 

Do you think it’s at all possible for elephants to be kept as work animals? I mean, if they’re sort of out there working, being with other element elephants, but then also helping humans log or something, do you think they could be happy like that if not in a zoo? 

Well, you know, it really depends on the situation. And actually, the individual elephant, which is something that I try to cover in the book, which is that I’m leery to make these kind of species wide generalizations about what’s good or bad for animals, because I think there’s such individual difference. So, you know, it really depends on the elephant or it depends on on the durable, how happy they are going to be in your house. Unfortunately, we can’t interview that Durbar or that elephant before we put them into a cave or into the zoo. 

Can you tell me the elephant holy man who’s just kind of elephant therapy between moats and elephants in their communities to try and keep everybody on the same page in a community where elephants are a big part of the local economy? 

Yeah, I mean, I think that’s a captive working elephant to Thailand or a really interesting case, because there’s sort of these creatures of no country, which is where I found a lot of these animals, which is that they they can’t live in the wild. And they also are not domestic animals. And so what do you do with these creatures and their lives, the captive working elephants, the time their lives are a lot better than a zoo elephant. Even if they end up being chained a hell of a lot of the day, you know, a lot of Western elephant folks will go to Thailand and they are very dismissive of the conditions that the elephants are living in there. But I think that’s an extremely limited world view and perspective. They think because they see a chain that that animal is being abused. Granted, I would love to live in a world where an elephant was never changed ever. But actually those changed elephants spend more of their time off the chain during the day and they have really rich social world. So those elephants are anti’s to babies who are nearby. They are with friends. They they live with people that they have longstanding relationships with. And they’re busy. They don’t have hours a day usually where they’re just spinning around. They can. And that’s that’s the case. That’s that, you know. But I do think it’s a place where at first glance, you know, it doesn’t look as somewhere like as a virgin to the west or the zoo, for example, where the elephants have been trained. But where you’re not seeing is actually the complexities of elephant life and their social worlds. And that’s what they’re not denied there. And I think that probably makes more of a difference to an elephant than being chained there. 

Could those elephants, if they were sent back to the wild as babies, could they be fostered or raised if they wanted to return that population to the wild? Or is it almost like a semi domesticated species now? 

Well, there’s been really successful cases in Africa with African elephants of returning young elephant to parents have been killed by poachers or the government back into wild herds. And that’s been fantastic in Asia. It’s trickier, or particularly in Thailand, because there isn’t enough forests now for development. And with those ads for the elephants of Thailand is that they were actually forced to log their own habitat out of existence, though the places where they were they were would be able to return to don’t exist anymore. And they were used as logging trucks in order to do that work. 

That’s sad. It’s sad. It’s those sad. So the answer there, I think, is Refaat. 

Projects. And it’s changing the tourism industry. Millions of people go to Thailand every year to see the elephants do things like play soccer or paint or act in circuses. And I think that’s unconscionable. If tourists went there and they wanted to see elephants not change or play soccer, if instead they wanted to see them roll around in body rivers and play with each other, then that would that would mean that the elephants can’t be reintroduced, would have better lives because people would go be seeing a natural elephant behavior to them emotionally to be taught these tricks to do for people. 

Yes. I mean, definitely. Definitely. Usually because the circus training is just so absolutely brutal and they’re separated from their mothers, often in order to be taught to do these things, because otherwise they wouldn’t they wouldn’t do it. 

I just think they have to withhold food or punish them to make them literally jump to these burning hoops or whatever it is. 

Yes. And I don’t think that’s worth anywhere than our country, frankly, at least in Thailand. They’re kept with their families and they’re not on the road as much. But that’s not the case with performing elephants in the United States. 

Some pretty shocking performing elephants tours in the United States, some of which come up in your book. I’m just amazed that that’s still legal. 

I know it’s a prison in Los Angeles for an event at the L.A. Public Library. And as I was going to the library, there was a group of protesters protesting Ringling Brothers coming to light. I think the Staples Center in Los Angeles, you know, the fact that there could still be enough people in Los Angeles to want to take their kids to see an elephant in a tutu or, you know, getting up on its hind legs is a shock to me, particularly when you see an elephant who’s happy doing their own thing. 

It’s so much more fun to watch seeing an elephant in the natural environment or something close to it, breaking off three branches, fastening them into sharp and sticks and then using them to scratch behind her ear is still much more interesting. You know, it’s so it’s so much more a clear demonstration of to use their joyful you can see them playing jokes on each other. I mean, you do not get a sense of elephants of the puma by seeing them in a circus act. 

Also, they all I mean, inevitably, they look horrible. I’ve seen a couple of them in like outdoor parades and stuff in New York. And it’s like this is going to make children hate and fear elephants because they look like mangy monsters. 

Yes. I mean, how bad it is. That is what I think. I mean, I think we spend a lot of our times as adults sort of rationalizing things, you know, but most busy, you know, taking to the zoo. It’s not weird. You know, they they look at this and I’d lie in them. It doesn’t it doesn’t just stand up to the lion that they saw in their children’s books. It doesn’t look the same. Yeah. You know, they don’t like it. I would much rather see us have institutions in American cities where kids could go and they could interact with animals that actually want to be there, that so many animals want to be near us. They don’t have to be anything like psycho pharmaceuticals in order to become good entertainment or to be scared into performing. There’s there’s so many creatures who who like us and who would welcome spending time with us. 

Did you shoot a program of kids reading books to cats? 

Yes. I love that dogs, too. I saw I was in a Barnes Noble recently and they had a few dogs in that were helping kids read. Which is just the sweetest thing. You have a great idea. 

I was so surprised the cats enjoyed being read too. 

I wouldn’t have thought that I know prior of President. I feel like I’ve I’ve met some tests that would be very hard to impress. But I love that. 

I do think there’s something to that isn’t as a, you know, nonverbal audience and possibly less judgmental audience. You said this. Read to the creatures around you and certainly some animals, I’m sure, love it and find it calming. 

All the time we have today. Thanks so much for coming on the show. 

Oh, thank you so much for having me. I just want to make sure that people are saying this is depressing because, you know, we talked we talked a lot about sad elephants and everybody else. 

And I have to say that this work is just the most positive thing I’ve ever I’ve ever come across. Which is it? Luckily, you know, for every animal that we make sad or compulsive, there’s there’s thousands more people cheering animals up. And luckily, what works for them or for us? 

That’s always good to know. Thank you so much. 

Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. 

This has been a point of inquiry. You can follow us on Twitter at point of inquiry. Tune in next week. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.