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What Animal Madness Teaches Us About Ourselves

It all began with a deeply disturbed miniature donkey named Mac. One minute he’d cozy up to Laurel Braitman, author of Animal Madness, like a high school sweetheart. The next minute he’d chomp down on her exposed flesh like a deranged blind date.

Braitman, only 12 years old at the time, thought even then that Mac’s manic temperament seemed too bizarre to simply chalk up to normal donkey-ness. Today, Braitman is a TED fellow with a PhD in the History of Science from MIT, and her new book details the science and the psychology of mental illness in animals.

OUTSIDE: In your book, you say that animals experience complex emotions such as guilt, depression, and social anxiety. How can a deeper understanding of our pets help us better understand our own psychology?
BRAITMAN: Certain emotional states and problems are common across species. Take fear and anxiety. They help keep individuals safe in dangerous situations, but they can be problematic in situations where there is no real danger.

We also know that many of the same things you’d do to cheer up your dog—regular exercise, more time outdoors, stimulating surroundings, learning new skills—are likely to cheer up humans as well. The better we understand the emotional roller coasters that animals experience, the better we can understand our own emotions.

How are animals affected by mental illness and how can humans help?
From wombats to whales, animals suffer from OCD, PTSD, anxiety, phobias, mood disorders, and more. Many of these issues are healthy activities gone awry. For example, some OCD behaviors are extreme forms of grooming practices, like constantly licking paws.

Humans can help animals with these problems. I once owned a Bernese mountain dog named Oliver who hallucinated, suffered from crushing anxiety, and had canine compulsive disorder. We tried everything from behavioral training to more exercise to anti-depressants. You’ve heard of therapy animals—I was his therapy human. It was an incredibly rewarding experience. I helped Oliver and he helped me.

The film Blackfish (inspired by Tim Zimmerman's article in Outside) set off a firestorm of debate around the effects of captivity on killer whales and the unpredictability of their interactions with humans. What are your thoughts on keeping large marine mammals in captivity and teaching them to perform? 
I’m thrilled that this is part of a national conversation—there is no justification for keeping orcas in captivity. I believe we should make our zoos and aquariums more humane, but in the long run I would like to see all facilities transformed into places where humans can interact with creatures who do not need to suffer in order to entertain us. As far as I can tell, children are bored by the pacing polar bear, but they are entranced by the pig who runs over to them to get his back scratched.

What’s your take on new-age pet care options such as doggie massages and kitty chakras? How can we tune into our pets’ emotions without going overboard?
There are plenty of products aimed at desperate pet owners. Your dog won’t feel more relaxed if his shampoo smells like lavender or his biscuits taste like lemongrass. Massage is another story: it’s been proven to help humans suffering from emotional distress, and as long as the animal doesn’t mind being handled, it can help him too. However, the best way to tune into your pets’ emotions is cheap and easy—spend quality time with them and pay close attention to any troubling changes in their behavior.

You earned a PhD in the history of science, yet many of your conclusions stem from intimate personal experiences with animals that were close to you. What role should the classroom play in teaching animal lovers about their pets' emotions?
We should certainly learn about natural history, animal behavior, and even the neuroscience of emotion in school, but nothing compares to real-life experience. We need socialization time with animals to better understand them just like we need socialization time with people to learn how to behave and how to read their emotions.

How can prospective pet owners use your book to find the best possible companions for their families?
I hope my book helps people choose animal companions that they are unlikely to disappoint or be frustrated by. But honestly, just like when you first start dating somebody, chances are you won’t know they have a screw loose till it’s too late—that is, until you already love them. So if that’s the case, then I hope my book helps people feel less alone and more hopeful about their animals. As Darwin’s father told him, “Everybody is insane at some time.” Thankfully we can help each other heal.

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Do Dogs Need Sunglasses?

Uh no, not really. But that doesn't mean you should put away the shades for good. 

Humans wear sunglasses to reduce ultraviolet exposure—which can lead to age-related cataracts—to our eyes. Dogs, on the other hand, have a shorter life span and therefore don't develop UV light damage in their eyes.

Dogs still get cataracts, or blurry, clouded vision, but they're either inherited, caused by diabetes, or develop because of continued lens growth during old age, says Robert English, an animal eye care veterinarian. “Because of their deeper set eyes [in most breeds at least] and their heavier brow, their eyes are more shaded [by their brows] and have less of a direct angle to the sun than our eyes,” English says. 

