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."

Meanwhile, Prosen and the zookeeping staff began Brian's therapy, focusing on making changes to their own behavior and his environment. They spoke quietly and moved slowly and consistently. No sudden movements or loud noises. They made each of his days exactly the same, and only introduced new things slowly and deliberately. They had Brian hang out with apes who were younger than him, so that he could learn what he'd never been taught as a kid: play.

"Interacting with adult females, to whom he’d had no exposure as a youngster, caused him all sorts of anxiety," Braitman writes. "This was confusing to the rest of the troop because Brian looked like an eight- or nine-year-old young male, but developmentally he acted like a five- or six-year-old."

By 2001, after four hard years of therapy and improvement, Brian had begun to integrate into the Milwaukee troop. The zookeepers saw it as significant that a new mother let him touch her 10-day-old baby, and over the the next few years, his behavior became more and more socially aware. They peg his 16th birthday, in 2006, as the time when he "started acting his age." He loves carrying around the babies in the troop, and even managed to have his own children. And, as his keeper Barbara Bell recalled, he went off Paxil at some point, after he took to sharing it (!) with the other apes.

As the years went by, Lody grew old and frail. Brian began to take on the older male's leadership role within the troop. And when Lody died in 2012, Brian became one of the group leaders. It was a remarkable transformation for a sick, disturbed young ape to have made.

Brian's the one giving the backrub here.

Prosen, for his part, attributes Brian's growth to Lody and Kitty, the blind female who helped him out in his earliest, darkest period. While his therapy and the pharmaceuticals did some good, it was the community of zookeepers and animals working together that seems to have gotten him on the path to social integration. "Empathy knows no country, no species, is universal and has always been available,” Prosen said. “I discovered after arriving at the zoo that it belonged to the bonobos long before us.”

For Braitman, though, she does see something special in the way humans look out for other animals. So many of the traits that we thought distinguished our species have been found in other creatures, but we stand out among the animals for how we care for other species. Certainly not at all times or in all industries, but "humans are ridiculously special when it comes to our desire to intervene and heal the distress in many other species, especially our pets," Braitman told me. "I met people who'd turned their houses into rabbit sanctuaries and their ponds into otter rehab habitats."

We might not be the only tool-using mammals or the only species with a sense of self, but "the great lengths we go to help our animals is one thing that still sets us apart," she said.