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Understanding similarities in animals, humans

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The most remarkable thing about this study of the similarities between human and animal emotions is the authors' inquiry into the steadfast barrier that sets humans far apart and above all other animals.

Why this destructive wall persists and how to get past it: these are the underlying questions driving each lively, enthralling chapter of Zoobiquity.

Co-written by American cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and journalist Kathryn Bowers, the book carries a blurb by the American animal scientist and slaughterhouse designer Temple Grandin.

When Grandin was flown into Manitoba in April to audit the Maple Leaf pork operations, she also lectured on her expertise with animal handling.

Speaking to a packed house in a Winnipeg hotel, Grandin addressed the topic of emotions, arguing that other animals have feelings too.

In the transformation of animals into slabs of meat, she contended, it is important to realize that they experience fear. Nothing like tormented lab rats to drive that point home.

Seriously, people -- she urged with frustration in her voice -- when shooting a horse, you have to aim that rifle correctly and provide the freaked-out beast with some non-slip flooring. The gourmands expect nothing less.

It is truly baffling that it's the 21st century and we're still wondering whether or not other animals possess feelings and complex inner lives.

"Zoobiquity" is a rather fancy word to describe the knowledge gained by a collaborative approach between human and veterinary medicine, one framed specifically by evolutionary theory.

It's a bit unnecessary, given that "comparative" might have worked just as well in most cases, and it comes across as a kind of territorial marking: i.e. if you link veterinary and human medicine, then you're doing zoobiquity, and we thought of it first.

This is a minor quibble, though, for the book is tremendously interesting and beautifully written. It manages to be at once entertaining and respectful of the reader's intelligence, never dumbing-down medical information and managing to make the fossil record speak to contemporary human ailments.

The chapters cover interesting problems -- such as eating disorders and self-mutilation -- across the human and animal kingdoms, and they follow Natterson-Horowitz's own sense of discovery and surprise at her findings.

As her brilliant chapters on obesity and fear demonstrate, we all get fat in similar ways (from humans to whales to maybe even dragonflies) and we are all frightened by most of the same things (sudden noises, earthquakes) -- but we don't share everything.

It's navigating this line between sameness and difference that makes the book so compelling.

For example, she explores grooming rituals among fish in what she calls aquatic "safe zones" and links this behavior to human barbershops as places of calmness in rough areas of town. But she never overstates her case.

Her observations are offered up as food for thought, backed up with facts about how grooming alters neurochemistry and works in favour of evolutionary success.

Everything is told from Natterson-Horowitz's point of view, the anecdotes unfolding through her sense of wonder at the encounters between veterinary medicine and her own areas of specialization in cardiac surgery and psychiatric medicine.

She often looks back on her own career, humbly regretting that some of her diagnoses of humans with broken hearts and minds would have been better explained by a veterinarian's understanding of boredom or fear in zoo animals.

Having enlisted Bowers -- a former staff editor at The Atlantic magazine and producer at CNN -- to assist her, she makes sure her surgical knowledge is cast through a brilliant sense of pacing and turns of phrase.

The physician is the heroine of this narrative, but the journalist is making sure we're with her, every step of the way.


Dana Medoro is an English professor at the University of Manitoba and a board member of the Winnipeg Humane Society.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 14, 2012 J8

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