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But sunglasses may still help old pups or ones with certain eye diseases. In this case, English recommends Doggles, or dog goggles designed for your canine companion. “Older dogs with early age-related cataracts arguably probably have slightly better vision outside on a sunny day if they wear polarized Doggles."

Denise Lindley, a veterinary ophthalmologist, said dogs with Pannus, a disease of the cornea, also could benefit from Doggles because of the decreased UV exposure. “A typical case would be a dog in Colorado that hikes a lot with its owner,” Lindley says. 

Take note: Doggle protection only goes so far. Veterinarian James Hagedorn says dog sunglasses do not provide protection against debris, so they won't help if your dog is hanging her head out the car window. 

If you do want to go down the Doggles route, you can purchase a pair from a variety of retailers, including Petco. DoggieShades, another canine sunglasses retailer, offers $15 sunglasses with an adjustable strap for your dog. 

Bottom line: dogs don't need sunglasses, but if you want to protect your old dog’s eyes or you want your dog to make a fashion statement at the park, there's no harm letting her sport a pair of sunglasses.

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The Secret to Exploring Zion Like a Local

Zion is one of the country's most beautiful national parks. It's also one of the most crowded.

More than two million visitors flock to this part of Utah per year, placing Zion among the top 10 most-visited parks in the nation. Thankfully, there are plenty of opportunities to escape the tourists within this 229-square-mile preserve. Here are a few of our favorite routes to get you off the beaten path: 

Climb Kolob Canyon

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If climbing above the spot where Paul Newman and Robert Redford got into a knife fight sounds like a good time, hit the road for Lambs Knoll in Kolob Canyon. To reach the crag, drive through the town of Virgin and then 10 miles north on Kolob Terrace Road. After crossing a cattle guard and exiting the park, turn left and leave your vehicle at the roundabout. A sandy trail will take you toward Lambs Knoll, where shady sport routes dot the sandstone walls.

Even better for climbing in summer months is the South Fork in Kolob Canyon, where more than 30 sport and trad routes, such as the four-star Huecos Rancheros (5.12c), offer options for climbers of all levels.

After sending your project, continue up the paved road from Lambs Knoll to find Lava Point—Zion’s only free, maintained camping area. With just six sites, you'll be lucky to nab a spot, but if you do, you won't have to worry about crowds. Take a post-climb dip in 250-acre Kolob Reservoir, and if camping doesn’t vibe with your group’s style, return to Springdale for an evening of well-deserved enchiladas at the locals’ favorite saloon, the Bit & Spur

Run the Trans-Zion Trek

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If you really want to earn your post-adventure fish tacos, the Trans-Zion Trek is the trail for you. Sometimes called the Zion National Park Traverse, this 47.3-mile path cuts through sandstone and juniper, with nearly 6,000 feet in elevation change along the way. Known as one of the most scenic long runs in the country, the Trans-Zion takes anywhere from an eight-hour ultramarathon sprint to five days to accomplish, and like the nearby canyoneering routes, requires a backcountry permit from Zion National Park.

Take a shuttle from Zion Adventure Company to Lee Pass, located at the less popular northwestern corner of the park. Here you’ll begin the gradual descent toward Kolob Arch and Lava Point before reentering the more populated scenic-drive section of the park, where you’ll find views of the famous Angels Landing from a whole new angle. Come prepared with a topographic map and data book including information on mileage, water source recommendations, and campsites from ultrarunner Andrew Skurka. Post-ultra, refuel with a WhoopAss burger at Oscar’s Cafe in Springdale and probably a beer or five. Spend the night recuperating at the Cable Mountain Lodge, a stone’s throw from the Virgin River, where you can cool your aching toes.

Canyoneer Orderville Gulch

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Zion Adventure Company guide B.J. Cassell describes Orderville Canyon (aka Gulch)—the expert’s preferred way to get to the famous Narrows—as “one of the most underrated canyons in Zion.” Both wet and wild, the descent through Orderville features two large obstacles that require technical skills and equipment. Rated 3B III on the canyoneering scale, Orderville requires rappelling gear, a wet or drysuit depending on when you visit, and proficient canyoneering skills. Pick up a permit, required for all technical canyoneering excursions, at the Zion National Park backcountry desk or book online in advance.

