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Posts Tagged ‘dogs’

16 JANUARY, 2015

Why Not to Put a Raincoat on Your Dog: A Cognitive Scientist Explains the Canine Umwelt


“If we want to understand the life of any animal, we need to know what things are meaningful to it.”

In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s Levin observes his dog Laska one evening — “she opened her mouth a little, smacked her lips, and settling her sticky lips more comfortably about her old teeth, she sank into blissful repose” — and finds in her behavior a “token of all now being well and satisfactory,” mirroring the “blissful repose” he so desires in his own life. Our tendency to anthropomorphize our faithful canine companions and project on them our own experiences and intentions may have produced some great literature — including Mary Oliver’s sublime Dog Songs and an entire canon of high-brow comics — but it is something against which cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz admonishes with great elegance and rigor in Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know (public library).

Of all the misplaced anthropomorphism we unleash on our dogs, Horowitz — a self-described “dog person” and “lover of dogs,” who also happens to be a scientist heading Barnard’s Dog Cognition Lab, where she studies dogs at play — makes a special, and utterly fascinating, case against the use of doggie raincoats:

There are some interesting assumptions involved in the creation and purchase of tiny, stylish, four-armed rain slickers for dogs. Let’s put aside the question of whether dogs prefer a bright yellow slicker, a tartan pattern, or a raining-cats-and-dogs motif (clearly they prefer the cats and dogs). Many dog owners who dress their dogs in coats have the best intentions: they have noticed, perhaps, that their dog resists going outside when it rains. It seems reasonable to extrapolate from that observation to the conclusion that he dislikes the rain.

But dogs, Horowitz points out, are also masters of mixed signals — your dog might wag his tail excitedly as you put the raincoat on him, or he might cower from the coat and curl his tail between his legs; he might look disheveled after a coatless rainy walk, but then take great joy in shaking off the water vigorously. To discern the dog’s true feelings about that possibly plaid, possibly tartan-patterned raincoat, Horowitz turns to the dog’s evolutionary ancestor:

The natural behavior of related, wild canines proves the most informative about what the dog might think about a raincoat. Both dogs and wolves have, clearly, their own coats permanently affixed. One coat is enough: when it rains, wolves may seek shelter, but they do not cover themselves with natural materials. That does not argue for the need for or interest in raincoats. And besides being a jacket, the raincoat is also one distinctive thing: a close, even pressing, covering of the back, chest, and sometimes the head. There are occasions when wolves get pressed upon the back or head: it is when they are being dominated by another wolf, or scolded by an older wolf or relative. Dominants often pin subordinates down by the snout. This is called muzzle biting, and accounts, perhaps, for why muzzled dogs sometimes seem preternaturally subdued. And a dog who “stands over” another dog is being dominant. The subordinate dog in that arrangement would feel the pressure of the dominant animal on his body. The raincoat might well reproduce that feeling. So the principal experience of wearing a coat is not the experience of feeling protected from wetness; rather, the coat produces the discomfiting feeling that someone higher ranking than you is nearby.

This interpretation is borne out by most dogs’ behavior when getting put into a raincoat: they may freeze in place as they are “dominated.” … The be-jacketed dog may cooperate in going out, but not because he has shown he likes the coat; it is because he has been subdued. And he will wind up being less wet, but it is we who care about the planning for that, not the dog. The way around this kind of misstep is to replace our anthropomorphizing instinct with a behavior-reading instinct. In most cases, this is simple: we must ask the dog what he wants. You need only know how to translate his answer.

But more than a mere evolutionary curiosity or reality check for our relationship with our beloved pets, this illustrates the broader solipsism of the Golden Rule in its traditional formulation, which urges us to do unto other human animals as we would like for them to do unto us. Instead, as Karen Armstrong has written in her magnificent treatise on the subject, true compassion requires that we seek to understand others so that we can do unto them what they would like done, rather than treating them by the personal ideals we subscribe to ourselves.

Artwork by Ana Juan from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

Much of that, whether it comes to a dog’s raincoat or to interpersonal relationships between humans, has to do with understanding the umwelt — the subjective reality in which each creature dwells — and how it shapes the meaning of things for that creature. Horowitz writes:

If we want to understand the life of any animal, we need to know what things are meaningful to it. The first way to discover this is to determine what the animal can perceive: what it can see, hear, smell, or otherwise sense. Only objects that are perceived can have meaning to the animal; the rest are not even noticed, or all look the same… Two components — perception and action — largely define and circumscribe the world for every living thing. All animals have their own umwelten.


Each individual creates his own personal umwelt, full of objects with special meaning to him. You can most clearly see this last fact by letting yourself be led through an unknown city by a native. He will steer you along a path obvious to him, but invisible to you. But the two of you share some things: neither of you is likely to stop and listen to the ultrasonic cry of a nearby bat; neither of you smells what the man passing you had for dinner last night (unless it involved a lot of garlic). We … and every other animal dovetail into our environment: we are bombarded with stimuli, but only a very few are meaningful to us.

This notion is what led Horowitz to follow up Inside of a Dog — which is intensely fascinating in its totality — with On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, a book that profoundly changed my perception of reality. For a sample taste of these first disorienting, then wonderfully reorienting ideas, see my conversation with Horowitz about the art and science of looking.

