Brain pets: Rebecca Skloot/Service Animal division

So I’m a little late with this, given that Rebecca published this very nice piece of work a week ago in the NY Times Sunday Magazine.

The quick summary:  there is a legal battle shaping up over the use of an increasingly diverse set of species to provide services for a range of conditions that extends well beyond the familiar image of a dog helping a blind person.  Think a guide horse (a very small one) for a blind woman, a parrot for a man suffering from psychotic episodes, and so on.

Most of the piece concerned distinctions that divide those who are helped by such animals don’t make, and that those concerned with issues of health or safety or sheer unfamiliarity in the control of public spaces do.  Is an animal a therapy animal — which do not have guaranteed access to public spaces under the Americans with Disabilities Act — or a service animal, performing a defined task, which do?  Should the ADA be amended to limit the permitted animals to, basically, dogs? Read the work for the details.

All I want to add here is that beyond the fascinating story lines of the emergence of a variety of animals who can now be used to respond to human hardship and the legal argument that such advances have produced, there is a second just-below-the-surface message in Rebecca’s piece.  Two out of the  three human-service animal partnerships that profiled there involve animals that respond to the overt symptoms of mental disturbance — the parrot mentioned above, and  a monkey who has been trained to ameliorate agoraphobia and anxiety attacks.

Both of those animals would be denied service animal status under proposed changes to the ADA law, and the parrot has already been banned — and has become the focus of an ongoing dispute — from a dental school where the parrot’s owner gets (or got) his teeth cleaned.

The subtext here is pretty obvious and it runs through Rebecca’s piece, though it is not its overt focus:  mental conditions are not “real” diseases or disabilities.  Their symptoms manifest as behavior, and, of course, behavior is a choice.

Except, of course, it’s not.  I started this blog with a story about the importance of understanding the material reality of the conditions that produce mental symptoms, derangements of the mind.   The arguments being made against the two people whose stories Rebecca tell are ones based on the notion that mental conditions — if they exist (sic!) — may require therapy, but are not subject to the same kind of daily, task based support that we can so clearly recognize in the relationship between a blind person and their horse (or dog).

And that, to keep this short, is the real message here.  It’s not that the argument over whose interests triumph is trivial one — whether that claims of public health or the avoidance of disruption trump those of the people receiving aid from a range of animal helpers on the other.  It’s just that behind this real public and legislative battle is the deeper question of how willing we are to accept the fact that mental illness or discomfort is “real” in the same way that we accept the reality of a clearly physical condition like blindness.

There’s a much longer argument here, all the way back to brain-mind dualism. But if you understand the mind as phenomenon of the material structure we call brain (and more — the sensory systems and all that; bear with me though in the cartoon version for simplicity’s sake), then however you work your view of the matter from there, the notion that mental disorders are qualitatively different from “obviously” physical ones breaks down.

The science – in – public connection here is thus, I think, obvious.  If neuroscience gives a view of mental life based in a material understanding of brain and the ills to which it is heir, and practical medicine shows us how to ameliorate some of its ills, then the denial of working methods to make living with such conditions possible is not simply a matter of competing interests, but is an act of cruelty to people being forced to suffer when simple means of easing suffering are available.

Image:  Berthe Morisot, “Girl with a Greyhound,” 1893

Explore posts in the same categories: brain and mind, Cool Animals, mental illness

5 Comments on “Brain pets: Rebecca Skloot/Service Animal division”


  1. Yet again, another superb and eloquent analysis. I was thinking along the same lines especially when reading about the gentleman with the parrot. People with psychosis need any modality they can get – the biochemical issues are so severe that even medication *and* therapy are often not enough. In my book, whatever works.

    Looking forward to seeing you this weekend!

  2. Spiv Says:

    I think “constant maintenance” is a key ingredient that needs to be understood by those looking to adjust this law. Having spent a great deal of volunteer time at a youth-care facility, it’s plainly obvious to me that many illnesses require constant support, which could be extremely expensive to an individual. If a trained “pet” can assist, then it would be absurd to deny the status of said animal as an aid. The very definition of mental illness includes maladaptivity: the condition makes difficult, or impossible, actions and events that allow a person to lead a normal life.

    Given that? It’s a very small step to understand why an animal which helps an individual control their agoraphobia is as important as wheelchair access. If it’s not available, a person is going to have a difficult, if not impossible time accessing certain places. Courthouses and education facilities come to mind.

    The issue, however, is that I’ve discovered that many of “strong religious faith” simply do not believe that mental illness is real. A person suffering from clinical depression is just very sad and needs to snap out of it, bipolar people need to get a hold of themselves, and schizophrenics, well they’ve never even seen an intense schizophrenic person. If they did they would probably assume they were possessed. For some reason this always seems to stem from conversations about the nature (or nurture?) of homosexuality. In short, I think this is petty potshots being taken at a science that certain groups within the religious community feels is incompatible with their doctrine. Unfortunately they aren’t damaging the science, they’re hurting real people who have enough to deal with as is.

    I’ve always wondered how these people can seem to understand Alzheimer’s is a very real mental/physical condition. Where do they draw that line? Why?


  3. I understand why Zsa Zsas want to cheat so they can take teacup Fifi into their chic boutique. But what is it about novelty that makes a certain segment of the population want to call the law? The Witch Trials will be always with us, I guess.

    Also, I’d like to note for the already voluminous record that, when faced with a choice between businesses whining about vague concerns of possible harm or even mere confusion and actual suffering human beings, the Bushists choose the side of the whining businesses. Every single time.


  4. Proposed legislation would restrict service animals to domestic animals which if not well defined could lead to more problems

  5. Skyler Says:

    While I can understand the desire for certain animals to help with treating certain conditions, I can’t help but escape the public health and safty concerns such animals may raise. A parrot will not wait to deficate, creating a potential health issue anywhere someone would bring one. I know personally I would not like eating dinner with my family while a bird pooped in the open at a restaraunt. And what about walking through your local discount store dodging horse fecal matter as you shopped. Lets not think about the additional resources all stores in a given area would have to use to maintain or pick up after certain animals, because really I don’t think cost should be a factor. That being said, don’t be surprised if prices in stores happen to hike as they make way for new employees to handle “issues” as they arise. While I don’t like to think that any one person is more important than the other, one has to wonder at what point is it not okay to make the majority suffer to “aid” the minority?


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