Brian the Mentally Ill Bonobo, and How He Healed

It took a troop of apes, and a psychiatrist, and a little Paxil.
A young bonobo at a sanctuary in the Congo (Reuters)

Things were not looking good for Brian. He'd been kept from the affection of his mother—and all other women—and raised alone by his father, who sexually traumatized him. Normal social interactions were impossible for him. He couldn't eat in front of others and required a series of repeated, OCD-like rituals before he'd take food. He was scared of any new thing, and when he got stressed, he'd just curl up into the fetal position and scream.

He also hurt himself over and over, tearing off his own fingernails and intentionally cutting his genitals. He was socially outcast, left to clap his hands, spin in circles, and stare blankly at walls by himself.

Still, some other bonobos were kind to him. Kitty, a 49-year-old blind female, and Lody, a 27-year-old male, spent time with Brian. When he panicked, Lody sometimes led him by the hand to their playpen at the Milwaukee County Zoo. 

After six weeks, the zookeepers knew they had to do something. They called Harry Prosen, who was the chair of the psychiatry department at the Medical College of Wisconsin, who took Brian on as his first non-human patient. 

Brian's story is one of many that Laurel Braitman tells in her new book, Animal Madness: How anxious dogs, compulsive parrots, and elephants in recovery help us understand ourselves, a survey of mental illness in animals and its relationship to our own problems. 

The individual stories in the book are compelling, and they lead towards an interesting conclusion about the way we project our own attributes onto other species. How much should we anthropomorphize animals like our pets or apes like Brian? As much as it helps us help them. If treating Brian like a human psychiatric patient helped Prosen treat the suffering animal, then it makes sense to project that level of humanness onto the creature. 

Prosen began with a full psychiatric history of Brian. He'd been born at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta. Bonobos are famously, polymorphously, perversely sexual—but they don't generally engage in sexual violence. And yet Brian's father, who had suffered his own traumas as a research animal, sodomized Brian for years. During his seven years at Yerkes, Brian started to stick his own hand into his rectum, causing bleeding and—over time—thickening of the tissue there. It was a horrifying situation. 

In 1997, when Brian arrived, the bonobo crew at the Milwaukee County Zoo, which was the largest captive troop in the United States, was unusually stable and nice, seemingly due to the calming presence of two apes, Maringa, and Brian's friend, Lody. The troop had already helped other animals recover from mental disturbances, which is one reason that Brian had been sent there. But he seemed beyond natural recovery. 

Lody in 2005 (Richard Brodzeller/Zoological Society of Milwaukee)

Prosen first prescribed Paxil, to help with Brian's anxiety, occasionally supplemented by Valium, on the bad days. "The beauty of the drug therapy," Prosen told Braitman, "was that the other bonobos could start to see him for who he really was, which was really a cool little dude."

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