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Biology 202
2002 Third Paper
On Serendip

Animals as agents of socialization and their involvement with the mentally "unhealthy"

elizabeth martin

It has been three hundred years since 1699, when John Locke first advocated giving children, "dogs, squirrels, birds or any such things to look after" in order to encourage them to develop "tender feelings and a sense of responsibility for others." (1) In the 1700's, the idea was just developing whereby "nurturing relationships with animals could serve a socializing function, especially for children." (1) Many 18th C. reformers believed that children could learn to "reflect on, and control, their own innately beast-like characteristics through the act of caring for and controlling real animals." (1) It was also at this time that theories, which had been focused on the "socializing influence" of animals, began to focus on animals as treatments for mental illness.

An early experiment at the York retreat, a mental institution in England, allowed patients to freely wander the grounds. The courtyards of the retreat "were supplied with a number of animals; such as rabbits, sea-gulls, hawks and poultry." (1) It was believed that these creatures would be comfortable for the residents to be around and interactions with the animals would "tend to awaken social and benevolent feelings." (1)

"During the 19th C., pet animals became increasingly common features of mental institutions in England and elsewhere." (1) In a report about the deplorable conditions of the Bethlehem Hospital in the 1830's, the British Charity Commission suggested, "that the grounds of the lunatic asylum 'be stocked with sheep, hares, a monkey, or some other domestic or social animals' to create a more pleasing and less-prison like atmosphere." (1) Thirty years later and both the men and women's wards at Bethlehem Hospital are stocked with animals. "Some patients pace the long gallery incessantly, pouring out their woes to those who listen to them, or, if there be none to listen, to the dogs and cats." (1)

The beneficial effects of animal companionship also appear to have been recognized as serving a therapeutic role in the treatment of physical ailments during this period. Florence Nightingale wrote, "a small pet is often than excellent companion for the sick, for the long chronic cases especially." (1) As usual, though, "progress" sloughed off the peripheral contributors to society as it plowed ahead into the advent of modern medicine. The increased obsession with cleanliness and germs "eliminated animals from hospital settings by the early decades of the 20th C." (1)

Sigmund Freud was concerned with the origin of neurosis and often expressed Hobbesian ideas about "mankind's inherent beast-like nature." (1) The term "animal-like qualities" refers to "being ruled by instinctive cravings or impulses organized around basic biological functions such as eating, excreting, sexuality, and self-preservation." (1) Freud said, "as children mature, their adult caretakers tame or socialize them by instilling fear or guilt whenever the child acts too impulsively in response to these inner drives. Children, in turn, respond to this external pressure to conform by repressing these urges from consciousness." Mental illness results, or so Freud maintained, "when these bottled up animal drives find no healthy or creative outlet in later life, and erupt uncontrollably in consciousness." (1) Were the mentally ill driven to be the way they were? And if they were, was it treatable?

Boris Levinson, the founder of pet facilitated therapy, wrote "one of the chief reasons for man's present difficulties is his inability to come to terms with his inner self and to harmonize his culture with his membership in the world of nature. Rational man has become alienated from himself by refusing to face his irrational self, his own past as personified by animals." (1) Levinson believed that man's inability to integrate his relationship to nature within the context of his culture has led to a difficult existence. The very aspect of human life that separates us from the animals, culture, is the very aspect that keeps us from realizing our own potential. Culture acts as a barrier to a natural existence, and functioning within these constrictions becomes difficult.

Levinson suggests that to combat the alienation, to harmonize, we must "restore a healing connection with our own, unconscious animal natures by establishing positive relationship with real animals, such as dogs, cats, and other pets." (1) He considers animals to be mediators and mile markers on the road to emotional well-being. It follows suit that if "our relations with animals played a prominent role in human evolution, so that they have now become integral to our psychological well-being," then it is logical to see "animals as allies, to reinforce our inner selves." (1) Animals are more connected to the human condition than previously believed, a phenomenon, which has begun to be documented in the field and literature of human-animal interactions. "During the last 20 years, the theoretical emphasis has shifted away from these relatively metaphysical ideas about animals as psycho-spiritual mediators, toward more prosaic, scientifically "respectable" explanations for the apparent therapeutic benefits of animal companionship." (1)

