24
Jul

Rosie, like a real-life Babe, ran away from an organic piggery when she was only a few days old. She was found wandering in a car park, highly agitated, by a family who took her home and made her their live-in pet. However, after three months they could no longer keep her.

She was relocated to the Sugarshine animal sanctuary, outside Lismore in New South Wales. Kelly Nelder, Sugarshine’s founder and a mental health nurse, described her as “highly strung” and “needy”. It’s not surprising that Rosie, after the loss of two primary care attachments, was unable to bond with the other pigs; she was traumatised.

animals
Photo: article supplied

I met Rosie when I visited Sugarshine, investigating the similarities between human and animal trauma. I spent 20 years as a clinical and forensic psychologist, but as an undergraduate I studied zoology.

My zoology lecturers told us not to anthropomorphise – that is, not to project human qualities, intentions and emotions onto the animals we studied. But now there is a growing recognition of animals’ inner life and their experience of psychopathology, including trauma.

At Sugarshine, traumatised animals are given freedom to find solitude or company as they wish. Interspecies relationships are encouraged, like a baby goat being cared for by a male adult pig, or a rooster who sleeps alongside a goat.

Rosie has been at Sugarshine for a few months now and is more settled, roaming its gullies, farmyards and shelters, although according to Kelly she’s still anxious. She prefers the company of the bobby calves, wedging herself between them as they lie on the ground, getting skin-to-skin contact, falling asleep, and beginning the reattachment process.

Understanding trauma in animals

I first made the connection between human and animal trauma on a visit to Possumwood Wildlife, a centre outside Canberra that rehabilitates injured kangaroos and abandoned joeys, wallabies and wombats. There I met its founders, economics professor Steve Garlick and his partner Dr Rosemary Austen, a GP.

When joeys were first brought into their care, Steve told me, they were “inconsolable” and “dying in our arms”, even while physically unharmed, with food and shelter available to them.

But this response made sense once they recognised the joey’s symptoms as reminiscent of post-traumatic stress disorder in humans: intrusive symptoms, avoidant behaviour, disturbed emotional states, heightened anxiety and hypervigilance.

Researchers at the University of Western Australia have developed non-invasive means for measuring stress and mood in animals and are now working with sheep farmers to improve the well-being of their animals. PTSD has been identified in elephants, dogs, chimpanzees and baboons, for example.

This article was originally published by The Conversation.

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