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21 OCTOBER, 2014

Ursula K. Le Guin on Aging and What Beauty Really Means


“There are a whole lot of ways to be perfect, and not one of them is attained through punishment.”

“A Dog is, on the whole, what you would call a simple soul,” T.S. Eliot simpered in his beloved 1930s poem “The Ad-dressing of Cats,” proclaiming that “Cats are much like you and me.” Indeed, cats have a long history of being anthropomorphized in dissecting the human condition — but, then again, so do dogs. We’ve always used our feline and canine companions to better understand ourselves, but nowhere have Cat and Dog served a more poignant metaphorical purpose than in the 1992 essay “Dogs, Cats, and Dancers: Thoughts about Beauty” by Ursula K. Le Guin (b. October 21, 1929), found in the altogether spectacular volume The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (public library), which also gave us Le Guin, at her finest and sharpest, on being a man.

Le Guin contrasts the archetypal temperaments of our favorite pets:

Dogs don’t know what they look like. Dogs don’t even know what size they are. No doubt it’s our fault, for breeding them into such weird shapes and sizes. My brother’s dachshund, standing tall at eight inches, would attack a Great Dane in the full conviction that she could tear it apart. When a little dog is assaulting its ankles the big dog often stands there looking confused — “Should I eat it? Will it eat me? I am bigger than it, aren’t I?” But then the Great Dane will come and try to sit in your lap and mash you flat, under the impression that it is a Peke-a-poo.

Artwork by Mark Ulriksen from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

Cats, on the other hand, have a wholly different scope of self-awareness:

Cats know exactly where they begin and end. When they walk slowly out the door that you are holding open for them, and pause, leaving their tail just an inch or two inside the door, they know it. They know you have to keep holding the door open. That is why their tail is there. It is a cat’s way of maintaining a relationship.

Housecats know that they are small, and that it matters. When a cat meets a threatening dog and can’t make either a horizontal or a vertical escape, it’ll suddenly triple its size, inflating itself into a sort of weird fur blowfish, and it may work, because the dog gets confused again — “I thought that was a cat. Aren’t I bigger than cats? Will it eat me?”

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton based on Gay Talese's taxonomy of cats. Click image for details.

More than that, Le Guin notes, cats are aesthetes, vain and manipulative in their vanity. In a passage that takes on whole new layers of meaning twenty years later, in the heyday of the photographic cat meme, she writes:

Cats have a sense of appearance. Even when they’re sitting doing the wash in that silly position with one leg behind the other ear, they know what you’re sniggering at. They simply choose not to notice. I knew a pair of Persian cats once; the black one always reclined on a white cushion on the couch, and the white one on the black cushion next to it. It wasn’t just that they wanted to leave cat hair where it showed up best, though cats are always thoughtful about that. They knew where they looked best. The lady who provided their pillows called them her Decorator Cats.

Artwork by Ronald Searle from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Cats.' Click image for more.

A master of bridging the playful and the poignant, Le Guin returns to the human condition:

A lot of us humans are like dogs: we really don’t know what size we are, how we’re shaped, what we look like. The most extreme example of this ignorance must be the people who design the seats on airplanes. At the other extreme, the people who have the most accurate, vivid sense of their own appearance may be dancers. What dancers look like is, after all, what they do.

Echoing legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham’s contemplation of dance as “the human body moving in time-space,” Le Guin considers the dancers she knows and their extraordinary lack of “illusions or confusions about what space they occupy.” Recounting the anecdote of one young dancer who upon scraping his ankle exclaimed, “I have an owie on my almost perfect body!” Le Guin writes:

It was endearingly funny, but it was also simply true: his body is almost perfect. He knows it is, and knows where it isn’t. He keeps it as nearly perfect as he can, because his body is his instrument, his medium, how he makes a living, and what he makes art with. He inhabits his body as fully as a child does, but much more knowingly. And he’s happy about it.

Photograph from Helen Keller's life-changing visit to Martha Graham's dance studio. Click image for details.

What dance does, above all, is offer the promise of precisely such bodily happiness — not of perfection, but of satisfaction. Dancers, Le Guin argues, are “so much happier than dieters and exercisers.” She considers the impossible ideals of the latter, which cripple them in the same way that perfectionism cripples creativity in writing and art:

Perfection is “lean” and “taut” and “hard” — like a boy athlete of twenty, a girl gymnast of twelve. What kind of body is that for a man of fifty or a woman of any age? “Perfect”? What’s perfect? A black cat on a white cushion, a white cat on a black one . . . A soft brown woman in a flowery dress . . . There are a whole lot of ways to be perfect, and not one of them is attained through punishment.

Photograph by Zed Nelson from his project 'Love Me.' Click image for more.

And just like that, Le Guin pirouettes, elegantly but imperceptibly, from the lighthearted to the serious. Reflecting on various cultures’ impossible and often painful ideals of human beauty, “especially of female beauty,” she writes:

I think of when I was in high school in the 1940s: the white girls got their hair crinkled up by chemicals and heat so it would curl, and the black girls got their hair mashed flat by chemicals and heat so it wouldn’t curl. Home perms hadn’t been invented yet, and a lot of kids couldn’t afford these expensive treatments, so they were wretched because they couldn’t follow the rules, the rules of beauty.

