Whenever people discover that I hold a degree in veterinary medicine they ask, “Are you still practicing?”
I used to just absent-mindedly answer, “Rarely. Just for family and friends, vaccinating a dog here and there, or giving advice.”
But I decided recently that I’m going to answer, “Yes, I still do, mainly with human animals.”
That came about because lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of documents that use the phrase “human and nonhuman animals”—a reminder that humans are part of the animal kingdom. Scientifically, it is not accurate to say “humans and animals.” The broader group is that of animals, so if we want to differentiate ourselves from dogs and cats, we would then say “human animals” (us) and “nonhuman animals” (all the other animals).
I know many people will bristle over the prospect of calling ourselves animals, especially because that term is used, in many languages, as an insult to fellow humans. Think especially of the way we Filipinos use it, with a Spanish accent, “Animál ka (You animal)!”—often accompanied by “Walanghiya ka (You have no shame)!” and even cursing, in addressing someone whose behavior is unethical, atrocious.
In English, telling someone “You animal!” has negative connotations, but it can sometimes be used almost as a term of endearment, especially when there are amorous intentions involved. I can’t imagine that kind of usage in Filipino (“Ikaw ha, animál ka).
Yet there are times when I hear Filipinos praising nonhuman animals as being better than humans: For example, dogs are praised for their loyalty and utang na loob (sense of gratitude).
But terms like “loyalty” and “gratitude” are human constructs that we read into animals. The dogs don’t know they’re being loyal; their attachment to humans is the product of centuries of coevolution with us. They bond with us as fellow dogs, as members of their pack. Sometimes they see us as alpha dogs, and other times, they feel they’re the alpha dogs, able to control their humans.
Cesar Millan and his popular TV show “Dog Whisperer” teaches viewers how to make misbehaving dogs behave, and is based on an understanding of canine pack behavior, how dogs interact with humans and with other dogs.
Nonhuman animal behavior has provided many insights into our own species’ psychology. Just take the experiments of Pavlov with dogs around conditioning. When dogs associate certain cues with food, they respond to the cue as they would do to the food itself. The best example is your dog rushing to the refrigerator whenever you open it. The dogs “know” there’s food inside that huge metal box. The smart ones also “know” that if they look cute enough, or hungry enough (or, best of all, cute and hungry enough), they stand a good chance of their human getting something from the metal box to give to them.
Pavlov’s experiments, and legions of other psychologists who followed his footsteps to look into conditioning, were important in the development of psychology. Reward people to reinforce “good” behavior, and punish them to reduce “bad” behavior.
Our understanding of conditioning in human psychology later went back to nonhuman animals with “clicker training,” where you use a simple little gadget that gives a clicking sound for training.
The clickers are slowly replacing older “choker training,” where you train by punishing, by pulling on the choker of a dog. That almost cruel method is based on “old psychology,” where you go after the dog by scolding (“Bad dog!”) or even hitting them, to train them.
The clickers used positive reinforcement by providing food rewards with a clicking sound and, later, just the clicking sound is enough of a reward. (Of course, you still have to occasionally reinforce the conditioning by giving food rewards together with the clicking sound.)
The success of clicker training of dogs and dolphins later went back to human applications. Amy Sutherland, who trained dolphins using clickers, later wrote a book titled “What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage.” She writes about how women all too often reinforce their husbands’ bad behavior by giving in to their every demand. When the wife has had enough, she goes to the other extreme of nagging the husband.
This “clicker wife” suggests that you should not reinforce the bad behavior but that rather than nag, you can offer “rewards” to make the husband want to be good. If he does stay home on a Friday or Saturday night, for example, make it worthwhile so the following weekend he’ll want to stay again. And don’t forget to say, “Good dog”—oops, I meant “You’re such a good husband, and father.”
What does all this have to do with practicing veterinary medicine?
I’m now in medical anthropology, which looks at how humans keep healthy, and respond to illnesses. And very often I do find myself going back to my previous life as a vet. Human and nonhuman animals’ bodies work very similarly, and so do our minds, and so the veterinary training does come in handy when dealing with humans.
Yes, humans do reason, and rationalize, which can be good, or not so good. Because humans do think things through; they can also be convinced to change their behavior, or to take care of themselves in times of illness. On the other hand, that ability to rationalize can also work against them, as they find ways to evade responsibility. Humans, too, are so much more prone to being manipulated—for example, by advertising for unhealthy foods. Dogs, fortunately, can’t be manipulated by the ads.
I do practice veterinary medicine as well, in terms of public health. There are many old and new health problems that result from human and nonhuman animal interactions, from rabies to Ebola. I’m hoping a corner of the University of the Philippines Diliman, where we have an extension of the College of Veterinary Medicine in Los Baños, in the form of an animal hospital, will expand in time, with facilities for research. Whatever benefits nonhuman animals will benefit humans, too, and vice versa.
It’s an exciting time to be a vet, an “animal doctor” who deals with all species, nonhuman and human.
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