Mystery of the animal-human bond

Today, I’m musing about the mystery of the animal-human bond. I’m considering two questions in particular; “Do animals help us discover who we are?” “Are our fur-bearing friends picking up on Today’s everywhere-all-the-time anxiety and fear?”

After a lifetime of animal stories—my own and those of others—something Bill Lipschultz said to me over our recent breakfast together, something in Bill’s tale about his dog Lilly watching him caused an “Ah Ha!” in my mind. Some say THE task in life is to discover and then to be who we are. Could it be that an ever-observant dog, cat, bird, horse or some other animal might know us better than we know ourselves? Is one of the many gifts we get from furry companions assistance with this task of self-discovery?

Sophie (pictured right) is a 12-year-old Airedale Terrier. From what we know, Sophie spent the first 8 years of her life living outdoors, whelping litter after litter of purebred puppies. Nancy obtained Sophie through Airedale Rescue Sophie has blossomed under Nancy’s care. While Airedales are of their own mind (read, “they may or may not do what you ask them to do”), a smiling-Sophie will now come bounding (depending on the circumstances, of course) when called. After years of patience, love, and many deposits in the trust account, this former 4-legged puppy mill is now a most-of-the-time calm and contented housedog. During winters these days, Sophie spends most of her time indoors. At night, she enjoys a cozy dog bed that has a layer of special orthopedic foam for her arthritic hips. Now that the days are nice, Sophie has returned to her preference; finding an overlook out in, and surveying over, nature. We describe Sophie as “The Queen”, i.e. she is given lots of freedoms (read “Sophie gets to do just about anything she wants to do”).

The other day, I was about to drive my truck to the MCC Inc. New London quarry. Always-jazzed Jack (our wired, also-rescued, three-legged Wire Hair Fox Terrier—quite another story in himself) was psyched! Certainly Happy Jack was going to join me for this adventure! Then, out of the woods, comes Sophie, shaking off the dead leaves that line the hole in which she burrows and basks. Sophie has been watching me. Sophie knows me. While she can’t talk, Sophie has managed to give anyone who will listen the clear message that she thinks and resents that I favor Jack. I’m serious. Sophie contends, in Pete’s world, ‘It’s all about Jack.” Without hesitating, I hoisted The Queen into my truck. She jammed her nose in the crack of the open back window. Off the three of us went to haul stone.

A recent study has me wondering; “Is the well-documented human obesity epidemic caused by all the fear and anxiety that is all around us these days?” The increased percentage of us who are obese worldwide started over 100 years ago and has accelerated in the last half-century. While we focus on a lack of physical activity and a poor diet as the cause of this recent acceleration, scientists have determined it is not that simple. Something else is going on. Areas of study include “nutrient partitioning” and “energy metabolism” and looking for factors that influence why we don’t exercise and why we eat what we eat. I don’t need Jack (or, am I being partial here?) or Sophie to tell me I seek out sweets and fatty salty treats, when I am feeling keyed up. Recent studies have shown that I am not alone. From a publication by Drs. Adam and Epel, published in the journal Physiology & Behavior: “Evidence is accumulating rapidly that stress may play a potential role in the development of visceral obesity. … palatable food can stimulate endogenous opioid release thus attenuating the stress response. Repeated stimulation of the reward pathways through intake of highly palatable food may lead to neurobiological adaptations that promote the compulsive nature of overeating”. In other words; “We are stressed. Eating sweets and treats (desirable, “highly palatable” foods) release feel-good molecules in our brains. The more we do this, the more we will do this.”

A 2009 national survey of veterinarians by the Association for the Prevention of Pet Obesity found that 45 percent of dogs and 58 percent of cats were overweight or obese. In a study I found more interesting and is, in my humble opinion more significant, twenty thousand animals that live with or around us humans were examined. The authors concluded; “In all populations, the estimated coefficient for the trend of body weight over time was positive (i.e. increasing). The probability of all trends being in the same direction by chance is 1.2 x 10-7. Surprisingly, we find that over the past several decades, average mid-life body weights have risen among primates and rodents living in research colonies, as well as among feral rodents and domestic dogs and cats.” In other words, there is no way it is just chance that there has been a significant increase in obesity in the 20,000 animals we studied that have contact with people.

“Do animals help us discover who we are?” I say yes. As I watched my actions, darn if Sophie wasn’t right. I did (and now I working hard not to) favor Jack. “Are our fur-bearing friends picking up on Today’s everywhere-all-the-time anxiety and fear?” Science suggests so. I’ve witnessed how the love from a dog (or a cat, bird, horse or some other animal) can transform a person—that animal catalyzes a connection to love and a realization of their inborn lovability. There is an emerging recognition that human, animal, and ecosystem health are united and are inseparable. The time is now for us catalyze a loving connection to the inborn goodness of all life on this Earth. The animals are watching us.

Published in the Waupaca County Post East newspaper, 6/16/11.


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