Beauty always has rules. It’s a game. I resent the beauty game when I see it controlled by people who grab fortunes from it and don’t care who they hurt. I hate it when I see it making people so self-dissatisfied that they starve and deform and poison themselves. Most of the time I just play the game myself in a very small way, buying a new lipstick, feeling happy about a pretty new silk shirt.

Ursula K. Le Guin by Laura Anglin

Le Guin, who writes about aging with more grace, humor, and dignity than any other writer I’ve read, turns to the particularly stifling ideal of eternal youth:

One rule of the game, in most times and places, is that it’s the young who are beautiful. The beauty ideal is always a youthful one. This is partly simple realism. The young are beautiful. The whole lot of ’em. The older I get, the more clearly I see that and enjoy it.


And yet I look at men and women my age and older, and their scalps and knuckles and spots and bulges, though various and interesting, don’t affect what I think of them. Some of these people I consider to be very beautiful, and others I don’t. For old people, beauty doesn’t come free with the hormones, the way it does for the young. It has to do with bones. It has to do with who the person is. More and more clearly it has to do with what shines through those gnarly faces and bodies.

But what makes the transformations of aging so anguishing, Le Guin poignantly observes, isn’t the loss of beauty — it’s the loss of identity, a frustratingly elusive phenomenon to begin with. She writes:

I know what worries me most when I look in the mirror and see the old woman with no waist. It’s not that I’ve lost my beauty—I never had enough to carry on about. It’s that that woman doesn’t look like me. She isn’t who I thought I was.


We’re like dogs, maybe: we don’t really know where we begin and end. In space, yes; but in time, no.


A child’s body is very easy to live in. An adult body isn’t. The change is hard. And it’s such a tremendous change that it’s no wonder a lot of adolescents don’t know who they are. They look in the mirror — that is me? Who’s me?

And then it happens again, when you’re sixty or seventy.

Artwork by Mark Ulriksen from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

In a sentiment that calls Rilke to mind — “I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul,” he memorably wrote, “since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion.” — Le Guin admonishes against our impulse to intellectualize out of the body, away from it:

Who I am is certainly part of how I look and vice versa. I want to know where I begin and end, what size I am, and what suits me… I am not “in” this body, I am this body. Waist or no waist.

But all the same, there’s something about me that doesn’t change, hasn’t changed, through all the remarkable, exciting, alarming, and disappointing transformations my body has gone through. There is a person there who isn’t only what she looks like, and to find her and know her I have to look through, look in, look deep. Not only in space, but in time.


There’s the ideal beauty of youth and health, which never really changes, and is always true. There’s the ideal beauty of movie stars and advertising models, the beauty-game ideal, which changes its rules all the time and from place to place, and is never entirely true. And there’s an ideal beauty that is harder to define or understand, because it occurs not just in the body but where the body and the spirit meet and define each other.

And yet for all the ideals we impose on our earthy embodiments, Le Guin argues in her most poignant but, strangely, most liberating point, it is death that ultimately illuminates the full spectrum of our beauty — death, the ultimate equalizer of time and space; death, the great clarifier that makes us see that, as Rebecca Goldstein put it, “a person whom one loves is a world, just as one knows oneself to be a world.” With this long-view lens, Le Guin remembers her own mother and the many dimensions of her beauty:

My mother died at eighty-three, of cancer, in pain, her spleen enlarged so that her body was misshapen. Is that the person I see when I think of her? Sometimes. I wish it were not. It is a true image, yet it blurs, it clouds, a truer image. It is one memory among fifty years of memories of my mother. It is the last in time. Beneath it, behind it is a deeper, complex, ever-changing image, made from imagination, hearsay, photographs, memories. I see a little red-haired child in the mountains of Colorado, a sad-faced, delicate college girl, a kind, smiling young mother, a brilliantly intellectual woman, a peerless flirt, a serious artist, a splendid cook—I see her rocking, weeding, writing, laughing — I see the turquoise bracelets on her delicate, freckled arm — I see, for a moment, all that at once, I glimpse what no mirror can reflect, the spirit flashing out across the years, beautiful.

That must be what the great artists see and paint. That must be why the tired, aged faces in Rembrandt’s portraits give us such delight: they show us beauty not skin-deep but life-deep.

The Wave in the Mind remains the kind of book that stays with you for life — the kind of book that is life.

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10 JUNE, 2014

Animal Madness: How Deciphering Mental Illness in Our Fellow Beings Helps Us Become Better Versions of Ourselves


“To selflessly love another creature is to be open to loving other humans, who are animals as much as pandas, cows, or Shih Tzus.”

One of the two dogs in my life has a decided fear of the dark and a paralyzing phobia of storms — quite literally: he goes catatonic, except for his uncontrollable trembling, his eyes the wide-gaping opening to a bottomless well of terror. My other canine companion is the most angelic yet most anxious creature I’ve ever encountered, capable of obsessively licking her paws for hours on end, trying to self-soothe against the unbearable weight of the world, her eyebrows permanently moulded into question marks that seem to perpetually ask when the other shoe will drop. Because, in her mind, it’s never a question of whether it will drop — only the anguishing inevitability of when it will.

