Why I Think Animals Get PTSD Too
My box turtle, Bruce, came to me a little over two years ago after being rescued – twice – by caring local neighbors.
The first time we met, he was being harassed by pet dogs. It was spring, and he had just emerged from his winter hibernation. He was very hungry and eager to find a mate.
Instead, he found curious canines who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.
The woman in whose yard he was hibernating identified him as one of many turtles her grandson had “rescued” and “set free” in her backyard. Then she held him out to me and said, “Do you want him?”
My response to that question is a topic for another post.
The second time we met, a young couple had seen him just about to step off the curb to try to cross an insanely busy street near my casa. They scooped him up just in time.
At that point, Bruce joined our little flock.
But to this day, he flinches when I reach towards him. Whether I am reaching to pick him up, deliver his lunch (served on a large, smooth rock), or dangle a plump and delicious wriggling mealworm in front of him, he can’t seem to help it.
He cringes. Flinches. Pulls into his shell while simultaneously attempting to flee in all directions at once.
Sometimes, even when it is hot and humid out – his favorite weather – Bruce will dig himself into the dirt and hide for days at a time.
Over the last few decades, taking wild animals out of the wild to become pets has decimated local wild box turtle populations (not to mention other animal populations).
Our veterinarian estimates Bruce is between five and eight years old, although with turtles it is often hard to tell for sure. So who knows how many times he was “rescued” from a perfectly suitable wild habitat before he finally came to me?
Box turtles, unlike many other reptile species, strongly prefer to stay close to their birthplace for the balance of their lives. If removed from that specific area for any reason, they will spend the rest of their life looking for “home.” Many box turtles die making this attempt, because they won’t eat, won’t mate, won’t stop…their quest to find “home” is just that urgent.
In other words, unlike many other animals, box turtles can’t just resettle somewhere new if their birth site becomes unavailable for some reason. The only solution (which is sad and heart-breaking yet life-saving for this threatened population) then becomes implementing some form of captivity, complete with safe restraints to keep the wandering to a minimum.
Partly to help learn how to communicate more clearly with Bruce in ways that he finds less stressful and fear-producing as well as to help make inner peace with his captivity at my hands, I have recently begun taking a course about animal communication. The other day, that day’s lesson focused on how our companion animals mirror us, and how that mirroring can teach and heal us.
Mirroring, if you recall, is what happens when someone else yawns and we suddenly feel the need to yawn too.
Maybe we realize we just saw someone else yawn and maybe we don’t realize it. Either way, the yawn-to-come is just one example of what is thought to be a protective survival instinct that can also serve as a teaching tool as young beings grow up.
A couple months ago, I blogged about my experiences of rape (as an adult) and molestation (as a child) and how my friend and colleague Jenni Schaefer helped me find the courage to open up and share my experiences as a pathway to healing from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).
Well, as I was working on the lesson about how our companion animals can mirror us, I had an aha moment.
As I pondered Bruce’s fearful behavior, suddenly I saw the flinching, cringing, shell-lock and fleeing behaviors from a totally different perspective. I realized I had seen those same types of behaviors before….in me.
The cowering. The hiding. The retreating. The expression of fear even when nothing was occurring in that moment that was actually fearful.
Clearly, Bruce and I share more than just living space and a lifelong interest in and love of turtles. We’ve both been harmed. We’ve both been handled in ways we didn’t agree to. We’ve both been taken advantage of and messed with, and we are both wearing the residual effects of those experiences right out on our sleeves.
After this aha moment, I did a little digging. Do animals experience PTSD? Does it matter if the animal is wild, wild-caught, or domesticated from birth? If yes, do the behaviors look similar? What do scientists and animal behaviorists think?
From what I read online, the consensus amongst those scientists and behaviorists I recognize and respect is – absolutely. Of course. Any being who experiences harm at the hands of another, regardless of either being’s species, sustains injuries on multiple levels.
Depending on the nature of the handling and the resultant harm, those injuries may be physical, emotional, mental or relational. Sometimes they are all of the above.
But the point is, there will be injuries. They will persist until they are healed. And healing doesn’t tend to be something the injured being can do in isolation. Help is needed.
When Bruce first came to me, I had two sessions with an animal communicator to try to process his presence and how to proceed and then, to attempt to decode his puzzling behavior. I wanted to know why Bruce seemed so confident and sure of himself as he moved around my little office (and in particular, “claiming” for his own every item he found that smelled like my baby red-footed tortoise, Malti).
I wanted to know why Bruce seemed unafraid to meet my eye, and would often just gaze and gaze at me with an expression I read as curiosity. I wanted to know why he was rescued to me not once, but twice in the space of one week.
Most of all, I wanted to know why all of that confidence and curiosity disappeared the moment I tried to pick him up.
Suddenly, Bruce-the-Confident was replaced by Bruce-the-Flailing. He kicked. He thrashed. He never tried to bite me, and he didn’t pee or poop like so many non-human beings might do, but he was clearly exceptionally unhappy about being handled, which was sometimes unavoidable for various care-related reasons.
The communicator shared with me that Bruce had liked my energy the first time we met and that the second “rescue” was deliberate. And in fact, he was crossing that busy street heading in the direction of my casa when he was picked up the second time.
She told me that Bruce accepted he would need to live in captivity to remain with me, and that he had a mission and a purpose he wanted to fulfill that extended beyond simply living out his life as a solitary, wild box turtle.
She also told me Bruce would teach me a lot and would help me to “manage my energy.”
This last was quite intriguing and a little daunting, but I had no idea what she meant at the time. Now I do. The course I am taking in animal communication is revealing subtler nuances in my relationships with all three of my companion animals. I am seeing how my parrot, Pearl, and I have a different type of connection than the connection I have with either Bruce or Malti.
I am seeing how “managing my energy” doesn’t necessarily mean I’m doing anything wrong or bad or shameful. But it can mean I am acting before I stop to tune in to what the situation or the connection indicates is wanted or needed in each moment.
It can mean that rushing ahead, as I often do when I get busy and everyone needs feeding and cleaning and water changes and habitat adjustments, can throw the actual connection that makes all the rest worthwhile under the proverbial bus.
To fix that, I need to slow down. To tune in within and listen. To notice what is truly going on at an energy level. To trust my inner wisdom to guide and direct me. And only then….to act.
In the meantime, as Bruce and I learn to connect in mutually supportive ways, I would imagine that scientific researchers and animal behaviorists will also continue to research and gather data towards “proof” that non-human beings experience PTSD, anxiety, depression, grief, and the other full spectrum of emotions that we ourselves have. After all, we share our ancient limbic brain, the part that houses our primitive responses and our fight-or-flight survival instinct, with pretty much every other being on this planet.
But I don’t need any more proof to affirm that yes, animals can also experience PTSD. I am living with a fellow PTSD survivor right now, and he and I are even now hard at work on healing together.
Today’s Takeaway: What do you think? If you keep company with companion animals, have you ever had the experience of being mentored through trauma or hard times by your animals? Or have you extended help and healing to an animal who is going through grief or healing from something on some level? Do animals have the capacity to experience trauma even long after the actual incident happened? If yes, what has helped you form that conclusion? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Cutts, S. (2017). Why I Think Animals Get PTSD Too. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 23, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/mentoring-recovery/2017/08/why-i-think-animals-get-ptsd-too/