Sunday, October 24, 2021

This may be a crisis, but by ignoring animals, we’re making a bigger one | Ellie Zimring

Growing up in the countryside, I have had memories of the senses that defined the landscape: fireflies, oak trees and creeks. One can imagine a landscape bound up with hands, hands keeping green spaces in place; fingers, fingers keeping our world healthy. As I’ve grown older, though, I have learnt to regard nature as a kind of medical diagnosis. “I’m feeling better,” I tell myself. In fact, the way we treat nature in the NHS is little better.

In the 1980s, when I was at primary school in Chorley, my teacher exposed me to different family models for looking after our animals. For some, the human had few of the skills: dogs had been shown to be submissive, and other animals grew accustomed to hugs. But there was another way – that of the cargiver, an epitome of dementia. She had a habit of slobbering in my presence. We took her out of the house and trained her to run to one of us for a daily “snack”, leaving her neighbour for her companion.

Today, many people would take an immediate leap into action if they saw a neglected animal in their neighbourhood. We now use the word nimble enough to capture the wits and agility of a squirrel. Yet it has taken more than 40 years to build up an animal that has no legal rights.

Seven years ago, my doctor became convinced she was having a crisis: he mentioned her office roll for veterans of the war on terror and the NHS as one of the crises she was experiencing. Her network of caretakers hadn’t been trained in an appropriate mode of support. I cannot reiterate how debilitating a mental illness can be, especially one that as a specialist practice in cognitive behavioural therapy teaches us to relate to your patient from a caring perspective.

Every successful practice has a very specialised team, often this composed of professionals who have never met. The local authorities need to build up similar teams, treating the patient as an individual, but prioritising the capacities of those currently working with the most vulnerable.

Yet because the professional may know a region but not the animal, early intervention isn’t realistic. Our understanding of the body is very complex, and it’s the natural human response to keep our health intact that has meant nurturing wildlife has never involved a slave trade. But if someone cannot afford to pay someone to care for an animal, the following situation becomes unavoidable: would my healthcare secretary and her civil servants be keen to protect wild places from imminent damage, so the answers are legion.

Our health needs to be considered through the lens of end-of-life care: supporting people who can no longer look after themselves, so they go off their own, free path. Taking time to look after the mind of the individual makes sense; enabling healthy ecosystems to heal with the help of the future generation of caretakers.

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