If this seems like far-fetched anthropocentrism, a field of science that has been gathering momentum for more than 150 years strongly suggests otherwise. That’s precisely what Senior TED Fellow Laurel Braitman explores in Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves (public library | IndieBound). Braitman, who holds a Ph.D. in history and anthropology of science from MIT, argues that we humans are far from unique in our capacity for “emotional thunderstorms that make our lives more difficult” and that nonhuman animals are bedeviled by varieties of mental illness strikingly similar to our own. With equal parts rigor and compassion, she examines evidence from veterinary science, psychology and pharmacology research, first-hand accounts by neuroscientists, zoologists, animal trainers, and other experts, the work of legendary scientists and philosophers like Charles Darwin and Rene Descartes, and her own experience with dozens of animals spanning a multitude of species and mental health issues, from depressed dogs to self-harming dolphins to canine Alzheimer’s and PTSD.

Braitman with Mac, the Sardinian miniature donkey she raised while growing up

Braitman’s journey begins with one particularly troubled nonhuman animal — Oliver, the Bernese Mountain Dog she adopted, whose “extreme fear, anxiety, and compulsions” prompted her, in the way that a concerned parent on the verge of despair grasps for answers, to explore whether and how other animals could be mentally ill. Considering the tapestry of evidence threads she uncovered during her research, she writes:

Humans and other animals are more similar than many of us might think when it comes to mental states and behaviors gone awry — experiencing churning fear, for example, in situations that don’t call for it, feeling unable to shake a paralyzing sadness, or being haunted by a ceaseless compulsion to wash our hands or paws. Abnormal behaviors like these tip into the territory of mental illness when they keep creatures — human or not — from engaging in what is normal for them. This is true for a dog single-mindedly focused on licking his tail until it’s bare and oozy, a sea lion fixated on swimming in endless circles, a gorilla too sad and withdrawn to play with her troop members, or a human so petrified of escalators he avoids department stores.

Every animal with a mind has the capacity to lose hold of it from time to time. Sometimes the trigger is abuse or mistreatment, but not always. I’ve come across depressed and anxious gorillas, compulsive horses, rats, donkeys, and seals, obsessive parrots, self-harming dolphins, and dogs with dementia, many of whom share their exhibits, homes, or habitats with other creatures who don’t suffer from the same problems. I’ve also gotten to know curious whales, confident bonobos, thrilled elephants, contented tigers, and grateful orangutans. There is plenty of abnormal behavior in the animal world, captive, domestic, and wild, and plenty of evidence of recovery; you simply need to know where and how to find it.

Braitman is careful to acknowledge that such a notion is likely to unnerve our notions of human exceptionalism and offers a wise caveat:

Acknowledging parallels between human and other animal mental health is a bit like recognizing capacities for language, tool use, and culture in other creatures. That is, it’s a blow to the idea that humans are the only animals to feel or express emotion in complex and surprising ways. It is also anthropomorphic, the projection of human emotions, characteristics, and desires onto nonhuman beings or things. We can choose, though, to anthropomorphize well and, by doing so, make more accurate interpretations of animals’ behavior and emotional lives. Instead of self-centered projection, anthropomorphism can be a recognition of bits and pieces of our human selves in other animals and vice versa.

She later adds:

We’ve inherited a bias against identifying with other animals that isn’t useful, and it’s high time we discarded it.

It’s worth noting that while Braitman is very much interested in how understanding mental illness in nonhuman animals can help us better treat our own, her approach isn’t one of self-interest but one of genuine compassion for the inner worlds and anguish of our fellow beings. In fact, there’s an undercurrent of the opposite aspiration — an effort to use what we do know about humans, who are, at least linguistically, far better-equipped to articulate their psychoemotional conditions, to understand those of animals and alleviate their anguish. Underlying this is the subtle suggestion that such an osmosis of understanding between species can foster greater understanding among our own species by making us better, more empathetic versions of ourselves and who we are to one another.


To be sure, Braitman’s journey to this insight is far from a smooth and Pollyannaish one. She returns to Oliver, who jumped out of her fourth-floor window one warm May afternoon, after gnawing a hole through the mesh wire of the screen and squeezing his 120-pound body through it. Though he survived the fifty-five-foot fall rather miraculously, it was the beginning — or, rather, the reveal — of his lifelong struggle with mental illness.

Braitman had always dreamt of a Bernese Mountain Dog to call her own, but such purebred pups ran for around $2,000 each — a cost unthinkable to Braitman and her husband, whose respective jobs in an environmental conservation nonprofit and a government geological agency placed them in exactly the income bracket one would imagine. When a local breeder offered them Oliver, an adult dog, for free, along with some tempered story of why his previous owners could no longer keep him, it seemed like a deal too good to be true — but having fallen in love with Oliver at first sight, they did what the lovestruck do and dismissed the warning signs. Braitman writes:

We’d fallen for Oliver at first sight. It felt more like a physical sensation than a conscious decision. It certainly wasn’t rational. We brought him home that same afternoon… It wasn’t until a few months into our relationship with Oliver that his truly bizarre behavior started to manifest. But once it did, it spread like spilled molasses: sticky, inexorably expansive, and difficult to contain.

