Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Taking Care of Multiple Animals Helps us Take Care of Human Animals

Because it turns out, some of the best and most humanistic medicine is being practiced by doctors whose patients aren't human. And one of the best ways we can take care of the human patient is by paying close attention to how all the other patients on the planet live, grow, get sick and heal. - Barbara Natterson-Horowitz

From multiple locations across the internet I received a link to this TED talk by human cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz.  She "shares how a species-spanning approach to health can improve medical care of the human animal — particularly when it comes to mental health." As a veterinarian myself, and as a Unitarian Universalist minister and facilitator to the First Principle Project I share the same approach as hers, and in fact, always have.  I do not see a fundamental divide between any two species, and to place humans in a category above or by ourselves limits the benefit possible to ourselves and others.  These benefits include physical, mental, and spiritual health, ecosystem health, welfare of the multiple species within our communities, and for us humans, a sense of belonging and wholeness.  Seeing the inherent worth and dignity of every being opens up a world of possibility and wonder, and of care for all. 

One of her most compelling observations in this video follows in the quote below, and I invite you to ask yourself a similar question:

How might I be taking better care of humans if I see them as a human animal?

and also

How might I be taking better care of many species if I see our species as a human animal?

I'd love to hear your reflections on this question, as well as the video (you can read the transcript here).  Your comments can be written below.

I'd enjoy hearing your thoughts and reflections, because it would be lovely to travel with you on this fascinating journey of being alive amongst such diversity and preciousnous, On our way together I believe we Unitarian Universalists will come to hear how all are called to multispecies ministry and medicine, or said another way, to the caring and healing of many species.

Rev. Dr. LoraKim Joyner 

Physicians and scientists, we accept intellectually that our species, Homo sapiens, is merely one species, no more unique or special than any other. But in our hearts, we don't completely believe that. I feel it myself when I'm listening to Mozart or looking at pictures of the Mars Rover on my MacBook. I feel that tug of human exceptionalism, even as I recognize the scientifically isolating cost of seeing ourselves as a superior species, apart. Well, I'm trying these days. When I see a human patient now, I always ask, what do the animal doctors know about this problem that I don't know? And, might I be taking better care of my human patient if I saw them as a human animal patient?


  1. Dear LoraKim,

    Thank you for sharing this TED talk by Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz. I can understand why you especially, as a veterinarian, appreciate her message about the benefit of a species-spanning approach to medicine! But frankly, I was sad that she seems oblivious to the possibility that our species' exploitation of other species could be the root cause of much of the suffering she mentions in her talk.

    After viewing the video, I was moved to write the following letter:

    Dear Dr. Natterson-Horowitz,

    Thank you for sharing your perspective on how human well-being can be improved by insights into animal health. I particularly appreciated your thoughtful remarks about how physicians and scientists may still feel "that tug of human exceptionalism," even as they intellectually accept humanity's place along with all our animal kin in life's great family tree.

    The thing I found troubling is that at no point during this talk did you raise any question about the ethics of the situations in which you find your animal patients. Most of them, it seems, are animals in zoos. Of the diseases and psychiatric syndromes that you listed, I can't help but wonder how many of these afflictions might be directly caused by the fact that your animal patients are not free, but are instead living in captivity, in a setting which may not replicate their natural habitat, and which may interfere with natural diet and activity?

    If I learn from a friend that a human member of their family has developed type 2 diabetes, I'm filled with dismay, because I know this disease is completely preventable. Should we not feel the same way at hearing that captive animals are being diagnosed with this disease—utterly dismayed? What has gone wrong with their diet quality and activity levels, that they are developing this condition? Has any veterinary professional ever observed diabetes in a free-living animal?

    As for the depression, anxiety, compulsions, eating disorders, and self-injury you mention, well, I'd be shocked if creatures in captivity *didn't* suffer from these problems.

    At 5:56, it concerned me greatly to hear you say, "…and animal patients, who are living in oceans and farms and jungles." Oceans AND FARMS and jungles? With this phrase, you have lumped together free-living ocean- and jungle-dwelling animals with the captives of the human-made system we call "animal agriculture." The difference between the circumstances of wildlife and farmed animals is profound, but our cultural conditioning blocks awareness of this fact. In this single phrase—"oceans and farms and jungles"—I'm afraid you have illustrated the effects of this cultural conditioning.

    Reality is that humans have subjected farmed animals to intense artificial genetic selection for traits which produce cheaper meat/milk/eggs, traits which are not advantageous to the animals themselves—quite to the contrary, actually. Accelerated growth rates and increased "yields" cause pain and misery in these animals—animals whom you grouped together with the wild creatures who are born free, creatures who are exquisitely suited to their environment thanks to natural selection, and whose lives and reproduction and family structure can be their own, without human interference.

    It's not our fault that cultural conditioning blocks our awareness, but this is why most doctors (physicians as well as vets) don't think twice about the practice of showcasing animals in zoos and aquariums, or the practice of breeding and killing animals for food. I am hopeful that as more of us become aware of these issues, the tide will turn. I hope that we humans, creatures of conscience as we are, will look more critically at these customs and industries, and start to rethink our treatment of other species. May we narrow the gap between our words and deeds, and bring our actions more in line with our deepest values of peace and justice, kindness and mercy.

    -Jennifer Greene

  2. A few postscripts:
    - I did not actually send this letter to Dr. Natterson-Horowitz. I needed to vent my frustration, and I did so in the form of this letter to her. But should I post this to the comments on the TED talk? I'm not sure.
    - About zoos: I realize that some modern-day zookeeping is defended as serving the interest of species preservation. But when members of non-endangered species are kept in zoos, then is there any meaningful difference between that, and a circus which features animal acts?
    - Where I wrote, "wild creatures...whose lives and reproduction and family structure can be their own, without human interference," I meant to emphasize the word *can*. Free-living creatures most certainly do experience human interference—as people hunt and trap and kill them, or encroach on and eliminate wilderness or pollute waters (which are their habitats and migration routes), and climate change is yet another kind of human interference affecting animal species everywhere.

    -Jennifer Greene


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