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New research on PTSD in elephants and other animals (cbc.ca)
73 points by pseudolus 72 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 34 comments

My girlfriend and I are currently fostering two pigeons (pet pigeons, hatched from other pet pigeons) who were abused by the children of their prior owners (they shot the pigeons with BBs and broke one's wing). It's obvious that they suffer PTSD and they are afraid of people now, much more than other pigeons we've fostered.

How does one distinguish a legitimate acquired fear of some things vs PTSD? I am prone to feeling anxious in social situations, but I doubt that counts as PTSD.

If the two pigeons had seen people humans be bad to them, it would imo be a natural response to be fearful of humans.

I am not trying to diminish the idea that animals have PTSD. I think it is only natural to imagine they do and so I find the title weird - it should rather be a confirmation of what should be a normal thing to assume.

I just want to know how one could distinguish between acquired justifiable fear and PTSD.

I mean, IANAD, but it might count as PTSD.

I think the main differentiator is that PTSD leaves sort of a lasting impression on your nervous system that alters your behavior even when the threat isn't around.

For example, in my case, the aspect of my PTSD that most impacts my quality of life today is hypervigilance. I'm constantly scanning for threats, watching people's hands, looking for exits, aware of people coming and going, noticing changes in tones or language, trying to anticipate sources of conflict in social situations before they happen. I'm obsessive about keeping doors locked. I deliberately keep lights dimmed and use noise canceling headphones as much as possible to keep my environment low stimulation.

And I can't sleep until I'm completely exhausted because I don't like being impaired. Like I'll take melatonin, and fight the sleepiness until it wears off.

This isn't to mention stuff like nightmares, feelings of distrust and the tendency to self-isolate and cut people off. These aren't so much issues for me these days though. And while my description of my hypervigilance might sound pretty dire, I think it's the most under control today that it's ever been.

But back to your question, I sort of think of anxiety due to a learned/justifiable fear as something that really only comes into play when the trigger is imminent.

But TBH, I prefer to think of this stuff as existing on a continuum. Like, a "learned fear" is just a different shade of PTSD, not something where there's a super well-defined barrier. But again, IANAD, just a patient :)

Thanks for the detailed response. Must be frustrating I imagine. I hope you feel better with time.

I can understand many of your observations, and I would imagine that it is a spectrum. But this only makes the observation of PTSD in other species more muddy. I would imagine there could be some sort of behavioral or physiological observations, and that is what I am hoping we will have some day.

In my experience, feels more like a panic attack than general fear or anxiety. I can work through my anxiety, whereas the panic consumes me.

That sounds like a reasonable way to know it for yourself. But how do you know it for pigeons though? Do they shake violently? Do they show various uncommon behaviors?

Considering PTSD affects the amygdala part of the brain and our base instincts (fight, flight, or freeze is pretty primitive), I wouldn't be too shocked if even reptiles could have PTSD.

I've had two rescue animals, and they most definitely had PTSD issues (ones with people and the other with cars). Seems pretty obvious.

There was a beautiful, but gut-wrenchingly sad article about trauma in elephants in the NYT about 13 years ago. It's a super long read but it's highly recommended if you're interested in this topic.

It starts off by describing how elephant attacks are on the rise throughout the world, which for people in regions with wild elephants is totally unprecedented, describing how in the aftermath of government sponsored cullings roving bands of young elephants in places like Uganda would target humans and other animals. It then follows a Ugandan researcher at Cambridge interested in the parallels between the trauma in elephants and trauma in communities impacted by the Ugandan civil war (particularly the Acholi, targeted by the now infamous Kony for recruitment).

"For Bradshaw, these continuities between human and elephant brains resonate far outside the field of neuroscience. ‘‘Elephants are suffering and behaving in the same ways that we recognize in ourselves as a result of violence,’’ she told me. ‘‘It is entirely congruent with what we know about humans and other mammals. Except perhaps for a few specific features, brain organization and early development of elephants and humans are extremely similar. That’s not news. What is news is when you start asking, What does this mean beyond the science? How do we respond to the fact that we are causing other species like elephants to psychologically break down? In a way, it’s not so much a cognitive or imaginative leap anymore as it is a political one.’’


