A Valentine for Nonhuman Healers

February 16, 2013
H. Steven Moffic, MD

About a year ago, I wrote the blog “Are Dogs Man's Best Therapist?” To my surprise, it turned out to be a very popular one. Since then, dogs continue to be in the news for their therapeutic effect, including being brought to Newtown right after the mass murder there.

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
-Gandhi

About a year ago, I wrote the blog “Are Dogs Man's Best Therapist?” To my surprise, it turned out to be a very popular one. Since then, dogs continue to be in the news for their therapeutic effect, including being brought to Newtown right after the mass murder there.

That heartwarming readership response has inspired me to look into other animals and nonhumans that, if we treat them well, can in turn provide healing to us.

Horses

Though too large and in need of too much food and space to be everyday pets like dogs, horses are being used in the treatment of many mental disorders, including addiction, autism, and, like dogs, for PTSD in traumatized soldiers. Horses seem to be especially unique in their empathetic intelligence. They seem capable of picking up the way people are feeling, and being able to mirror their emotions. Such horses will move away from an angry person, become unsettled in the face of anxiety, and follow someone trustful. Therapeutic horses are especially popular in England, where Winston Churchill once said: “There's something, about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”

Could the popularity of horses indirectly relate to the mass popularity of last year's hit dance, “Gangnam Style?” The South Korean rapper Psy, perhaps recognizing the psychology of our relationship to horses, rode the recognizable horseback-like dance steps to stardom.

Cats

There is a well-known saying, “they fight like cats and dogs,” meaning that cats and dogs usually don't get along. That may reflect why some people wanting pets prefer cats over dogs. Cats are usually more independent than dogs. In fact, some research indicates that cats often will show more attention if you don't want to play with them. Paradoxically, at times, the less you seem to need it, the more love you will receive from such cats.

Pigeons

Although the movie On the Waterfront depicted the healing power of pigeons (as a friend pointed out to me), not too many people are known to have a passion for them. But the famous-and infamous-boxer, Mike Tyson does. Ferocious in the ring, once biting off the earlobe of an opponent, and sometimes just as ferocious out of the ring, he claims he would have been even worse without his pigeons. He recently had up to 3,000 of them that he kept and raised in crates next to his garage. Mr Tyson sums it up as follows: “My pigeons, they were there for me. I never let them down. They've never let me down. Easier than people.”

Some evidence for their therapeutic impact on him is his recent success as an entertainer and his gentleness in interviews.

Butterflies

I loved monarch butterflies as a child. And still do. I was overwhelmed, last summer, when I found a monarch in my car, quickly photographing, then releasing, it.

Though I never thought they might have healing aspects, the Milwaukee County Behavioral Complex, with which I worked for 20 years, did. In their spiritual integration program, they raise and release monarchs. These are not pets in the usual sense of the word, but metaphors and examples of transformation and freedom for some of the most seriously mentally ill.

Bonobos

Whereas people can have unusual pets, I have not heard of anybody who has had a bonobo, but they can be found at some zoos in the primate section. Maybe they should be considered as pets of sorts for society. They are matriarchal, and the females use their sexuality for soothing conflicts-surely an alternative model for our often violent patriarchal society.

Elephants

Elephants can also be found in zoos, and more readily in the wild of some countries, when they are not killed by poachers for their ivory tusks. The saying goes that “an elephant never forgets,” and they can indeed even recognize their reflection in a mirror. Elephants seem to have the same sense of family, life, and death as we humans do.

On a “Making a Difference” segment on the Nightly News, Chelsea Clinton depicted how such memory is usually a blessing, but sometimes a curse. As it is in humans, where memory is essential to our intelligence and socializing, sometimes it would be better for some memories, the more traumatic ones, to go away. Young elephants, whose mothers are murdered in front of them, have many reservations in trusting their human rescuers. But it can be done. We can learn from this, and also make up for the harm other humans have done to them.

Heroes

Somehow, all of this came together for me in a play my wife and I saw twice, Heroes. Translated by Tom Stoppard, it depicts three aging men in a retired soldiers' home. Its original author, Grald Sibleyras, has said that the universal theme in the play may be “the universal desire to escape from the confines of your life.”

There is also a “stone” dog in the play, which moves as the men plan one last journey, trying to overcome the aftereffects of being “heroes” in the war. Gustavo, one of the men, says “never trust a man who doesn't like dogs." For a long time, I can't say that I liked dogs. I've been healed of that. There is hope for us.