She recounts the first serious red flag, discovered by sheer serendipity one day after she and her husband left for work:

I said goodbye to Oliver and locked the house, only to realize as soon as I reached my car that I’d left the keys in our apartment. As I headed back up the block to our building I heard a plaintive yowling — not feline or human and not from the National Zoo, a few blocks away. It was a bark that sounded like the squeak of an animal too large to squeak (this was before I knew any elephants), and it was coming from our apartment.

When I stepped onto the front porch the barking stopped and was replaced by a loud skittering sound. As I climbed the steps to the top floor, the crablike skittering got louder. It was, I realized, the sound of Oliver’s toenails on the wooden floor as he sprinted back and forth along the length of the apartment. When I opened the door he was panting and wild-eyed. He bounded up to me as if I’d just returned from a months-long expedition, not a five-minute trip to the car. I picked up my keys, walked Oliver back to his dog bed, petted him a bit, and then got up to leave. When I reached the sidewalk I sat on the porch and waited. After about ten minutes of quiet, I stood up in relief. Then suddenly, after only a few steps, there it was — the yowlingsqueakbark. Again and again and again. I looked up and saw Oliver’s giant head pressed against our bedroom window, his paws on the sill. He was looking down at me with his tongue lolling. He’d waited to bark until he saw me leave the porch. I was already late for work. As I walked down the sidewalk I kept turning around. Oliver had moved to the living-room window so that he could watch me walk farther down the street. The barking increased when I turned the corner, and the whole drive to my office I could hear it inside my head.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton for 'Lost Cat' by Caroline Paul. Click image for details.

As Oliver’s Rube Goldberg progression of destruction and self-destruction hastened over time, Braitman found herself tangled in the age-old quest to understand what goes on in the minds of animals and the often unpredictable relationship between their thoughts and their actions. Turning to Charles Darwin’s pioneering studies of animal emotion, Braitman points out how radical his proposition in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals was, less than two centuries after Descartes had advanced the notion that animals are mere automata — thoughtless, emotionless moving machines, driven by emotion alone. Braitman writes:

Darwin described surliness, contempt, and disgust in chimps, astonishment among Paraguayan monkeys, love among dogs, between dogs and cats, and between dogs and humans. Perhaps most surprisingly he argued that many of these creatures were capable of enacting revenge, behaving courageously, and expressing their impatience or suspicion. A female terrier of Darwin’s, after having her puppies taken away and killed, impressed him so much “with the manner in which she then tried to satisfy her instinctive maternal love by expending it on [Darwin]; and her desire to lick [his] hands rose to an insatiable passion.” He was also convinced dogs experienced disappointment and dejection.


He went on to document grief-stricken elephants, contented house cats, pumas, cheetahs, and ocelots (who expressed their satisfaction with purring), as well as tigers, whom he believed did not purr at all but instead emitted “a peculiar short snuffle, accompanied by the closure of the eyelids” when happy. He wrote about deer at the London Zoo — who approached him because, he believed, they were curious. And he talked about fear and anger in musk-ox, goats, horses, and porcupines. He was also interested in laughter. “Young Orangs, when tickled,” reported Darwin, “. . . grin and make a chuckling sound” and “their eyes grow brighter.”

Next came another scientist, the Scottish physician William Lauder Lindsay, whose experience made him particularly well-suited for the job of understanding emotion in nonhumans. Lindsay, who had been appointed medical officer at an asylum for the insane in an era when mentally ill humans were treated like animals, went on to argue in a seminal scientific paper published in 1871 that “both in its normal and abnormal operations, mind is essentially the same in man and other animals.”

But perhaps the greatest champions of the twentieth century were two women — Jane Goodall, whose work with chimpanzees helped shift public perception of the emotional and cognitive range of nonhumans, and Rachel Carson, whose writing was key in galvanizing the modern environmental movement. Today, one of the leading scientists working to understand — and advocate for — the psychoemotional experience of animals is neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, who too began his career at a mental institution for humans. Braitman points to a particularly remarkable video of him tickling a few chubby rats into laughter:

She explains the importance of Panksepp’s research:

After decades of research, Panksepp is convinced that most animal brains, from Oliver’s to a ticklish mouse’s, likely have the capacity for dreaming, for taking pleasure in eating, for feeling anger, fear, love, lust, grief, and acceptance from their mothers, for being playful, and for some conception of selfhood, an argument that might have seemed painfully unscientific just forty years ago. Panksepp believes that emotional capacity evolved in mammals long before the emergence of the human neocortex and its massive powers of cognition. He is careful to say that this doesn’t mean that all animal or even mammalian emotions are the same. And when it comes to complex cognitive skills, he believes that the human brain puts all others to shame. But he is convinced that other animals have many special abilities that we don’t have and this may extend to emotional states. Rats, for example, have richer olfactory lives, eagles have impressive eyesight, and dolphins can sense the world via sight, sound, sonar, and touch. These abilities may translate into more and different feelings associated with their various sensory or cognitive experiences. Panksepp believes that rabbits, for example, may have bigger or different capacities for fear while cats may have larger capacities for aggression and anger.

Citing other scientists’ research on everything from compassion in chimps to altruism and morality in bonobos, Braitman frames the scope of the broader inquiry and its cultural significance:

A number of recent studies have gone far beyond our closest relatives to argue for the possible emotional capacities of honeybees, octopi, chickens, and even fruit flies. The results of these studies are changing debates about animal minds from “Do they have emotions?” to “What sorts of emotions do they have and why?”

