We take for granted that humans and other species on the planet share a great deal of physical traits — legs and eyes and brains, for instance — and we’re even happy to admit that some similarities go deeper, acknowledging that other critters might have personalities, that some even seem to use tools. But we’re very afraid to consider that we noble, exalted humans might actually have vastly more in common with these so-called beasts and that by studying animals, insects, and even plants we might learn a great deal about ourselves.
Such discoveries are at the heart of Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing, a new book written by UCLA cardiologist/psychiatrist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and journalist Kathryn Bowers that explores, among other fascinatingly convergent topics, disease, depression, and drug-taking in dozens of species. While consulting with veterinarians at the Los Angeles Zoo, Natterson-Horowitz realized that the animals were suffering from the same problems as her human patients, so she started investigating such similarities, quickly finding that pigs had eating disorders, wallabies got stoned, and jaguars battled breast cancer. Indeed, because culture wasn’t getting in the way, veterinarians were actually learning more about sex, addiction, and mental illness than their human counterparts, and — despite two centuries of growing separation between human and animals doctors since the dawn of the combustion engine — there was way too much complementary science being left on the table. The result is an entertaining and insightful series of anecdotes, bolstered by the latest in medical and veterinary science, arranged in chapters that focus on specific diseases and disorders from infection and fainting to self-injury, adolescent aggression, and obesity.
Along the way, Natterson-Horowitz enlisted the writing help of Kathryn Bowers, who was raised in Goleta and is the daughter of Arthur Sylvester, a respected professor emeritus of geology at UCSB. After graduating from high school, Bowers attended Stanford University, worked as an editor for The Atlantic Monthly in Boston, and then set about living all around the world, from New York and Washington, D.C., to London, Moscow, and Los Angeles, “the big bad city” where she’s resided for the past 13 years with her journalist husband and her daughter. I learned as much during two recent telephone conversations with Bowers: once while she was in Seattle on a book-related visit, the other from her home in L.A. What follows is an edited mash-up of those chats.
Tell me about your Santa Barbara upbringing, or were you in Goleta? It was Goleta — Goleta pride! I went to Dos Pueblos and Goleta Valley Junior High. I grew up running around Stow Park and Lake Los Carneros, and really loved growing up there. The longer I’m away, the more excellent it seems. It was a nice childhood.
Did you have a lot of pets growing up? The main feature of my childhood was that my sister and I were in 4-H and we raised rabbits. That was one thing I understood at the time but appreciate even more as an adult: the rural nature of Goleta and the ability to do something like that, to have rabbits in our backyard. I was like a city girl, but I had country surroundings. We had a dog and a cat, which we adopted from the shelter on Turnpike. We had hamsters and hermit crabs. We had very tolerant parents.
I know what happens with pigs in 4-H, so did you harvest the rabbits? We were doing rabbits for show. You could go into meat rabbits, but I was doing show rabbits.
So they were pretty rabbits? The breed was English spot, and they’re perfect for an 11- or 12-year-old girl. They have this eyeliner around their eyes, and a beauty mark, and a stripe down their back, and spots on the side. They’re very pretty rabbits. There was some sort of county-wide competition, and I won “Best in Show.” I still have the trophy. It is one of my prized possessions.
Did you always feel that humans had some deeper connection to animals? I always had a sense there was some connection there, but I don’t think I quite understood how deep the connection goes. That has been the most eye-opening part of writing this book: understanding that at the molecular, genetic level, we have the legacy of our evolution. I find that really fascinating. It’s something that I hadn’t thought that deeply about before I started writing the book, and now I think about it every day.
How’d you get interested in health and science journalism? A mutual friend introduced my coauthor and me, and Barbara started telling me about her experiences at the zoo — she was a human cardiologist who was a consultant at the L.A. Zoo. It sounded so interesting, so we started interviewing more and more, and it turned into the book. That was my introduction to health and science and environmental writing.
And my dad is a geologist at UCSB, so I have an interest in nature and evolution and science from my household while growing up.
He must be thrilled that your book is causing a stir in the science world. He’s really into it. He’s been supportive all the way through writing it, and also growing up.
What influence did he have in your childhood? Most geologists are either born naturalists or they become naturalists through their training. That was really influential growing up. I went on a lot of field trips with him. He would point out the very small things on the ground and also the giant scope of geology — entire mountain ranges and landforms. I felt like I had a micro and macro exposure to the Earth.
Also the idea of the Earth being very, very, very old, that made you think of humans and humanity in a different way when you appreciate how old the mountains are. I have really strong memories of visiting his office at UCSB — there were seismographs, which were fun to look at, maps on the walls, and all of these professors bustling around in their big boots and their beards, doing important work.