On a warm May afternoon in 2003, a little boy I’d never met was doing his homework in the sunroom off his family’s kitchen in Mount Pleasant, a leafy neighborhood in Washington, D.C. The back of our apartment building faced the boy’s house, and as he worked, he looked out to the row of urban yards along the alley, separated by chain link or small planks of sagging wooden fencing. He happened to look up that Saturday just as Oliver, our dark-eyed Bernese Mountain Dog, jumped through the kitchen window of our fourth-floor apartment.
No one had seen Oliver at the window, even though it must have taken him a long time to push the air-conditioning unit out of the way and rip a hole through the wire mesh of the screen that was big enough for his 120-pound body to fit through. The pet sitter that we’d left him with had gone to the farmer’s market, leaving Oliver by himself for two hours. He must have begun to slash and chew through the screen as soon as he realized he was alone. Once he made the hole large enough, Oliver hauled himself through the opening, more than 50 feet above the ground.
“Mom!” the boy screamed. “A dog fell out of the sky!”
Later the boy’s mom would tell us that she thought her son was making up a story, but there was fear in his voice that made her think otherwise. They found Oliver in the backyard of our building. He’d landed inside the cement stairwell of the basement apartment.
I’ll never forget the phone call that followed. I was clutching a gin and tonic and had, until that moment, been worrying about underarm stains on my new chiffon dress. Jude was drinking a beer and sweating through the knees of his pants. We were milling about, uncomfortable in the heat, at a wedding reception for one of Jude’s cousins in South Carolina. The wait staff had just announced the opening of the buffet when his cell phone rang.
The woman told us that she found Oliver lying in a heap. When he noticed her and her son pushing the backyard gate open, he’d tried to get up, wagging his tail weakly. Oliver’s lips and gums were bloody and raw from gnawing at the metal screen, and he couldn’t walk. The mother and son carried him to their car and rushed to the local animal hospital. In order to begin treatment the hospital required a $600 deposit; the woman gave them a check and then drove home to knock on the doors of our building to find out who this odd, broken dog belonged to.
“The vets didn’t know the extent of his injuries when I left him,” she told Jude and me when she reached us at the wedding, “but they did say that they’d never seen a dog survive a fall like this.”
Overwhelmed, we thanked the woman for her generosity and hung up. I begged Jude to leave with me immediately. But it was almost evening in South Carolina and we couldn’t make the last flight out in time. So we called the animal hospital to ask for any news (there wasn’t any yet) and sat through the rest of the wedding, distracted and scared.
When I was 21 and on my way into the bathroom of a bar in upstate New York, I met Jude. We fell for each other in a way that felt like head injury — wholly and completely, with the sort of blurred vision that seemed to make anything possible. Before long we had a list of top-ten future pets. After a trip to China and Tibet, it grew to include a pair of yaks, and from the beginning I wanted to live with a capybara, but mostly we dreamt of dogs. At the very top of the wish list was a Bernese Mountain Dog. Bred to guard livestock and pull carts of cheese and milk through the Swiss Alps, Berners are handsome, broad, and regal, with an air of accessible friendship. Dog food companies know this. So do automakers. Bernese are the supermodels of the canine world, popping up in advertisements for organic kibble, paper towels, perfume, SUVs, and phone plans.
When Jude and I moved into an apartment in Washington that allowed dogs and was located just off Rock Creek Park’s pools of water and walking trails, I started looking for puppies.
In Expression 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.
I found them. But I was crushed to learn that purebred Bernese Mountain Dogs sold for nearly $2,000 each. I was working for an environmental conservation organisation at the time, and Jude, a government geologist, wasn’t earning much more than I was. We couldn’t afford a puppy that expensive, and even if we could, I couldn’t justify spending that much on a dog. So a few months went by during which we felt like perverts at the dog park — dogless people who came to look at dogs, luring other people’s pets over to be petted with clandestine pockets of treats. “Heeeeere doggie doggie.”
And then one day I received an email from a breeder I’d contacted a few months earlier. One of his adult dogs was available now, “for free!” He told me that this Berner, named Oliver, was four years old and wasn’t getting the attention he needed from his current family. He said that since Oliver was an adult dog he required slightly less exercise than a puppy and would be more easygoing. I scheduled our first meeting to take place within 24 hours. When we pulled up to the veterinary office to meet Oliver and his current family, we saw a young girl walking a gigantic dog on the clinic’s front lawn. He carried his white-tipped tail like a flag, raised high and arching over his back. His white paws were lion-like, huge and spreading, and his coat glossy and feathered like a 1970s shag. He looked happy to be walking with the small girl, and his gait was jaunty as she led him back and forth across the lawn.
When I think about it now, it’s striking how much I didn’t notice. Adopting a family pet from a veterinary office and not the family’s home was perhaps the first clue. There were many others but I was blind to all of them.
Oliver was being boarded at the vet because he wasn’t legally allowed to remain in the family’s neighborhood. He’d had an altercation with a neighbor and her dog, and they were threatening to sue. While it sounds quite serious to me now, it didn’t at the time. The mother of the family, Oliver’s primary human, explained that he’d “just gotten so excited about the neighbor’s new dog that he dashed through their electric fence to say hello.” The dogs began to fight and the woman tried to break it up with her hands. Oliver bit the woman while she was trying to separate them. I didn’t need to hear more. Everyone knows you shouldn’t break up a dogfight with your bare hands; that’s what garden hoses are for. Plus, this neighbor must have been unreasonable. Jude and I would be able to control our dog. He just needed some training.