The research projects supporting this changing viewpoint showed there was a lot of significance to and variety in the types of roles animals played in human health. For example, in 1995, Dr. Karen Allen, a prominent contributor to the field of animal related health, found that disabled people who used service dogs "scored higher for psychological well-being, self-esteem, community integration and the amount of control they could exert over their environment" than those who do not use animals. (2) It seemed that the "concept of pets serving as sources of social support" offered an explanation for the more long term benefits of animal companionship;" (1) "social support" being defined as "information leading the subject to believe that he is cared for and loved, esteemed and a member of a network of mutual obligations." (1)

Dr. James L Lynch, another researcher in the field, was interested in "the medical consequences of loneliness," and how loneliness had emerged "as one of the single most important contributors to premature death in America." (3) Single people who live alone "had death rates from all causes that ranged anywhere from 2 to 10 times greater than the rates of those who were married." (3) There was also a very strong correlation of loneliness as a "major contributor to heart disease." (3) In research conducted with Dr. Aaron Katcher, the two men uncovered the "powerful influence that pet animals had on the long-term survival of heart patients." (3) They found that those heart patients who had pets "had a better change of living than those who did not have pets." (3)

They were stumped on how to understand this, when, in 1978, they obtained one of the first devices that could measure heart rate and blood pressure automatically, without the silence previously needed when measuring them. They found that whenever a person began to talk, "there was an immediate increase in blood pressure," and when they were quiet, it immediately reduced again. (3)This appeared to contradict the previous findings that loneliness contributed to premature death through increasing heart disease. A lonely person would theoretically talk less, thus not increasing their heart rate the way a person who talked to people would have. It was only through more research that they revised their theory, stating, "Those who found communicating the most difficult (as measured in pressure surges) were also most likely to withdraw from communication and social interactions and end up in a vicious, downwardly spiraling cycle of events," ending in premature death. (3)Animals, as a means to lower blood pressure and heart rate, not only act on physiologically to maintain health, but they also act as buffers against loneliness. They offer the often-mentioned unconditional love and devotion, which doesn't require quite the same maintenance and energy that a human relationship does. They also don't require the same amount of verbal communication that humans require, thus cutting back on talking-related blood pressure increases.

Since research had been dominated by studies on the elderly, everything revolved around sickness and aging, only giving a fragment of the effects of animals. Researchers decided to study children, so they focused on kids reading aloud in the presence of an animal. This provided similar aspects to the other studies, such as the talking, as well as the presence of the animal. "The presence of a pet dog resulted in lower blood pressure and heart rates, both when the children were quiet as well as when they read a book aloud." (3) These studies support the idea that pets are therapeutic. Their presence leads to lowered heart rates and blood pressures, even when people perform tasks that are shown to increase them both. Congruously, a study performed at the Johns Hopkins Medical School showed that dogs' blood pressure also decreased significantly when being pet by humans.

Animals and humans react to each other in these contexts in therapeutic and beneficial ways. We can profoundly impact our physiological health as well as our mental health by interacting with animals and nature. By separating ourselves from nature, we are punishing not just our physical health but our psyches as well. Humans are social creatures, and yet we still try to distinguish ourselves from the animals. Loneliness is not just the absence of "social support," (1)it is also the absence of physical contact. Since time immemorial, societies have used "solitary confinement, exile, and social ostracism as methods of punishment." (1)Animals can ameliorate our physical loneliness and physiological stress. They can provide us with a lens through which we can examine ourselves within the context of the big picture. They remind us that it's not less-than-human to be an animal.


1) Serpell, James. "Animal Companions and Human Well-Being: A Historical Exploration of the Value of Human-Animal Relationships." From Handbook on Animal Assisted Therapy: Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines for Practice. 2000. Academic Press.

2)"Health Benefits of Animals", good site, although it is biased towards several main authors' take on animal assisted therapy, which I've only realized through more extensive research and interviews on this topic.

3)"Developing a Physiology of Inclusion: Recognizing the Health Benefits of Animal Companions." , neat article about author's experience with animal influence to human health

4)life care web page, Offers more detailed references to health related studies involving animals.

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