General Human Health & Animal Protection

Loving animals is good for us

As a neurologist, I’ve long held that empathy for and connection with animals is an important part of our social development. But can being with animals actually improve our well-being?

In the 1970’s researcher Erika Friedmann and her colleagues made a startling discovery. They followed 92 patients who were discharged from a Coronary Care Unit after having a heart attack or chest pain from heart disease. Their question was how does social support affect the patients’ survival at one year after discharge? The researchers found that while only 72 percent of patients without companion animals were still alive at the end of the year, 94 percent of those with animals survived.

Independent of all other factors that were studied, the presence of companion animals significantly improved survival after a cardiac event. Even social support from humans didn’t have the large effect that animals did. This was a major finding.

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Why does the death of a gorilla hurt us so much?

No matter how slimy, how scaly, how smelly, or even how scary, animals’ lives now matter to us. Why?

Why do we care about other animals? Why do we care about beings whose lives are seemingly so removed from ours? These are questions that I have been trying to answer over the past twenty-five years, ever since I first added my voice to countless others who stood up against cruelty to animals. I added my voice when I was a teenager because I questioned the ethics of how we use animals as tools for experiments and toys for entertainment. But as I grew older, I started to realize that our lives are more intertwined with those of animals than we ever thought possible.

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5 Stories of 2014: The surprising links between human and animal protection

Here’s my list of five headline-grabbing stories in 2014 that show just how connected human health and animal protection are:

1. Chris Christie Sells Out Humans and Animals

After reports of his bridge scandal, the New Jersey Governor’s 2016 presidential ambitions took a nosedive. That’s why many see his recent veto of a bill that would have banned gestation crates as an attempt to win back influential voters. Pork industry groups — especially the Iowa-based National Pork Producers Council — opposed the bill. Christie’s veto was made as a concession to Iowa’s primary voters. But Christie sold out both animals and humans for campaign favors.

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It’s official: Animal protection IS human protection

“Animal protection is now mainstream.”

This was announced at the 5th annual Classy Awards held in San Diego this weekend. The Classy Awards Ceremony honors outstanding nonprofit programs in eight major social sectors, including animal protection, education advancement, poverty and hunger relief, environmental protection, human rights and social justice, and others. The two-day collaborative brought together hundreds of people from around the world — some from for-profit organizations, many from non-profit. What they all have in common is that the work they do is for the social good.

As a Leadership Council Member, I was proud to recognize amazing organizations trying their hardest to alleviate the suffering of animals. I was even more proud to stand there with other social organizations trying to improve the world for everyone-human and non-human.

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Chapter 1. The Welfare of Animals and It’s Relevance to Our Health

Alvin Tarlov, Director of the Texas Institute for Society and Health, explained that ‘there are five major categories of influence on health:

  1. genes and associated biology;
  2. health behaviors, such as dietary habits, tobacco, alcohol and drug use, and physical fitness;
  3. medical care and public health services;
  4. the ecology of all living things;
  5. and social and societal characteristics’.

As stated by Stephen Leeder from the Menzies Centre for Health Policy in New South Wales, Australia, ‘the new public health makes considerable reference to sociological and anthropological insights and engages with the world of human behavior … in pursuit of better health’. As a result of these insights, physicians, nurses and public health practitioners have become an integral part and are, at times, at the forefront of social change. We now understand that how we interact with and treat each other, how we view others, how we share (or do not share) our resources, how we eat, how we work, how we play, how we shelter ourselves, how we think, how we govern ourselves, how we spend money, how we relate to our environment—in short, how we live—influences our health. Despite all that we have come to understand, however, we have yet to fully appreciate one of the major categories described by Tarlov: the ecology of all living things. It is true that we study in great detail the life cycle of mosquitoes and are applying greater attention to environmental changes. But we have always overlooked (with the few exceptions described earlier), and continue to overlook, a significant facet of human existence that has prevailed since our beginning: our relationship with and treatment of other animals.

Today, food security issues, limited health care resources, unsustainable consumption patterns, environmental degradation, bioterrorism, global warming, human population growth, obesity, novel infectious diseases, world hunger and violence are now emerging as the most urgent public health issues that we face. The complexity and multifactorial roots of these issues necessitate a public health strategy that goes well beyond the health sector. We have started to do this. Due to recent and significant changes in our climate, for example, the fields of public health and medicine have begun to acknowledge that how we treat our planet affects our health. To fully tackle these urgent issues head on, we must also acknowledge that many of them are inevitably linked with how we treat other animals. It is overly simplistic and inaccurate to say that every human–animal encounter that is connected with human illness is a result of our actions or is avoidable. Yet, a significant proportion of these connections are, at least in part, a result, directly or indirectly, of our disregard for or minimization of the welfare of animals.