In retrospect I know the biting story was the tip of the iceberg, or really the tip of the tail on a very large dog, but at the moment I didn’t, I couldn’t, absorb it.
What Darwin Knew
Trying to understand what was happening between Oliver’s furry ears while he savaged our towels or yowled alone at the window was confusing. In many ways, attempting to understand the relationship between what animals are thinking and what they are doing always has been.
In 1649 the French philosopher René Descartes argued that animals were automatons, lacking in feeling and self-awareness and operated unconsciously, like living machines. For Descartes and many other philosophers, capacities for self-consciousness and feeling were the sole province of humanity, the rational and moral tethers that tied humans to God and proved we were made in his image. This idea of animals as machines proved to be sturdy and enduring, revisited time and again for hundreds of years to prop up arguments for humanity’s superior intelligence, reasoning, morality, and more. Well into the 20th century, identifying humanlike emotions or consciousness in other animals tended to be seen as childish or irrational.
The most resounding blow to this idea of human exceptionalism, at least in Western scientific circles, was delivered by Charles Darwin, first in On the Origin of Species, then in Descent of Man, and quite richly detailed in On the Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1872. Expression was one of Darwin’s last published arguments in support of his larger theory that humans were just another kind of animal. He believed that the similar emotional experiences of people and other creatures were additional proof that we shared animal ancestors.
In Expression 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.
“Not far from my house,” he wrote, “a path branches off to the right, leading to the hot-house, which I used often to visit for a few moments, to look at my experimental plants. This was always a great disappointment to the dog, as he did not know whether I should continue my walk; and the instantaneous and complete change of expression which came over him, as soon as my body swerved in the least towards the path (and I sometimes tried this as an experiment) was laughable. His look of dejection was known to every member of the family and was called his hot-house face.”
According to Darwin this doggish disappointment was unmistakable — his head would droop, his “whole body sinking a little and remaining motionless; the ears and tail falling suddenly down, but the tail was by no means wagged. . . . His aspect was that of piteous, hopeless dejection.” And yet, “hot-house face” was really only the beginning for Darwin.
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.”
It wasn’t until he published a revised edition of Descent of Man in 1874 that Darwin opined on insanity in other animals directly. He wrote:
“Man and the higher animals especially the Primates, have some few instincts in common. All have the same senses, intuitions, and sensations — similar passions, affections and emotions, even the more complex ones, such as jealousy, suspicion, emulation, gratitude, and magnanimity; they practise deceit and are revengeful; they are sometimes susceptible to ridicule, and even have a sense of humour; they feel wonder and curiosity; they possess the same faculties of imitation, attention, deliberation, choice, memory, imagination, the association of ideas, and reason, though in very different degrees. The individuals of the same species graduate in intellect from absolute imbecility to high excellence. They are also liable to insanity, though far less often than in the case of man.”
Darwin doesn’t seem to have done any original research on the topic; instead he cites William Lauder Lindsay, a Scottish physician and natural historian who believed nonhuman animals could lose their minds. In a paper Lindsay published in 1871 in the Journal of Mental Science, he wrote, “I hope to prove that, both in its normal and abnormal operations, mind is essentially the same in man and other animals.”
Lindsay knew a fair bit about both, particularly the human insane. He’d been appointed medical officer to Murray’s Royal Institution for the Insane at Perth in 1854 and held the job for 25 years. Meanwhile he kept up with his botanical interests, publishing a popular book on British lichen in 1870, and like Darwin, he was a member of the Royal Society, which awarded him a medal for “eminence in natural history.” Lindsay combined his interest in natural history and his experience treating the mentally ill in a two-volume masterwork published in 1880 titled Mind in the Lower Animals. It covered morality and religion, language, the mental condition of children and “savages,” and more. But it is the second volume, Mind in Disease, that is truly remarkable.
Like Darwin, Lindsay believed that the minds of insane people, criminals, non-Europeans, and animals were similar. Insane people could be recognized by “their use of teeth for vicious biting” and their “filthy habits.” Lindsay wrote that many of these insane people “‘eat and drink like beasts,’ tearing raw flesh and lapping water; they bolt their food and gorge themselves as certain carnivora do.” He also believed many preferred to spend time with other animals instead of people, acquiring something like animal language that allowed them to communicate with their nonhuman companions. Lindsay noted that an Italian “idiot” known as the Bird Man would leap on one leg, stretch his arms out like wings, and hide his head in his armpit. He also chirped when frightened or at the sight of strangers. Lindsay also wrote about feral children like the Wolf Children of India, said to be raised by wolves. He classified them as a subtype of lunatic that walked on all fours, climbed trees, prowled around at night, lapped water like oxen, smelled food before eating it, gnawed on bones, refused clothing, and had no language, sense of shame, or ability to smile. Like generations of physicians before him, Lindsay understood his patients by analogy to other animals.
Excerpted from ‘Animal Madness’ by Laurel Braitman, published by Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt Ltd., New Delhi, 2015.