Threats n fear

I am still reading the book Zoobiquity and one chapter is about the similarity of heart attacks in people and animals. According to the author, a doctor and head of internal medicine in a teaching hospital, whenever a shocking event like an earthquake or tsunami or even a war close by takes place, people get far more heart attacks than normal. Chest pains, arrhythmias and deaths rise. For instance when the Iraqi forces sent Scud missiles into Tel Aviv and civilians faced the possibility of being blown up at random, more Israelis died from heart attacks than from the missiles. Fear and dread is a terrible weapon. I know because I have lived with it most of my life and working with sick and dying animals can literally weaken and break your heart. During the 9/11 time, heart attacks reached an all time high across America. Doctors say that people watching sports matches often keel over from anxiety.

But are humans the only ones that die of fright? No. Bird trappers see that when they throw a net over forest birds and then move to put them into capture boxes, many have died on the spot, terrified by the sudden capture. The heart and the mind are inexorably linked. People die of emotional stress- even though their hearts and arteries are clean and healthy. The only thing that doctors find in such cases is a lightbulb shaped bulge at the bottom of the heart, now known as Takotsubo- direct physical evidence that severe stress (fear, grief, shock, intense negative emotion) can alter the shape of the heart and the way it pumps blood. It is now called the “broken–heart syndrome”. Not just human, every animal gets it. Watch an elephant that lies down by its dead friend or child and dies a few days later. That is Takotsubo. Stress hormones called catecholamines gush into the blood stream, poisoning muscles, causing clots, and causing the heart to beat wildly and dangerously.

Many years ago, a very prominent wildlife scientist in South India was arrested when the tigers that he had captured in order to radio-collar, died immediately on capture. There was no explanation except that the animal had simply died of stress. In zoos, deer die when they are being relocated from one enclosure to another. One deer is darted, the others start running around and then heart attacks kill them. Ignorant zoo officers then try to put the blame on stray dogs.

The catechocholamines in a chased animal rise so high that they overwhelm the skeletal and cardiac muscles and cause them to break down. The skeletal muscles break down and their proteins enter the bloodstream and shut down the kidneys. A sign common to both humans and animals is rust coloured urine. Sports that call for extreme performances often result in this: Horses, dogs and other animals that are used for races simply collapse and die.

Animals that are chased die from the stress of being hunted by predators, hunters, zoologists and wildlife “experts”. Some crumple to the ground and die immediately. Some linger for weeks, listless and depressed till they die. Giraffes that are caught to be relocated die quickly. Deer deaths can go up to 50%. Even wild horses, that are chased and caught, die from what scientists call capture myopathy. Post-capture deaths are 10% – an extremely high figure. In birds it is more.

Human beings are so frightened of being captured and restrained that the number of sudden cardiac deaths in new prisoners is very high. Similarly, nothing is more frightening for an animal than to be captured or restrained. It means they are going to be killed. The brain and heart goes into overload immediately. Even lobsters caught in pots die of fright. Their meat is discoloured and rots faster. Leopards that are caught in Uttarakhand almost never survive their capture. They die by the time they are taken into the zoo – often it is thought to be that the anaesthetic has been badly calculated, but see the thrashing and head butting of a leopard against its cage and you will see an animal that is scared enough to kill itself rather than be killed. Bears and wolves react the same way.

Physical restraint on an animal on a medical table invites terror. Dogs with muzzles overheat and die very quickly – more from fright than the weather.

Noise has the same effect. During the terrible senseless noise and firecrackers of Diwali, thousands of birds and animals die in their nest and trees, not hit by missiles but scared by the terrible sudden noises. Every city loses 20% of its birds during October-November and it can never make them up which is why you don’t see birds around any more. Dogs crouched in the open sewers die. Dogs under the beds of their owner’s homes shiver and die.

Rabbits and sheep die. Rabbits die suddenly when rock music is put on. Sheep and goats die from the noise of a helicopter above them. It has often been thought that music is good for animals but concerts held near zoos has often resulted in several sudden deaths. Dalmatian dogs are especially vulnerable to sudden noise related death. The takotsubo malfunction shows up in all their hearts.

Baby animals that are frightened into hiding, from baby fish, fawns, alligators, rats to birds, have their heart rate decreased out of fear. But in the tension of hiding, a sudden loud noise and the heart literally bursts. Doctors say this is what happens in most crib deaths of human infants as well.

Flocks of small birds often react like this to predatory birds. A raptor swoops down and snatches a bird. The birds near the victim often keel over with fright. Some faint. Others die.

The terror of an animal needs to be understood so that captured or confined animals can survive. We need to understand that the connection between the heart and brain is the same in the human as it is in the tiniest of all creatures.

Maneka Gandhi


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*Proper wildlife rehabilitation is an extremely biologically and ecologically responsible attitude toward all living things.*