Anxiety, Depression and OCD: Inside America's Zoos

Zoos contact Virga when animals develop difficulties that vets and keepers cannot address, and he is expected to produce tangible, observable results. Often, the animals suffer from afflictions that haven’t been documented in the wild and appear uncomfortably close to our own: He has treated severely depressed snow leopards, brown bears with obsessive-compulsive disorder and phobic zebras. “Scientists often say that we don’t know what animals feel because they can’t speak to us and can’t report their inner states,” Virga told me. “But the thing is, they are reporting their inner states. We’re just not listening.” …

Virga believed that BaHee, an 11-year-old gibbon, was clinically depressed. The cause was grief, which is the reason Virga didn’t pursue an aggressive course of treatment for the gibbon’s symptoms, instead prescribing “concern, patience and understanding” and advising BaHee’s keepers to not overreact. The worst of the depression lasted three or four months, a span similar to the acute phase of human grief after the sudden death of a family member. By the summer of the next year, BaHee’s symptoms had mostly disappeared. When I asked Kim Warren, another of his keepers, about the episode, she said: “BaHee was grieving. You could see it on his face.” Then she reconsidered. “I shouldn’t say that,” she said, choosing her words carefully, “because that’s anthropomorphism. I should say instead that BaHee was displaying withdrawal behaviors.”

-Alex Halberstadt, in the New York Times Magazine, on the work of Dr. Vint Virga.

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