Before hitting the road, fuel up with whiskey-infused coffee at Deep Creek Coffee in Springdale. You’ll need to either shuttle a car or tag along with Zion Adventure Company to the trailhead at Orderville Corral, off North Fork Road on the northern entrance to the park. If you bring your own vehicle, make sure it’s high clearance and 4WD. From here, you’ll begin the six-plus-hour, 12.3-mile journey that will take you through the gulch and back to the top of Zion’s scenic drive. Orderville spits you out at the Temple of Sinawava, which is the start of the well-known Narrows. There, you’ll rejoin the less-sandy tourists on a free shuttle back to the park entrance.

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The Hidden Danger Threatening Our Dogs

Earlier this year, Terry Dubois, an elementary school reading coach and member of the Los Alamos Mountain Canine Corps, a search-and-rescue outfit in northern New Mexico, went hiking with a few friends and four dogs. They were on U.S. Forest Service land, three miles from town and on a well-established trail that leads to some Native American ruins, when her 12-year-old heeler, Jetta, suddenly began shrieking.

“It was like nothing I had ever heard before,” says Dubois. “She was screaming and crying, and I hardly recognized it was her.”

The jaws of a foothold trap, baited with bobcat urine, had snapped shut on Jetta’s right front leg. The group scrambled to try and release her.

“By some miracle, one of my friends had just watched a video that showed how to open similar traps,” says Dubois. “It was not intuitive.”

After being freed, Jetta was limping a little, but there was no permanent damage. Other pets have been less fortunate. In January, a 12-year-old Idaho boy watched as his dog, Loyal, was killed in a trap, despite his parents’ efforts to save her. In Maine, last October, an 84-year-old man was forced to shoot his hunting beagle after it became ensnared, panicked, and latched onto him as he was trying to free it. In Minnesota, in November 2012, a seven-month-old border collie on a walk with its owners set off a Conibear trap, designed to clamp down with enough force to break an animal’s neck. It was the family’s second dog killed by such a trap.

In the past two years, there have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of incidents of dogs and cats getting caught in traps set to snare bobcats, coyotes, and other fur-bearing animals. These nontarget species, in trapping lingo, have become unintended victims in a nationwide resurgence of something most people assumed had gone the way of the coonskin hat. Thanks to demand in China and Russia for fur-trimmed coats, a coyote pelt that sold for roughly $7 a decade ago now goes for $50. Muskrat is at $11, up from $2. Highly coveted bobcat pelts can fetch up to $2,100 at auction. Overall, the U.S. fur trade is now a $15 billion industry, up 45 percent since 2004.

That means there are thousands of new trappers and perhaps tens of thousands of additional traps in the field. In Minnesota, annual trapping licenses now top 10,000, nearly double the number in 2000. How much additional risk that represents for domestic animals is difficult to quantify, since there is no comprehensive database tracking incidents. But trappers commonly set two or three dozen traps each. Many are required by their state’s licensing laws to take safety courses, which also cover how close to trails the traps can be placed, but compliance varies. The trap that caught Jetta was set just inches from the trail, which is illegal in New Mexico. (Traps there must be placed 25 yards from foot traffic.) And it didn’t have the trapper’s ID number on it, another requirement.

A growing number of angry pet owners like Dubois are looking to outlaw trapping for good. The practice is already tightly restricted in four states—California, Washington, Arizona, and Colorado—but laws there have existed for a decade or more. New efforts tend to seek partial bans. In New Hampshire, a bill is making its way through the legislature that would increase penalties on violations that result in a dog’s death. In New Mexico, anti-trapping advocates hope to pass a bill next year that would ban the practice on public lands.

“Our goal is a national ban,” says Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director at Wild-Earth Guardians, a conservation nonprofit. “But it’s difficult, because people don’t realize that these indiscriminately cruel devices are still widely used.”

Another challenge is anti-government and landowner groups, which see any form of regulation as an infringement on their rights. “People use trapping bans as a metaphor for overreach,” says Cotton. “The debate becomes a platform for all sorts of folks.” The nonprofit Footloose Montana gave up on a fall ballot proposal because of pushback from several state agencies. A similar effort was abandoned in Oregon. Some advocates have had more success at the local level—Dubois and Trap Free New Mexico convinced Los Alamos County to pass a resolution against trapping in March—but even that can be an uphill battle.

For now, dog owners have few options but to be wary while on public land. As for Dubois, Jetta’s trapping turned out to be a life-changing event. “Every day I try to raise awareness. But I’m left with this feeling of paranoia and powerlessness,” she says, “and all for someone’s fancy coat.”

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