Perhaps because we’re bombarded on all sides by animal cuteness, there’s something appealing about a book called “Animal Madness.” Enough with all the cuddling, you might think; it’s time for the real story, which Laurel Braitman, a historian of science with a Ph.D. from M.I.T., aims to tell.
Where the BuzzFeed Animals page, for example, urges us to see animals as an undifferentiated mass of squee-worthy fluff, Braitman wants us to take animals seriously—to see them as individuals with life histories and psychologies as dramatic and intense as our own.
Despite the winsome book design (there’s an adorably sad dog on the cover, and drawings of a glum raccoon and gorilla on the inside), there’s nothing remotely cute about this goal. “Animal Madness” is so upsetting, in fact, that I wanted to stop reading it about halfway through.
It’s obvious, of course, that animals of all sorts suffer from physical pain. It’s also obvious that many animals can be tense, unhappy, anxious, enraged, compulsive, impulsive, sad, depressed, and so on.
Still, it’s tempting for many people, even sympathetic ones, to put those words in scare quotes—to see animal “depression” or “anxiety” as a less intense or consequential version of their human equivalents. Braitman pushes back against that tendency. She has an absolute, not a comparative, sense of the animal soul.
What matters isn’t how much an animal’s mental life is “worth,” compared to a person’s, but how wholly and powerfully it is illuminated by happiness or darkened by anguish. “Every animal with a mind has the capacity to lose hold of it from time to time,” she writes. An animal’s life can be changed utterly by mental illness, just like a person’s.
A gorilla that sees her family killed, and that is kidnapped and brought to a zoo to live out her life on display, may have her whole existence reshaped by trauma, loneliness, and fear. Why argue about how intelligent she is? The point is that her life has been knocked off course and that she is suffering; she is no longer the animal she was.
Laurel Braitman’s “Animal Madness”