North Pacific Giant Octopus by photographer Mark Laita. Click image for more.

This line of thinking, Braitman points out, is neither surprising nor far-fetched — after all, emotions evolved to help our survival, be it by signaling danger and evoking the proper flight response or by incentivizing us to bond and mate with the appropriate creatures. They most likely co-evolved with consciousness as the two phenomena honed one another, which means the evolutionary chain is strewn with emotional experiences. We, as a culture, are slowly coming around to recognizing this — take, for instance, the landmark Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness signed in 2012 by an impressive roster of prominent scientists, seeking to establish definitively that mammals, birds, and even creatures like octopi are conscious and capable of experiencing emotions. Which brings us back to Oliver. Braitman chronicles his descent into the dark night of the soul after his fall:

As I watched Oliver’s disturbing behavior grow more intense, his nightly relentless paw licking, for example, or his frenzied concern over being left by himself, I puzzled over what was going on in his mind. Like so many other animals, he was a furry enigma. And yet discovering the particularities of what he was actually thinking didn’t matter that much when it came to helping him. The reality of Oliver’s raw, self-inflicted sores and my inability to distract him from making them worse was enough to tell me that he was too focused on something that was doing him harm. On one particularly bad evening, he gnawed on the base of his tail until he’d made a hole the size of a tennis ball.


Despite our efforts to help him, Oliver’s anxiety at being left alone only increased in the years he lived with us. His storm phobia reduced him to a shaking, inconsolable mess, and it took him hours, sometimes days to recover. We’d taken him to a veterinary behaviorist, given him first Valium, then Prozac, then both. We practiced behavioral modification and training in an attempt to manage his anxiety. We played him recorded sounds of storms to desensitize him to thunder and jingled our keys even when we weren’t planning on leaving the house. We took him on long walks, then long hikes. We tried to socialize him with other dogs. We gave him toys and treats. We gave him affection. We thought about getting him another animal companion and then decided against it. We tried, and failed, to give him certainty.

Oliver’s story isn’t one with a happy ending — he does eventually manage to stray from the vigilant humans staffed to ensure his safety. After his death, Braitman’s grief — one of the most profound human experiences — only deepens the human-nonhuman similarities she had been exploring. She reflects:

Losses and disappointment can do that if you’re lucky. Before you know it your pain has welcomed the world. That’s what happened to me, anyway. One anxious dog brought me the entire animal kingdom. I owe him everything.

Plunging back into the muddy waters of understanding animal consciousness, she turns to another parallel between the human and the nonhuman experience — our history of diagnosing it. Diagnoses, she points out, have a tendency to come and go like fashions. In the Victorian era, for instance, conditions like “mortal heartbreak,” “nostalgia,” and “homesickness” were frequent diagnoses on the spectrum of neuroses — and we’ve applied them just as systematically to animals over the centuries. Braitman cites the particularly common trope of 19th-century newspaper reports on “mad” elephants. She quotes from one such article, published in The New York Times in 1880, recounting the story of an Indian elephant who had begun killing local villagers and demolishing buildings:

[The elephant] was not merely wild — it was “mad,” and as cunning and as cruel as a mad man. But insanity itself is a tribute to the animal’s intelligence, for sudden downright madness presumes strong brain power. Owls never go mad. They may go “silly,” or they may be born idiots; but as Oliver Wendell Holmes says, a weak mind does not accumulate force enough to hurt itself.

Illustration for the fairy tales of e.e. cummings by John Eaton, 1965. Click image for more.

Braitman illuminates the deeper, more systematic tragedy this story speaks to:

[Most of these elephants] were not physically ill but more likely reacting against poor treatment and abuse. These mad elephants were newsworthy, not simply because they smashed buildings or cars or trampled people but because they expressed themselves in often spectacular ways — choosing particular individuals on whom to vent their anger or exact revenge, biding their time until they found the right, most devastating moment to act. Captive elephants have been known to suddenly explode into violence, going after their handlers, grooms, or trainers. This is so common that, since the nineteenth century, expressions like running amok came to characterize just this type of event. These accounts were commonplace in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and still appear in the twenty-first.

Citing the story of Tip — the 18-year-old Asian circus elephant sentenced to death in 1894 on account of his explosive temper — Braitman underscores how irresponsible and blind to our own accountability labels like “mad” can be:

He was deemed mad not because he was rabid or demonstrably insane but because he acted violently toward the men who sought to control him, keep him in chains, and diminish his sensory, social, physical, and emotional world to a small barn. His badness caused his madness, and his madness cemented his badness. Tip was a victim of the human tendency to punish what we misunderstand or fear. New York of the 1890s was a world in which elephants killed men out of vengeance and spite, and insanity could leap from animal to human. How Tip was treated for his behavior, his increasingly restrained world, and his eventual execution reflected the anxieties of the people around him who fretted about the causes of madness and just who was susceptible.

