Our Bond with Animals
In the 1970s, Biologist Edward Wilson coined the phrase biophilia to describe humans’ love of life. It is the inherent need to connect to other life, even insects and plants. Our relationship with animals is where our biophilia is especially evident.
Three-fourths of American households now include animals. This trend is growing across the world, too. We are no longer their owners. They are our companions, and we are their moms and dads. When we’re unable to bring animals into our homes, we seek them elsewhere. We join bird watching clubs, go on safaris, and visit wildlife sanctuaries. While zoos are problematic, they are so popular because humans feel the need to seek out other animals.
Humans have an innate capacity to empathize with animals. Animals seem to capture our hearts like no one else can. As a neurologist, I found myself asking where does that come from and how does that affect us all? In 1946, the WHO defined health as more than just the absence of disease, but as a state of complete, physical, mental, and social well-being. In medicine, how we govern ourselves, how we work, and how we play can impact our health.
How Animals Impact Our Well-Being
For five years, I traveled the country asking how animals impact our social well-being. Studies show being with animals for a short period of time can increase our physical and mental health in measurable ways. Petting your cat or dog for just fifteen minutes can decrease blood pressure, lower baseline heart rate, and even reduce cholesterol. Some studies suggest being with animals can increase our lifespan. Not only do animals affect us physically, they also boost the release of positive neurochemicals. Other studies show the same boost occurs in animals and shows there’s a mutual benefit.
Animals can provide a companionship that is unique and help us see the world through a different lens. They can help people who have experienced trauma to reengage with the world. Not only can animals teach us joy, they can also teach empathy.
First Animal Therapy Program in Prison
At Lima State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Ohio, there were rumors for decades about the brutal treatment of the inmates. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when three reporters conducted an undercover investigation, that the treatment came to light. This investigation led to a litany of reforms. One gained national attention. David Lee was a social worker at the institution in the seventies and eighties. He was an animal lover, so for 60 days he brought in aquariums and birds to the most suicidal and depressed wards and compared those with similar wards with no animals.
After 60 days, the results were irrefutable. Inmates were able to cut medication by half, had fewer violent outbreaks, and no suicide attempts. On the other wards, eight suicide attempts occurred and the same level of medication was needed. This was the first documented animal therapy program at a prison.
David expanded the program and brought in other animals like hamsters and cats. Many inmates would tell reporters they were learning kindness for the first time with their interactions with these animals. The program showed that animals could teach even those we consider unteachable empathy.
What Happens When We Break Our Bond with Animals?
Unfortunately, humans can also be incredibly cruel to animals. So how does that happen? How do humans suppress empathy? Many serial killers start off by hurting animals, but why? This hasn’t been studied extensively.
Violence toward animals is more strongly linked to everyday crimes. The NYPD has a squad that’s solely focused on crimes against animals. They know that humans who commit animal abuse are linked to violent crimes. That link is so strong that the FBI now tracks animal abuse the way it tracks murders.
Despite this positive change, the FBI and our police forces are failing to recognize a crucial issue. Most violence against animals is caused by our industries and our government. These places are hidden from our view because they affront our natural empathy for animals. As a society, what we have done is tell our industries and governments that we will look the other way.
Studies show that how we think about animals and the language we use to describe them can affect our relationships to them. We’ve given them labels that remove us from empathizing with these animals. We are becoming more aware of who these animals are so to further reduce them we turn them into parts, like nuggets, thighs, and strips. Our truths about animals is the creation of language we’ve used. To ease our conscious, we’ve labeled them.
The Importance of Regaining Empathy Toward Animals
Studies show us how to regain empathy toward animals, which also connects to empathy with humans. We’re more likely to have increased empathy to those who are more like us and those who are physically nearer to us. It’s easier for us to feel empathy for cats and dogs rather than mice or pigs because we’re more familiar with them. The more we familiarize ourselves with different types of animals and see how similar they are to us, the more we can increase empathy to them.
People can learn to reengage with empathy that may have been hidden. Empathy is the natural progression of our species, and it can and will grow. We can help people to see our well-being isn’t separate from the well-being of animals. We largely share the same struggles, and the solution is the same. Empathy for animals is the natural extension of empathy for other humans. What we gain when we recognize our kinship with animals is our health and happiness.