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The Human Animal

Sep 24, 2019 · 5 min read

When did you start studying the connections between human and animal health?

I came to UCLA in 1988 for residencies in internal medicine and psychiatry [at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute] following medical school at [the University of California, San Francisco,] and undergraduate and graduate school at Harvard, where I had studied evolutionary biology. During my cardiovascular fellowship at UCLA, I became focused on cardiac imaging. I was imaging lots of patients with a range of cardiovascular conditions, helping to develop imaging technologies for our cardiac arrhythmia group. Then a phone call changed my life.

What was the call?

The call came from a veterinarian at the Los Angeles Zoo. One of their chimpanzees, Pandora, had symptoms that were neurological, and they wanted me to do an imaging procedure to rule out a cardiac cause. It was something I had done on thousands of human patients, but that day I performed it on my first nonhuman patient. Over the years, I imaged her many times and got to know her well. Then [the zoo] started asking me to image their gorillas and other primate patients. Eventually, I was working on a whole range of animals — a bear, a tapir, a lion, a California condor with a heart murmur. It was a magnificent experience.

Where did that experience lead you?

It led me to think deeply about how to take the information I was getting from veterinary medicine and bring it to human medicine. And I started conducting systematic reviews on a range of health challenges in humans, looking for their spontaneous occurrence in animals — both captive and wild — from breast cancer and diabetes to atherosclerosis and infertility. That led to more research, my partnership with Kathryn, our book Zoobiquity and the Zoobiquity conferences.

Did you see a need for more connection between veterinarians and physicians?

I was learning so much from veterinary cardiologists, veterinary oncologists and animal behaviorists who deal with eating problems, self-injury, anxiety, depression and compulsion in their patients. I realized we could accelerate innovation, and we started the conferences to bring physicians and veterinarians together.

Can you give some examples?

At the Zoobiquity event at the Nobel Conference, for instance, we brought together giraffe veterinarians and medical doctors to explore how giraffes’ heart muscles get very thick from having to pump at a high pressure without the tissue getting stiff, as a human heart muscle does when it thickens from high blood pressure. We asked why hibernating bears who don’t drink anything [and don’t] urinate for four or five months avoid becoming uremic. So, turning to the natural world to identify adaptations becomes nature’s massive R & D project.

What led to your new book, “Wildhood”?

One chapter in Zoobiquity about comparative adolescence was an eye-opener. Animals of all species transition from being juveniles to mature adults. We knew human adolescence was dangerous. Annual mortality increases at least sevenfold between the ages of 12 and 19, mostly due to car accidents. Is it also dangerous for birds? For fish? We conducted large systematic reviews and found that it is remarkably similar from one species to another. There are some tragic but fascinating parallels [between adolescence in animals and humans] that are important for physicians and parents to recognize.

How does that look in the animal world?

High mortality relates to inexperience. When birds reach a certain size, they leave the nest. They are no longer protected by parents and also lack experience. They’re what wildlife biologists call “predator naïve.” Those first few days out of the nest are the most dangerous of their lives. But every week they live, the likelihood of living another week goes up. Experience with danger makes them safer. Unfortunately, that experience can be deadly. Some adolescent animals will move toward a predator instead of away. The hypothesis is that [the animals] are learning what’s dangerous, getting information about how to tell whether a predator has fed or not, because they’re more dangerous when they’re hungry.

Is that your next book?

Well, there is a lot of research on orcas and menopause. But for now, my focus is on adolescence. My mission is to understand the human animal in a deeper way. Teaming up with veterinarians is a great way to make this happen. This younger generation of doctors is more collaborative and connected to the natural world. So I am optimistic.

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Mary Daily

Mary Daily

Mary Daily is a writer in Los Angeles and Wake Forest, North Carolina.