I like people. I really do. In fact, some of my best friends are people. However, most of my best friends are animals and if I had to choose between spending time with people or spending time with animals, I would choose animals. I just find them easier, and often more pleasant, to be around.
Although I was late coming to the party when it came to pets, thanks to a career that left me neither the time nor the freedom to keep them, I have since caught up and counting now four dogs and three horses among my most faithful companions. , as well as seven stray cats who graciously chose me to feed them.
As a result, for the past 16 years my home has been battered by a pack of assorted rescue dogs who pissed, tore and digested much of my furniture. The horses gave me a few broken fingers and left me on the brink of bankruptcy, and the cats, well, they don’t even pretend to show gratitude. And yet, I don’t remember being happier.
I say happy because I was happy in my previous life with humans. Sometimes I have been ecstatically happy. But I never felt that wonderful calm and groundedness that comes with being content, not until I dedicated my time to animals.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, given my life of dust and dog hair, that I’ve lived alone for the past 10 years. However, not once did I feel alone. Animals also made me healthy in unexpected ways. I stopped binging when I got my horses because I couldn’t ride a horse with a hangover. I do gymnastics and ballet stuff to become a better horseman. I quit smoking when it occurred to me that I might die before my pets. And I went to a plant-based diet because I didn’t want to eat the very things that had given my life meaning. My ability to self-regulate has also greatly increased and, according to Sarah Urvina counselor who specializes in animal-assisted therapy, that’s one of the biggest takeaways from being around dogs and horses, and it all has to do with the autonomic nervous system.
In short, people need to be able to self-regulate, understand and manage strong emotions such as frustration, excitement, anger and embarrassment. If we are lucky, we are aided in this endeavor by co-regulation, whereby our autonomic nervous system sensitively interacts with another in a way that facilitates better emotional balance and better physical health. For some of us, it comes easier with animals.
“If we can’t attach easily to our fellow human beings, and if we don’t find them useful for regulation, but we can turn to an animal, attach ourselves to that animal, and the animal helps us self-regulate through co-regulation, what’s not to like?” asks Urwin.
While some might argue that self-regulation comes with maturity, I’ve seen many adults act irrationally, and sometimes with unnecessary violence, when frustrated. I, too, have been known to scream in fits of rage, but not so much these days.
In the scheme of things, nothing is more important to me than safety, health and happiness. The others are just “things”, the trinkets of life. In this regard, horses in particular have broadened my horizons – it’s not always about me.
“Relationships with animals teach us trust and teach us outward focus,” Urwin says. “It’s because animals live here and now. They don’t live yesterday and they don’t live tomorrow, and they help us do the same, which is why it’s more comfortable to be around them. is what the Buddhists say, living in the moment is where you will find contentment.
Besides turning into a Zen master of self-regulation, which could also be the result of spending more time away from people, I find myself wrapped in a blanket of familiarity in the company of animals, which could be explained by a primary need – in addition to not owning a TV.
In the 1980s, the American biologist Edward O Wilson in his work biophilia proposed that the tendency of humans to affiliate with nature and other life forms has, in part, a genetic basis. He found evidence of this in studies of biophobia (fear of nature). When humans were constantly vulnerable to poisonous predators, plants, and animals, fear was a fundamental connection to nature that enabled survival, and therefore humans had to maintain a close relationship with their environment. It is believed that our increased reliance on technology has weakened this human drive to connect with nature, leading to less appreciation for the diversity of life forms.
“Part of the allure of being around animals is biological,” Urwin agrees. “We are kind of pre-programmed for this, biologically. It’s in our DNA: an affinity for and an innate need to pay attention to it.
While answering the call of our ancestors may be a reason to gravitate towards animals, there is another theme that prevails in many of my conversations with like-minded souls – people just plain piss us off. A friend of mine — because I have — shamelessly admits she’s Team Animal, citing a growing intolerance of “bullshit” that she attributes in part to menopause.
Another friend recently told me that when her husband refused to have sex unless she got rid of her seven cats, she knew her marriage was over. “When he tried to fuck my friend, we kind of worked on it,” she laughed. She was only half joking.
Likewise – and although my closest friends and family continue to add their own individual color to my life – as I get older, I find myself less willing to navigate people’s whims, politics and mood swings. which I am not close to. More and more, I find people boring.
As another friend told me, “Animals don’t let you down like people do. There is no judgment, no hidden agenda, no waiting. They give you unconditional loyalty; friendship in its purest form.
There is maybe no better illustration of the nonjudgmental quality of animal companionship than in the programs set up to rehabilitate prisoners. In the United States, the Tails program, which stands for Teaching Animals and Inmates Life Skills, focuses on pairing at-risk dogs with institutionalized men. Jennifer Wesely, a professor of criminology at the University of North Florida, said the positive behavioral effects of such initiatives include increased empathy, emotional intelligence, communication, patience, self-control and confidence.
A similar scheme rolled out in UK prisons last summer saw prison officers bring their own dogs to work in a bid to defuse tensions and help inmates during the pandemic when visits were temporarily suspended.
“Animals can’t lie,” says Urwin. “They can’t separate how they feel from how they act. So in terms of feedback, what people get from animals is authentic. They get unconditional positive regard from animals. They get animal congruence and, very often, they get empathy.
“It’s quite important, this idea of acceptance, especially among vulnerable groups who are not easily accepted by mainstream society or who have suffered individual trauma and have therefore learned not to trust people.
“Animals do not project through verbal communication. They don’t try to interpret what you say. They take into account what is really happening. So, again, there are a host of psychological reasons why someone might trust an animal in a way that they might not trust a human,” she says.
There are also physiological benefits. Countless studies over the years have shown that being around animals can lower blood pressure and heart rate, resulting in significantly less cortisol and adrenaline in our systems, but modern research has also discovered a link. with oxytocin levels.
“Oxytocin is the bonding chemical, and that increases when we bond with animals,” Urwin explains. “At the same time, serotonin and dopamine levels have also been shown to increase, which are the feel-good chemicals. And the most recent research is looking at prolactin and what they call phenylalanine, which is an anti-inflammatory.
“There is also the electromagnetic field. So my standing heart rate is between 50 and 60, while my horses have an average standing heart rate of 38 beats per minute; much lower than mine. So the minute I step into their domain, it’s highly likely that their presence, if we’re all calm, will cause my heart rate to drop as part of the mirroring process.
“Some people have the same kind of magic about them and in a way it’s magic, but there are things happening in the body that make that magic happen.”
As I got older and accepted that my life is unlikely to return to the conventional path of marriage and 2.4 children, I’ve come to understand that the secret to happiness is contentment, and that it’s wrapped biology, psychology, chemistry or magic, the reason is animals. I owe them a lot and only hope they have found similar contentment with me.
Untethered by Andrea Busfield is published by Armida’s Books at £15