ZOOBIQUITY: WHAT ANIMALS CAN TEACH US ABOUT HEALTH
AND THE SCIENCE OF HEALING
By Barbara Natterson-Horowitz M.D. and Kathryn Bowers
Knopf, $26.95; 308 pp.
TAMING ME: MEMOIR
OF A CLEVER ISLAND CAT
By Cathy Unruh
Collage Books, $19.95; 207 pp.
Less than a century and a half ago, doctors cared for both human and animal patients. Most of their work was palliative because the germ theory had yet to be elaborated. In the late 19th century, the advent of modern biological sciences and the exaltation of human reason over animal instinct split physicians from veterinarians. Now the unraveling of DNA and the sequencing of genomes demonstrate the close kinship of all animals: for every human disease, an animal correlate exists.
“Zoobiquity” is the name Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers give to the “fusion of veterinary, human, and evolutionary medicine” offering the prospect of new comprehension and cures. Natterson-Horowitz is a cardiology professor at the UCLA School of Medicine and a vascular consultant to the Los Angeles Zoo. Bowers is a science writer who teaches medical narrative at UCLA. Every page of their book fascinates and compels revision of accepted opinion.
Fainting, “vasovagal syncope,” is a common human condition; under the term “alarm bradycardia,” it is a defense mechanism in animals. Cancer is a terrible affliction for humans; animals suffer from nearly identical forms, especially prostate, bone and breast cancers: the fossil remains of a Jurassic dinosaur indicate the presence of a brain cancer. Humans and animals share remarkably similar STDs — sexually transmitted diseases: chlamydia runs rampant among Australia’s koalas. Humans are adept at indicating sexual receptivity; in animals, the behavior is called “lordosis.” Both humans and animals share a propensity for addiction to intoxicating substances, to obesity, and to self-injury.
In 1999, Tracey McNamara, a veterinarian at the Bronx Zoo, discovered the link between dead birds and seriously ill humans, the presence of West Nile virus. The physicians at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initially dismissed her work because she was a veterinarian. After recognizing their error, the CDC established a new department, “Zoonotic, Vector-Borne, and Enteric Diseases,” placing a veterinarian at its head. The threat of new pandemic diseases involving links between humans and animals — such as “bird-flu” and hantavirus — is now regarded as a critical danger.
Another proof of the connection between humans and animals is Taming Me: Memoir of a Clever Island Cat. Some 50 miles off the Florida coast on a private Bahamian island, residents trap and spay feral cats. When one of them, barely more than a kitten, is too small and sickly for release, a big-hearted couple take her in, calling her Lucy Miracle. She has dark fur outlining her eyes, a sand dollar mark on her cheek, and an attitude. Ever so slowly she loses that wildness. She tells her own story in this charming feline account. Anyone who has ever loved a cat will appreciate Lucy’s attempts to comprehend: “My new human name and collar mean that I have a home here, with its shelter and food.” And her exasperation with humans: “She’s not taming me! I’m deciding to make friends.” Eventually, she muses, “if only … the other island cats knew how easy it is to train humans.” And of Cathy Unruh, who wrote down this memoir, “She tells me that my book will fetch human money, and that we will use some of it to help other animals.” What a good reason to buy their book.