‘‘I started looking again at what has happened among the Acholi and the elephants,’’ Abe told me. ‘‘I saw that it is an absolute coincidence between the two. You know we used to have villages. We still don’t have villages. There are over 200 displaced-people’s camps in present-day northern Uganda. Everybody lives now within these camps, and there are no more elders. The elders were systematically eliminated. The first batch of elimination was during Amin’s time, and that set the stage for the later destruction of northern Uganda. We are among the lucky few, because my mom and dad managed to escape. But the families there are just broken. I know many of them. Displaced people are living in our home now. My mother said let them have it. All these kids who have grown up with their parents killed — no fathers, no mothers, only children looking after them. They don’t go to schools. They have no schools, no hospitals. No infrastructure. They form these roaming, violent, destructive bands. It’s the same thing that happens with the elephants. Just like the male war orphans, they are wild, completely lost.’’


Anyone who ever interacted with any animal who had trauma in their part already knows this. The experiences of "other"s that people are too ready and wanting to ignore simply because those experiences were not rubber stamped by academic journals is astonishingly depressing.

I think it's just very inconvenient that animals can have feelings and can suffer. Once you accept this then suddenly a lot of things become ethically very problematic, e.g. zoos, circus animals, pollution, a lot of farming practices. Much easier to deny that and claim that humans are special and only they can suffer.

Which is ironic, because I have many old relatives who used to live on farms, and they are all very attuned to the feelings of animals. They can tell when one is in pain, how to take care of it, etc. Note that it is not at odds with the fact that there are raising the animal for meat, in some cases.

What is problematic is when decision chains get abstracted out and decisions depersonalized, and a bunch of company executives in a room decide how many chickens they need to fit per square foot of space in order to turn a profit next quarter, rather than those decisions being made by the people who take care of the chicken every day.

In that light, the psychology and social systems at play in industrial farming isn’t too different from that of prisons, internment camps, etc. Lives that are abstract numbers in profit equations to decision makers who don’t have to see up too close what those numbers really represent.

Tyson Foods, the biggest chicken firm, gives (sells) chicken to family owned farms that make the decision to cram the chickens in small space, and then Tyson Foods buys back the big chickens. The business is done in a way so that Tyson Foods has all the upside and little downside. I do not think they bore themselves with the logistics of raising chickens, they think of how to market their chicken scam to other family farms.

Thankfully several zoos have become wildlife rehabilitation centers, and some that hold on to the traditional model (like SeaWorld) are being publicly shamed. The biggest circus is all human. Progress is slow, but it is happening.

Many people are happy to admit and even enthusiastically embrace the concept that dogs have human-like emotions, but they will still resist that about farm animals and wildlife.

I think this is more of a new thing. I've talked about this stuff with people who are now in their seventies and eighties, and they basically seem to get that animals suffer in substantially similar ways to humans.

The difference is that humans are broadly capable of understanding the moral consequences of their actions, and in the west we seem to have developed the concept of showing mercy to animals (stunning and sticking rather than bleeding animals out through the neck while conscious).

While some animals have more complex proto-moral behaviour, they would not be able or willing to extend these same courtesies to us, in the reverse circumstance.

Able? No. Willing? Possibly. Maybe the desire to not cause suffering is so common in moral frameworks because it is hardwired into us and into other animals, almost like an instinct-based universal morality.

We inject a lot of assumptions about the nature of non-human animals in these discussions in what I think is an attempt to keep them as mentally distinct from ourselves as possible.

Agreed. This seems like one of the most obvious conclusions of research of all time. Why so you need to research an elephant? A simple visit to a local animal shelter would have probably sufficed.

Sometimes I wonder if news organization run these kinds of stories to reinforce the "scientist are clueless" angle and further sew our mistrust of science. Don't scientists have dogs, too?

Yep. My old dog had it's tail cut off before she ran away, and until the age of 15 always chased her tail in circles, as well as howled in her sleep on occasion.

Wait isn’t this something all dogs do anyway?

Yes, plenty do, and as a counterpoint I have owned several dogs with cut tails as well who did not exhibit such symptoms.

OP's dog's neurosis was likely caused by something else unless the tail was cut late into the puppy's life. I'm not advocating for cutting tails at all but I certainly don't have PTSD about my circumcision...

Not to derail the thread, but PTSD or similar trauma from circumcision is very common.

Or in my case, when you were non-consensually circumcised as an infant, experiencing grief/anger/etc upon truly understanding what that means.