One particularly curious 19th-century human diagnosis, eventually applied to animals, was that of “homesickness” — an ailment considered on par with physical illnesses like scarlet fever and tuberculosis, and “thought to weaken, kill, or even inspire suicide.” The Civil War produced five thousand diagnoses of homesickness, with 74 of the afflicted men believed to have died from the condition. At the height of colonialism, when new species from conquered lands were being brought to Europe and America in zoos, circuses, and other forms of human entertainment, many animals soon began exhibiting the same symptoms as humans suffering from homesickness.

John Daniel

Braitman tells one particularly moving story — that of the gorilla John Daniel, who was first separated from his gorilla mother and then from the young woman who had bought him from a department store, with the intention of making him a part of the family and treating him as a human child. He soon became a London celebrity. But as he was reaching adulthood, it became clear to John Daniel’s human mother that she couldn’t provide for him the life that a large, free-roaming silverback gorilla needed. She set out to find him a worthy home. Nothing in her native England seemed suitable, so when a representative from a private park in Florida began courting her to send the now-famous young gorilla there, it seemed like the right fit. But she was swindled — the man turned out to work for a New York circus. It was too late — John Daniel had been sent to America, where he quickly succumbed to unspeakable gloominess. Braitman writes:

The loneliness and isolation John must have felt inside his cage at the Garden was probably crushing. First he’d been separated from his gorilla mother, then he had been raised like a hairy human child and, at four years of age, would have been developmentally like one. What John Daniel felt when he was taken from [his human parents] is likely similar to what a human child of the same age would feel upon being separated from his parents and the only home he knew, to sit in a cold room with only the gaze of strangers to keep him company. John responded to English. He had culture. He knew a gorilla version of love and affection. He also knew a gorilla form of sadness.

Soon both circus-goers and the press reported that the young gorilla was literally dying of loneliness.

Three weeks later, he died. New York Times reporters attributed his death to homesickness and poor care. Others speculated he died of pneumonia. Braitman notes the inextricable link between the physical and the psychological:

Both things may be true, as John’s immune system was likely weakened by his loneliness and isolation. In the weeks before his death he had refused food and would crouch on his iron bed, covering himself with a blanket, facing away from the front of his cage and the crowds who came to see him. By the time the wife of one of the circus performers began to spend time with him, putting warm compresses on his forehead and giving him the attention he craved, it was too late. A [circus] employee who knew John said that he had been treated like any ordinary museum specimen and this was the problem: “I think myself that he might have lived if allowed to stick to his former habits.”

But though John Daniel’s story is a tragic one, Braitman cites it as a cautionary tale that reminds us how vital it is to ensure better, happier alternatives — something only possible if we acknowledge, then seek to understand, then begin to alleviate mental illness in nonhuman animals. In the epilogue, she writes:

One of the most encouraging aspects of animal mental illness is that, against all odds, many creatures thrive, or at the very least, exhibit the kind of behavior that looks a lot like resilience.

'Coney Island Whale' by Sophie Blackall from 'Missed Connections.' Click image for details.

Her ultimate message is one of optimism and thoughtful advocacy. She recounts a visit to Baja, Mexico, where she encounters a mother whale and her calf — a poignant and beautiful antidote to everything our history with whales should point to. Braitman captures the transcendence of the experience beautifully:

Mass killings at the hands of humans were fundamental events in their natural history. Their choice to approach us in what was once a watery killing field is a fundamental event in ours.

We can call the whales’ behavior resilience or recovery, or we can anthropomorphize it as a kind of human-directed forgiveness. At the very least, the whales are doing something that seems a lot like the expression of affectionate and playful curiosity. Watching a free-living calf swim out of the depths with his mother and, on her urging, look into my eyes while I looked into his is one of the most powerful and mystifying encounters of my life. I believe this is because it was born of choice. Unlike an aquarium beluga, a zoo-dwelling panda, or my neighbor’s Chihuahua, who may make eye contact because there is nowhere else to look, because they hope to be fed or because they fear me, the Baja whales looked at me with, I’m convinced, something like the same wonder and curiosity I had for them.


I thought about our encounters with other animals and wondered what we might do to make these interactions more like those between the humans and whales of Baja. Could we affect the mental health of both captive and wild animals for the better, not simply by striving to do no harm but by seeking to rectify our mistakes?

Reflecting on the many stories and multitude of research, Braitman brings the journey full-circle, back to Oliver, her oracle of compassion:

The weight of all these accumulated stories convinced me that we should pay closer attention to the mental health of other creatures — because what is good for them is so often good for us. Many people have already taken on this responsibility, and the resulting observations — of monkey executives, nervous dogs, relaxed rats, demented sea lions, and more — have quietly influenced how we think about our own unraveling minds and what we might do to stitch them back together again.

Trying to understand Oliver also led me to be a bit kinder to myself and the humans and other animals around me. When we feel kinship with a pig or a pigeon, really feel it, we can’t help but share a bit of that affection with our own animal selves… To selflessly love another creature is to be open to loving other humans, who are animals as much as pandas, cows, or Shih Tzus. This is why I never trust an animal rights activist who is misogynistic or thinks that Homo sapiens are, at heart, more rotten than any other species. Human rights activists are animal rights activists by default. The reverse should also be true.

Ultimately, Braitman reminds us that our choices shape the world we live in and the responsibility embedded in them is to be addressed with equal parts self-compassion for our human fallibility and compassion for the beings with whom we share not only a planet, but also an emotional reality:

It’s simply that falling short is the human condition, and some problems cannot be taken care of by hoping.

