Here’s an easy read today as I’ve been very busy and, considering my last few posts have been pretty substantial, you deserve it. Today is World Animal Day, meaning that it’s time to open your heart to every creature out there – big, small and in-between – in a celebration of the amazing diversity of animal life on Earth. There are tons of incredible events taking place around the world (all operating under the World Animal Day banner) that you can get involved with to show support for the mission of the day – namely, to ‘raise the status of animals in order to improve welfare standards across the globe’. It’s tough to deny that the world’s animal population have a pretty raw deal right now; they’re even more vulnerable to the effects of climate change and man-made pollution than we are, and many species are also subjected to increasingly-exploitative farming practices. For that very reason we at MAG felt that World Animal Day was a cause worth getting behind, to the extent that alongside this animal-oriented article we've also chosen the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) as our charity of the month, an international NGO you've likely heard of who do tremendous work in the realm of wilderness preservation and rejuvenation. Check out the link above to read more about their mission to reduce the destructive impact of humankind upon the wildlife of the planet and donate yourself!
I do want, of course, to link the subject to health and wellbeing; primarily by looking at the impact that spending time with animals has upon mental health in an effort to foster more compassion for the numerous species we share the planet with. A few days ago I posted an article for World Vegetarian Day that outlined the many benefits that adopting a vegetarian diet can have. One benefit I didn’t mention, of course, is the fact that choosing such a diet means that fewer animals die as a result of meat demand. This is a much-debated ethical area that I’ll leave to the experts to discuss properly but it’s worth acknowledging, even if the argument is slightly outside the scope of this article.
Onwards, though, to taking a little look at how time spent around animals can impact your mental health in surprising ways. Now, when the average person hangs out with animals it’s usually in the form of owning a pet – most common of which, as you likely know, are dogs and cats. Of course, there are many other popular ones: after the two I mentioned, rabbits, indoor birds and guinea pigs make up the rest of the top five most widely-owned pets in the UK. Between these animals and the people that care for them there develops what is termed the ‘human-animal bond’ (not the most creative name, I’ll admit); the interdependent relationship between pets and their owners that revolves around mutually fulfilling certain needs. For us, that bond primarily benefits us in the form of company; it’s perhaps no surprise that dogs are among the most popular pets in almost every single country on Earth – they’re incredibly expressive, affectionate and loyal creatures: endless fountains of love and companionship. In a world that manages to both connect us in ways never-before seen yet also isolate us in the same manner, such companionship is increasingly-important to find. Of course, some animals are less expressive with their affection towards you – sometimes to the point where you aren’t sure it’s even there at all (I’m looking at you, Manny: the sea snail I owned in Year 4) – but the psychological effect of having another creature in your care is still greatly beneficial.
Pet ownership has been proven to reduce the levels of psychological stress in humans; feelings like anxiety, fear, depression, social isolation and loneliness are all soothed by the company of animals. The brain actually produces more oxytocin; a substance also known as the ‘love hormone’ that is secreted when we bond socially and physically, when spending regular time with animals. A study conducted in 2016 showed that the emotional support offered by pets is greatly beneficial to those battling long-term mental health issues. More outgoing and energetic creatures that require walking – mainly dogs, although I did see a man out with a ferret on a leash once – can even be helpful facilitators of social interactions; go out in public with a Pomeranian and see how often you get stopped if you require proof. Additionally, the discipline required to properly care for a pet and ensure all of it’s needs are met can help you strengthen your control over other aspects of your life too. All in all, pet ownership – done right – is a mutually-beneficial arrangement between animals and ourselves; and in a world that's suffering an ever-increasing amount of human-inflicted ecological damage such relationships are all the more important. There are certain arguments against pet ownership (which I won’t go into here as they’ll stretch this post out more than necessary) but one thing can certainly be said; it’s a practice that encourages the empathetic and compassionate treatment of animals, and in the 21st Century that’s a good thing.
You don’t have to own a pet to benefit from the human-animal bond, after all. Animals are all around, from the birds that sing us awake to the twelve spiders I live alongside (I’m far less chill about this than I sound). Practically wherever you go you’re surrounded by nature. Awareness of this fact can actually go hand-in-hand with another practice that has immense benefits for mental health: meditation. Many experienced meditators report feeling increasingly-connected with the natural world, and ever-more empathetic towards all life. We can feed back into this positive relationship by ensuring we treat other life as kindly as we would treat ourselves and each other. If you don’t have the time or energy to care for even a particularly self-reliant tortoise, why not feed the birds in the park once in a while? Give your neighbour’s cat some love? Go swimming with dolphins in the sea? Scratch an adult alligator’s itchy snout?* Earth is still teeming with animal life, as much as humankind is currently doing to change that. It’s always worth grounding ourselves and recognising that we aren’t the centre of the universe; the more humble we can be in that respect, the more tranquil a relationship we can have with the world around us and, hopefully, ourselves. I believe that’s a message we should all be spreading and living by this World Animal Day.
*For legal reasons, I’d like to clarify that I’m very much kidding with this suggestion.