For anyone reading, you can restore what was taken from you by applying tension to the foreskin remnant (“circumcision scar”) and slowly re-grow the lost tissue via mitosis. You can’t reclaim everything (frenulum, ridged band) but you can regrow the inner mucosa and outer foreskin.

The process is called foreskin restoration, and I encourage anyone who is interested to look into it.


Do you think we should get children’s consent for vaccinations? I guess my point is sometimes our parents make choices for us. Hopefully they make choices that better us not hurt us. And I know with circumcisions a lot of the time it is done for religious reasons. Your parents perhaps believed in god and were doing what they felt was spiritually needed within their religion. I am curious is this the case with your family?

Vaccinations: no.

Elective surgery that removes functional sexual tissue: yes.

To make it clear, do you think it’s okay to cut off a newborn girl’s clitoral hood (the analog of the male foreskin)? I would hope not.


My parents were raised catholic, but are atheists. So largely it was done for the usual pseudo-reasons: to “look like my father”, because it’s “healthier” (completely false), etc. I’m a white american so it’s a very common practice unfortunately.

The foreskin is not a vestigial organ. Violating the bodily and sexual autonomy of a child is never okay.

See I was circumcised and it sounds much like the same reasons as you mainly because my dad had it done. They long dropped religion so it was more like how you describe. I guess, from my limited knowledge, not all female circumcisions are the same. Some involve more serious removal of not just skin but the actually clitoris. I am against removal of the clitoris as it probably would mean decreased feeling. I really can’t say how much feeling I supposedly lost with my circumcision but I always thought sex was very enjoyable. The whole idea of either seems bizarre and pointless to myself. But I also feel a part of me has spirituality (and not in any god). So if the clitoral circumcision was just a bit of the side skin and for religious reasons I could accept it. But I think a lot of these female circumcisions do not just take side skin they remove a sexual organ. Yes skin and therefore foreskin is an organ but I don’t feel like I am missing anything. Thank you for your thoughts it has made me think more on this subject. I honestly don’t have any good reason to defend male circumcisions over female. What a weird world we live in.

Both are done by the dog I have, but he is a rescue dog.

How the hell is that new research, when it's been clear to everyone since time began?

I suppose it's new research because it was published recently? Let's not get hung up on the shallow claim of newness in the title. Perhaps it relates to some technical definition of PTSD, as opposed to the colloquial word "trauma". Either way, there's nothing to be gained by having an angry discussion about how obvious something is. It may well be the reason people are studying this is that it's as obvious to them as it is to you and me.

I wonder the same whenever I see animal posts like this. They experience the same shit we do.

It's surprising, but people are still debating whether animals actually experience something or they are actually just complex robots that appear (incredibly convincingly) to experience things.

One could make that claim about every human being on the planet other than our own self. While both are interesting theoretical philosophical arguments, I don't believe either are true. It's pretty convincingly clear that most animals, higher mammals certainly, and birds and reptiles probably, experience the world in almost essentially the same way we do. From an evolutionary and developmental angle, every animal has their brain wired up the same way; it would be extraordinary if they didn't experience the same world we do in the same, or very similar, way to ourselves. Similar body plans, similar senses, similar emotions, similar learning, memory and recall. The physiological differences are superficial. The only distinguishing feature we have is advanced spoken and written language, and it's not clear that other species couldn't take that step eventually. Some already have language of sorts. Some, such as Chaser the collie, who passed away a short time ago, can learn huge amounts of human vocabulary and grammar, if they are motivated.

About 20 years ago, while an undergraduate biologist studying immunology, I worked for a short time in an animal facility studying tropical diseases in mice. This philosophical argument, and others, were discussed during our training. It didn't take long to quickly disabuse myself of any lingering doubts that this argument had any merit whatsoever, and I never did live animal work ever again after that.

You mean shell shock?

Shell Shock vs PTSD: George Carlin on euphemisms in today's language https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSp8IyaKCs0

The term "shell shock" was coined during World War I, under the belief that these soldiers' symptoms were caused by repeated exposure to exploding artillery shells. Once it became clear that the actual cause was more nuanced, the term was abandoned.

Ironically, more recent research into veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suggests that there may be some real neurological effects of close-range exposure to explosions, such as IEDs...

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