This should not let us off the hook. There are many structural elements of our lives with other creatures that cause needless suffering and could easily be done away with. We could stop teaching elephants to paint, dance, and play soccer, and casting chimps in commercials and giraffes in feature films. We could close our nation’s zoos, or at the very least stop deluding ourselves that it’s our right to see exotic wildlife like gorillas, dolphins, and elephants in every major American city. We could stop trying to convince ourselves that keeping animals in cages or tanks is the best way to educate and inform one another about them, especially since it often costs the animals their sanity. We could instead turn these zoos and other facilities into places where people might engage with animals, domestic and wild, who often thrive in our presence, creatures like horses, donkeys, llamas, cows, pigs, goats, rabbits, and even raccoons, rats, squirrels, pigeons, and possums. We could exchange the polar bear pools for petting zoos and build teaching farms, urban dairies, and wildlife rehabilitation centers where city-dwelling children and adults could volunteer or take classes on cheese making, beekeeping, gardening, veterinary science, wildlife ecology, and animal husbandry.

We could also stop leading the sorts of lives that cause large numbers of our pets to end up on psychopharmaceuticals. We could spend more time walking and playing with them and less time on our phones, checking email and watching television. We could stop bringing animals into our lives that deep down, we know we cannot care for, and we could recognize, in them and their crazy behavior, our own unhealthy habits reflected back to us…

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. This kind of change will not be easy or fast. It will take the self-transformative power of chameleons, the resolve of mules, the fortitude of migrating whales

Animal Madness is a moving, pause-giving, and ultimately optimistic read in its entirety. Complement it with Jon Mooallem’s magnificent exploration of our complicated relationship with wildlife.

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19 MAY, 2014

1,000 Dog Portraits: How a David-vs-Goliath Copyright Nightmare Became an Illustrated Celebration of the Canine Condition


The art of making creative lemonade out of legal lemons.

“Dogs are not about something else,” Malcolm Gladwell once wrote. “Dogs are about dogs.” And yet dogs can be about something else — but perhaps their greatest gift is the way in which they infuse with love and light even the most troublesome of something-elses.

In 2011, Robynne Raye, founder of design studio Modern Dog, got a startling note from a friend who had spotted at Target merchandise for a Disney movie featuring dog drawings strikingly similar to the artwork on the endpapers of Modern Dog’s monograph published in 2008 to celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary. In disbelief, Raye and her team ordered some of the merchandise. As soon as it arrived, they instantly knew that 26 of their dog illustrations had been blatantly plagiarized for profit — a certainty induced not only by the intimacy with which every artist knows his or her work, but also by the fact that the illustrations in question depicted the company’s own beloved dogs.

A true David-and-Goliath copyright battle ensued as Modern Dog launched a lawsuit against Disney and Target, two behemoths so militantly lawyered up that they had never lost an intellectual property case. As round after round of legal bullying commenced, Modern Dog held out, with friends and supporters chipping in to help with the impossible legal fees. At one point during the proceedings, one of the defendant’s lawyers attempted to illustrate the defense case — premised largely on the rather ridiculous notion that the replica-like similarity between the drawings was the result of natural coincidence — with the following argument: “You know, there are only so many ways to draw a beagle.”

That outrageously absurd comment became the inspiration for 1,000 Dog Portraits From the People Who Love Them (public library) — an immeasurably delightful compendium envisioned by Raye, which begins with a chapter titled “1000 Ways to Draw a Beagle” and proceeds to depict just about every breed, with loving contributions from such celebrated artists and designers as Debbie Millman, Marian Bantjes, Stefan G. Bucher, and Jessie Hartland.

Beagle by Brandon Bay

Scruffy the Wonderdog by Debbie Millman

Cluny by Leon Robertson

Flou-Flou by Mark Kingsley

Clementine by Jessie Hartland

Though Modern Dog persevered and after years of trying battle got a well-deserved settlement from their unrelenting corporate Goliath, the book endures both as an homage to the universal love of our canine companions and as a testament to Modern Dog’s particular spirit of finding inspiration and cause for celebration in even the most trying of circumstances. Still, one of the most heartening touches is the tome’s dedication:

This book is dedicated to Attorney Thomas Cline and his Golden Retriever Jake Cline.

Tom fought with dignity and grace for our rights as creative people against some of the largest corporations in the world.

Vengeance by Stefan G. Bucher

Greyhound by Minjin Yang

Striped Dachshund by Patti Haskins

Greyhound by Tim Gough

Sausage Dog by Kristi Davidson

Bowie by Robynne Raye

Untitled by Jen Roos

Otto by Justin Hall

Starry Night by Amy Adair

Pug by Rachel Levit

Komondor by Nina Naeher

Ingrid, Pit Bull by Lori M. Rowe

Roger by Marius Valdes

Moser by Marian Bantjes

Riley the Mutt by Linda Solovic

Sigmund by Laura Huliska Beith

Pedro by Kerri Smith

1,000 Dog Portraits From the People Who Love Them is an irresistible delight in its multiplicitous entirety. Complement it with Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs and The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.

Images courtesy of Robynne Raye / Modern Dog

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