It seems that everywhere I look at the moment in my social media bubble there’s someone writing an article or a book on the positive effects of the natural world on human mental health. There are courses on nature and mental heath, websites on bird therapy and even opportunities for organised tree hugging with the Japanese art of ‘forest bathing’. What’s significantly lacking in my reading, though, is anything on the negative effects of humans on the mental health of animals.
Before we go any further you may need to be convinced that there’s any such thing as animal mental health. Can animals really get mental illnesses? After all, aren’t animals just pre-programmed biological machines controlled by genetic responses they can’t control? If you think that Robins are bird-brained because they will even attack a bunch of red robin breast feathers – and it isn’t even a real Robin – then you just have to look at what a UK MP did in the privacy of his publicly funded private office, when he downloaded pornography to his office computer – and see that it wasn’t even a real woman! Which one, I wonder, is the bird brain? The old argument of nature (your DNA ‘programming’ versus nurture (your life experiences) is false as it’s not possible to be alive without both. Perhaps all animals are the complex interaction between our inheritance and our experience; including humans.
Before we consider whether animals can suffer from poor mental health we have to accept that animals have minds capable of suffering mental ill health. That’s a very current debate: I’ve been fascinated by the recent UK Government panic over the bill to withdraw from the EU and the Government response to the widespread protest and their perceived reluctance to include animal sentience in UK law. In my social bubble this supports a narrative of right-wing politics being the domain of unfeeling sociopaths who not only see ‘benefit scroungers’ as being sub-human but don’t even believe animals have feelings.
Most people can clearly see that we shouldn’t mistreat animals. Anyone who mistreats an animal is the sort of person who might mistreat a human. With our pets, with domestic livestock and with captive animals in zoos and wildlife collections we have laws, professional codes of conduct and codes of ethics which deal with the appropriate treatment of animals.
Animals have thoughts and feelings; not human thoughts and feelings but animal thoughts and feelings. For mammals they are still thoughts and feelings that we can recognise and can name. If animals can think, can feel and can exhibit clear signs of distress when unable to exhibit natural behaviours, can they be mentally ill? Before you start to answer, that’s a rhetorical question and I’m going to try to answer it myself.
I want you to imagine for a moment that aliens invade Earth. Let’s assume for the moment that they are small, green and arrive in flying saucers with bad intentions. It’s a classic movie scenario. Their aim is to colonise the Earth and use it for their own purposes. They want to use the land to extract minerals which are precious to them, to farm weird alien beasts and to grow strange alien crops in our soil.
The Aliens land and immediately destroy our cities and towns and kill everyone in them using fire. They raze all buildings to the ground and begin using the materials for their own purposes. Humans, to them, are a pest species, vermin which need to be controlled, culled, managed and preferably exterminated. There’s a price on every human head, literally, as aliens are sent out to bring in heads as trophies for reward.
The human population is reduced to a tiny few, living in the remotest possible areas amongst the ruins. Even they are hunted, almost to extinction. Most humans are easy to catch and to kill as they are noisy and careless and driven by hunger and the need to meet each other. They take risks. The old and the young are easy pickings. So are the pregnant ones or the ones slowed down by being in family groups. Only a few hunted souls remain; the survivors. They are the paranoid ones. The neurotic ones. The depressed ones. The pessimistic ones. They are the ones who prepare for imminent doom, the ones who stockpile, the ones who will abandon their children at a moments notice and desert the home they have built if they perceive a threat. The ones who run at any sign of an alien. Even the shade of green of the aliens is enough to set them running or hiding. Even clouds the shape of flying saucers are capable of inducing extreme reactions from them.
Then I need you to imagine that the violent occupation, hunting, trapping and burning continues for generation after generation of humans, which is only a few alien generations because they have a much longer alien life. The human survivors, the paranoid, the violent, those haunted by bad dreams and forever restless and terrified, living naked in squalor are the only ones who have children, for generation after generation. Those children and grandchildren, and on and on for generations, will inherit the genetic trigger responses of their surviving ancestors. They will also inherit a culture of terror. They will flee at the slightest sign of the noise of aliens and live lives of paranoia and anxiety. They will forever be checking the skies and avoiding that shade of alien green or the noise of alien vehicles. They will do that because only those who did, survived.
Would you recognise the people we would become?
With the aliens came other strange multi-legged creatures which Aliens capture and keep and kill as part of their celebrations and weird ritual sacrifices. As well as these strange creatures come alien pests. These have no fear, no enemies and plenty of food now humans have been nearly eradicated.
Then, after many generations, the aliens become more settled and find the handful of humans a strange curiosity. Humans are a reminder of the ancient Earth as it was when they first colonised it. The aliens become sentimental about the ancient world before it was conquered. They have a romantic notion about how the human world was before aliens arrived. They miss all the hunting and killing and destruction. Some Aliens even feel that killing humans might have been a mistake and it’s no longer socially acceptable to have displays of human heads on their living room wall.
There’s nowhere else for them to conquer.
Then, one day, a young human child is tempted out of the family cave by hunger and takes food from an Alien. It causes a sensation. So close to a wild human! The human, let’s call him Adam, although the rich language humans used to have has been destroyed and replaced with some basic warnings and hunting calls and a few fireside myths about a golden age before the Aliens came. Adam is the talk of the aliens. A tame human! Fed by hand! Some want it killed and his home and relatives destroyed. Humans are pests and vermin, remember?
Humans become valued and prized by the aliens. They are treated as a rarity, a curiosity and trips are organised to see them, not to hunt and kill them but to photograph them and interact with them. Aliens can have greater prestige from removing their cultured food animals and crops and building imitation human villages with artificial food and clean water.
That’s our relationship with nature; and we are the alien species. We have, over centuries, killed the majority of our wildlife and with our wildlife our wilder life has disappeared with it. What is left is a sorry remnant of what it used to be. Paranoid, anxious, crippled by mistrust and ready to flee at the slightest sign of danger.
Birds don’t know what a gun is, yet all those who remain, react when a certain shape that we would recognise as human raises something we would recognise as a gun. I raise my camera to take a photograph of a Hooded Crow. It flies away.