If public health is concerned about the public’s health, then it must address a series of issues that it has so far largely avoided—and that affect the welfare of animals. If public health is concerned with how climate change endangers human health, it should also be concerned about factory farming’s impact on global warming. If public health is concerned about the threat of new and deadly infectious diseases, it should also be concerned about the wildlife trade’s potential to unleash a pandemic worse than HIV/AIDS. If public health is concerned about limited health care resources, it should also be concerned about how a significant portion of our health care dollars is diverted into animal experiments of dubious medical value. If public health is concerned about the alarming rise in antibiotic resistance, it should also be concerned about the ubiquitous feeding of antimicrobials to animals on industrial farms. If public health is concerned about violence, it should also be concerned about the connection between violence toward animals and violence toward people. If public health is concerned about the epidemic of obesity, it should also be concerned about obesity’s connection to our unprecedented consumption of animal products. If public health is concerned about the safety of our food, it should also be concerned about factory farming’s effect not just on the safety of animal food products but also on that of our fruits and vegetables.

In short, if public health is concerned about the protection and promotion of human health, and if public health acknowledges that every other facet of human existence plays a role in our health, it must also acknowledge that how we relate to animals is a major determinant of our health. If public health is concerned about public health, we must turn our attention to the elephant (and every other animal) in the room.

Chapter 2. Victims of Abuse: Making the Connection

The following is a typical case illustrating the linkage between child abuse and animal abuse. One morning, an Atlanta contractor pulled up to a house where he was to perform some work. As he got out of his truck, he heard a dog screaming from the house next door, went over to investigate and saw through an open garage door a dog dragging his back legs and a woman standing beside him. The contractor intervened and took the dog to a veterinarian, whose suspicions about the incident were confirmed. The dog could not be saved and an autopsy revealed that the dog was paralyzed from having been beaten so badly. The incident was reported to the police. When the police went to the woman’s house to make an arrest for abusing the dog, they found a badly bruised boy. Both parents were arrested for child abuse.

Companion animals are increasingly viewed as family members with inherent worth. More than 70 per cent of US households with young children have companion animals. In one study, seven-to-ten-year-old children named on average two companion animals each when listing the ten most important individuals in their lives. When asked ‘Whom do you turn to when you are feeling sad, angry, happy or wanting to share a secret?, nearly half of the five-year-old children in another study mentioned their companion animals. Harm to companion animals can cause tremendous grief and anxiety in those who care for them. Unfortunately, their status as family member renders companion animals vulnerable to abuse, often as a means to exert control and intimidation over other humans. For example, an abusive father may hurt the family dog in order to scare his spouse or children into submission. Threats toward and actual abuse of animals in domestic violence situations occur for a variety of reasons, including:

  1. to confirm power and control over the family;
  2. to perpetuate an environment of violence and fear;
  3. to coerce the victim or prevent him or her from leaving;
  4. to force the victim into silence;
  5. to punish the victim;
  6. to further degrade the victim by forcing his or her participation in animal cruelty acts.

In a survey of 107 battered women, 47 per cent of those with companion animals reported that their abusers threatened or harmed the animals. Additionally, more than half of these women said their companion animals were important sources of emotional support and 40 per cent had delayed seeking shelter out of concern for the animals’ welfare. Once in the shelters, many of the women continued to worry about the animals’ safety. That concern is not unfounded. Several cases reveal the horrific cruelty inflicted on animals by batterers: a pet cockatiel was beheaded because he was ‘singing too much,’ a cat was hung by a leash, another cat was put into a microwave and other animals have been kicked, stabbed, shot or thrown. In another study of battered women, 71 per cent of those with animal companions reported that their partners had been violent to the animals. The women reported that their partners abused animals for revenge or to psychologically control them. Quinlisk reported findings of a survey conducted as part of a domestic violence intervention program. Of the 58 female victims of domestic violence who had companion animals, 68 per cent reported violence directed toward their companion animals. In 88 per cent of cases, the violence was committed in their presence. In 76 per cent of these cases, their children also witnessed the animal cruelty. In other cases, women reported receiving threats either to kill or give away the animals.

Chapter 7. The New Public Health

We now have a choice before us. Do we use our knowledge to continue to condemn animals to incalculable harm, in turn jeopardizing our own health, or do we use that knowledge to evolve the practice of public health and improve the welfare of all? Do we continue to ignore the sad plight of animals who are abused, traded, eaten and used for experiments and consequently ignore how their plight affects our own health, or do we use our scientific advances and knowledge to fight against abuse, protect animals and their habitats, clothe ourselves without animal skins and fur, entertain ourselves without debasing animals, and feed ourselves and produce medicines without hurting animals?

We can do all of these things today. In fact, we are at an amazing crossroads in human history. We can largely exist and, even more, exist better without compromising the welfare of animals. Curtailing our harmful practices against animals will significantly reduce a great many of the problems that currently threaten our health and welfare.

How often in life are we given the opportunity to tackle several major obstacles to both our individual and collective health—and deal with the ethical conundrum of our poor treatment of animals—with rather simple solutions? In comparison with so many other obstacles that public health faces, such as poverty, war and social inequities, the improvement of animal welfare is often a relatively easy goal to accomplish. A gesture as simple as choosing one plate of food over another can single-handedly help thwart epidemics, curtail global warming and lengthen our lives—and reduce the number of animals in factory farms. By redirecting our medical resources toward the use and development of human-based tests, we can create far more predictive testing methods and avoid significant harm to animals. Striving to minimize the harms we cause to animals does not require us to abandon our quest to further human health. Rather, our endeavor to improve human health will be substantially advanced by promoting better treatment of animals.