“They show us what’s missing in our lives, and how to love ourselves completely and unconditionally. They connect us back to who we are, and to the purpose of why we’re here.”- Trisha McCagh
For most of mankind’s history, humans have had an intimate connection with animals. Humans lived with animals, relied on animals for food, power, warmth, and fuel. The human species would never have survived and thrived without a mutual coexistence with animals. Prior to the early 20th century, human existence was intertwined with those of animals. It is only in the last hundred years that we have become disconnected from the animal world. While modern man, in his arrogance, considers this to be “progress,” it is actually quite the opposite. There are lots of health and wellness benefits that have been lost by distancing ourselves from the rest of planet Earth’s creatures.
Humans and animals share humans and animals share a mutual history. Humans would not have survived without this relationship between man and beast. For thousands of years humans have relied on animals for food, clothing, tools, fuel, guidance, comfort, and emotional support. This relationship has not always been mutually beneficial, nor could it be. The reality of nature is that life consumes life, with most animals eating the flesh of lesser creatures. Primitive man would not have developed the brain capacity required for survival without the benefits of consuming animal protein. During the Neolithic Age, man learned to domesticate animals, use fire to make animal flesh more palatable, and reaped the benefits of greater brain capacity and intellectual development from the consumption of a consistent source of protein. Without our brains and intelligence, we humans are merely ill prepared primates with little hope of survival. Man’s improved brain power enabled him to harness the potential of animals by using bones for tools and weapons, the skins for clothing and building material, and dung for fuel. Animals lived intimately with man, sharing mutual living space. Animals were a part of the tribe and animals and humans shared the common experiences of birth, life, work, and ultimately, death.
The Industrial Revolution of the late 19th and early 20th century changed this. Industrial society in the last 100 years has grown distant from the animal world and is now suffering the results. Earlier generations, although intimately connected with animals, did not take them for granted nor did they personify or idealize them. There was a greater understanding of the nature of life for both humans and animals. Living among animals is a constant reminder of the rhythm of nature, the endless flow of birth, life, death, and rebirth. While this way of life may sound primitive or barbaric to those of us living in the anesthetized 21st century, it may just be a healthier, interesting, and perhaps a more spiritually connected way of living.
A recent trend in mental health treatment is the utilization of “therapy animals” as a method of connecting people to emotions, empathy, and feeling supported. Animals of all kinds of species are trained, certified, and approved as therapeutic tools for humans who are suffering. Dogs, cats, horses, ferrets, reptiles, you name it, all are providing mental health benefits for thousands of people. Here are some of the health benefits of therapy animals:
⦁ Positive interactions with pets has been proven to lower blood pressure, lower heart rates, and lessen anxiety. It can also have a positive impact on depression, post traumatic stress disorder, and virtually all types of emotional distress.
⦁ Petting and handling pets reduces stress. Physical contact in an affectionate way releases oxytocin in the human brain, a hormone that is associated with stress reduction and lower levels of cortisol. Too much cortisol not only creates stress, it also is a major factor in obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
⦁ Animal care has multiple health benefits. Animals can get you outside and make you more physically active. You may be struggling to follow a program of daily walking. Your dog is not likely to tolerate your not following through on this. In addition, the daily care required by any pet not only gives you a positive routine, but it also can be somewhat physical and provides moderate exercise.
⦁ Animals create a sense of connectedness. Being able to interact with a living thing is an essential part of emotional health. If you own a pet or farm animals, you intuitively know this. You talk to them and they, in their own way, talk back through behavior, gestures, expressions, and a host of ways. These interactions are important to our mental health.
⦁ Contact with animals improves our immune systems. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that, in the last two generations there has been an increase in common allergies among children and adolescents. While many studies cite the overuse of antibiotics and sterilization processes, there is developing research that indicates our disconnection with animals as being another possible factor. If you have pets, or even have ever visited a farm, you know that being around animals is occasionally a dirty business. Dirty, but beneficial to health.
⦁ Animal care teaches us empathy. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat animals. If you’re a dog owner, you’ve seen this repeated over and over again. In many prisons animal care is part of the rehabilitation of violent criminals. Sociopathic and criminal behavior is associated with a lack of empathy for fellow humans. Prisoners who groom and train animals develop a connection from interacting with a dependent, living being. This, for many violent offenders, is the only positive interaction they have ever had with a living creature. It can also teach them discipline, routine, and what it feels like to have someone rely on you in a positive way.
⦁ Animals remind us of the true nature of life. Most animals have a much shorter lifespan than humans. The death of a pet is a big part of many children’s development. If you remember pets that you’ve lost, or have ever gone through this process with your own children, you know how painful it is. Painful, but necessary and meaningful. Modern life has separated us from birth and death, with these incredibly meaningful events taking place away from our homes and occurring in institutions. Living with, and among, pets is a constant reminder of the cyclical nature of all life.
⦁ Animals keep us in the present moment. Mindfulness meditation is a practice that many find elusive. The goal of any type of meditation is to stay focused in the present moment. If you own a dog or cat, it’s pretty simple. Do what they do. Spend time around either of these animals for a while and you’ll understand.
⦁ Animals help fight loneliness, isolation, and fear. If you’re a pet owner, you’re never really home alone when you have a pet. Just having that cat sitting on your windowsill can be comforting. Animals can be a way of lessening the feelings of isolation that can create depression and low self-esteem.
⦁ Animals can be a vital part of a child’s education. Children who grow up on farms are more likely to have a healthier understanding of birth, life, death, and sexuality merely by living the lifestyle. There also more likely to realize that you get out of life what you put in. Children raised in this environment having intimate connection with the food that they consume in a way that is healthy. For example, many believe that hunting and procuring meat yourself is somehow “animal cruelty,” yet it is perfectly acceptable to gorge on a McDonald’s burger or chicken McNuggets that come from animals that live short and brutal lives. Like a lot of things in the 21st century, things we find distasteful are relegated to others to do. Then, there is a tendency to look down upon those that do our dirty work.
A connection to animals is an often missing element of modern life. Our distance from the rest of the Earth’s creatures is not progress, but detrimental. Finding ways to stay connected with animals is healthy and therapeutic in a multitude of ways. Consorting with animals can make you a better human being.
“Maybe it’s animalness that will make the world right again: the wisdom of elephants, the enthusiasm of canines, the grace of snakes, the mildness of anteaters. Perhaps being human needs some diluting.” ― Carol Emshwiller
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