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Local Author Laurel Braitman Talks Animal Insanity, Her New Book, and SF

Bay Area local and author of the new book, Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves, Laurel Braitman spills about her research, odd animals, and her go-to San Francisco haunts.

Smart, funny, and delightful, Braitman can get you laughing when she explains that the movie Marley & Me was less than shocking after her experience with her anxiety-ridden Bernese Mountain dog. Her new book, which hits shelves Tuesday, June 10, investigates “insane” animal behavior, a topic that may not be surprising for someone who lives near a city that has more dogs than children.

Lookout for Braitman in San Francisco promoting her new book, and meet the author at a special event August 10 at the Headlands Center for the Arts where Braitman will lead an amusing evening for both humans and non-humans alike. Highlights of the night will include behind-the-scenes footage of a private rock concert performed for animals, learning to do “near-life” drawings of taxidermy with Tara Tucker, and a fittingly vegetarian meal.

AM: Anthropomorphism isn’t taken very seriously in science, but you challenge this in your new book. Why do you think scientists still shy away from this?

LB: I think the idea about anthropomorphism in science is changing, though most scientists won’t say that. Scientists want to be objective in their research, but you can’t be objective. We are always using our experiences and our own emotional range to understand why animals are doing what they’re doing. We do this when interacting with other humans too.

Part of your inspiration for researching animal insanity was your own dog, Oliver. What exactly sparked your curiosity about his behavior?

He really humbled me on a spectacular scale. The most shocking thing that happened was when he chewed a hole in the window screen, pushed out our air conditioning unit, and jumped out the window, falling 50 feet to the cement ground. We had to figure out how to live with this dog. My decision to try to understand Oliver wasn’t an intellectual one. It was “how do we leave the dog alone without the house getting destroyed?”

What is one of the most interesting cases of insane behavior in animals that you found?

I find them all interesting. I am always more interested in complicated animals, which includes humans. You learn more about yourself. It’s the human experience of it. You learn the most from the most difficult, whether that be from elephants, parrots, or men. 

Ha! You talk about animals as individuals in your book—they have personalities. Can you give us some examples you’ve witnessed?

I was in Baan Ta Klang in Northern Thailand with these men who help elephants recover from traumatic experiences. We would probably call them “elephant whisperers” here. There was this elephant, Mae Bua, who was known for her kind and nurturing nature. They brought this abusive elephant mother and her calf to live with Mae Bua to teach this other elephant how to be a mother. It had never occurred to me that an animal could be abusive to its baby.

I never would have thought that!

See that’s where we do an injustice to other animals. In Thailand the elephants are working elephants but tourists will run up to them and pet them and touch their trunks. They don’t realize that elephants are complicated and dangerous. They aren’t Dumbo.

One way you seem to tackle the idea of animals as individuals is by playing music for them in zoos. What was the result?

I wanted to see what it meant to entertain an animal that is usually the entertainer. With music it helps show the animals individuality. People have musical preference, why can’t horses or dogs have different musical tastes? It’s a challenge for musicians to play music for a non-human animal. Sometimes the animals like it and sometimes it’s like an open-mic out there.

What are some of your favorite spots to escape to in San Francisco when you need a break from research?

Oddball Cinema in the Mission for their Thursday or Friday screenings. The Tenderloin National Forest. It’s a weird area of urban nature. Or the deck of my house in Sausalito.

Favorite spot to observe animals in the city:

The raccoons in the parking lot at the Palace of Fine Arts. There are a massive amount of raccoons that go there. And I just have a soft spot for raccoons.

See Braitman Sunday, August 10, 4:30pm at Headlands Center for the Arts