BOOKS: Wild Health

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2002:

Wild Health:
How Animals Keep Themselves Well
and What We Can Learn From Them
by Cindy Engel
Houghton Mifflin (215 Park Ave. South, New York, NY 10003), 2002.
288 pages, paperback. $24.00.

Vegetarian activists and antivivisectionists often point out
the incomprehensible extent to which biomedical researchers have
overlooked the influence of diet on human health–and thus have
expended millions of animal lives in search of cures for ailments
which could be avoided by simply avoiding animal flesh and byproducts.
Though diet has received much more medical attention during
the past 30 years than in the preceding several centuries, human
physicians still tend to ignore Hippocrates’ admonition to, “Leave
your drugs in the chemist’s pot if you can heal your patient with

Thus it is not really any surprise that human investigation
of animal health maintenance has only just begun, since animals look
after themselves chiefly through dietary amendment. Cindy Engel, in
Wild Health, pulls together observations from an astonishing array
of field biologists, zookeepers, veterinarians, folklorists, and
others who for one reason or another have recorded relevant material,
usually as a sidenote to whatever they were mainly interested in.
Along the way, Engel is appropriately skeptical of ideas
that would require animals to have mystical insights and intuitions,
while often finding a simple, logical explanation for curative
For example, Engel explains, the taste preferences of
animals–and humans–tend to shift with digestive upset, and this in
turn can lead to consumption of modest amounts of bitter materials
with remedial qualities, which otherwise would be shunned as
completely inedible.
Engel’s most important insight may be that food and medicine
are a continuum, with materials of high nutritional value at one end
of the scale and materials of only therapeutic value at the other.
This is so far from a new concept that it is implicit in the term
“health food,” and is embodied in the very name of the U.S. Food and
Drug Administration, founded in 1916–which nonetheless cedes most
regulation of substances deemed to be “food” to the U.S. Department
of Agriculture.
As the main job of the USDA is to promote American
agribusiness, Diet For A New America author John Robbins and others
argue that human cultural blindness toward the importance of the
“food” end of the food/medicine balance is essentially the outcome of
a century-old USDA-driven plot. Yet there is evidence that animals
of all species are easily tempted to eat more of preferred foods than
is good for them, if they can, and must then seek remedies for the
consequences–if remedies are available.
Usually, antidotes are found in the form of plant material
that relieves constipation, scrubs the bowels of worms, and so
forth, but the chief limit to animal overconsumption of foods with
harmful properties is access: relatively rarely can animals get
enough of anything truly dangerous to do themselves irrevocable harm.
Human ingenuity provides the major observable exception.
Engel theorizes that alcoholism originated in the interest of animals
in obtaining the high energy value of fermented fruit. As the supply
of fermented fruit is not normally large enough in the wild to
facilitate much drunkeness, animals developed relatively little
aversion to becoming drunk, and thereby vulnerable to injury and
predation. Humans upset the balance by discovering artificial means
of fermenting fruit and grain to produce alcohol at will.
But many animals also display an interest in “getting high,”
a subject to which Engel devotes an entire chapter. Ingesting
fermented fruit is just one of many strategies that animals use to
obtain anesthetic relief from pain and stress. Just as “food” and
“drugs” are ends of a continuum, so “curatives” and “pain relievers”
are another, as certain substances actually alter pathological
conditions and others merely make those conditions more tolerable.
One might argue, ultimately, that most pharmaceutical
experimentation on animals merely seeks to replicate in a laboratory
what has already been done, largely unobserved and unrecorded, in
nature. More attentive notice of animals might yield cures for much
of what ails us–and, as most ANIMAL PEOPLE readers know,
observation of animals can be therapeutic in itself.

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