As a veterinarian who specializes in behavioral medicine, Dr. Vint Virga has treated many household pets in his clinic. But for the past five years he has been working mostly with leopards, wolves, bears, zebras and other animals living in zoos and wildlife parks. He deals with such issues as appetites, anxiety and obsessive behavior.
In the interview he discusses how zoos have changed to improve the animals’ well being:
"I think the most important things that zoos have done in the past 10, 20 years, is that they [have] focused primarily on the animal’s well-being. And, depending on their feedback and responses, looked at their behavior, looked at their overall happiness and contentment and used that as the gauge for what to do for the animal.
They’ve also applied as much [as] science knows about the animals in nature. What that looks like is providing them with a space that’s a lot more rich and full than just a place that is an exhibit. So it’s really shifting from not a cage, because most zoos don’t even have those anymore, but from an exhibit to a habitat. The environment is much richer and more complex rather than flat and uniform, so that we can see them.
[Zoos are] providing [animals with] opportunities to escape from view of the public — and that can be difficult for a zoo. … Visitors complain to the zoo if they can’t see the leopard, the bear or the lion. But on the other hand, if the lion doesn’t have any choice of getting away from the public at times, particularly if there [are] crowds or noisy visitors, then we’re taking away their sense of control over their environment.”
An unaccompanied child migrant was the first person in line on opening day of the new immigration station at Ellis Island. Her name was Annie Moore, and that day, January 1, 1892, happened to be her 15th birthday. She had traveled with her two little brothers from Cork County, Ireland, and when they walked off the gangplank, she was awarded a certificate and a $10 gold coin for being the first to register. Today, a statue of Annie stands on the island, a testament to the courage of millions of children who passed through those same doors, often traveling without an older family member to help them along.
“I was in graduate school, but things got to be too much, so I came to a halfway house in Boston for mental health treatment. I’m schizophrenic, so it was not realistic to continue my studies.”
“Was graduate school the first time you realized you had a problem?”
“I had known for years that I had pretty bad mental health issues, yet I could still do my studies well. I was afraid of being sent away forever to a mental hospital, so I didn’t want to go into treatment until I absolutely had to. It turns out that mental health treatment is not as bad as I thought it would be. Referring to an entire group of people as ‘the mentally ill’ implies that it’s a permanent condition and there is nothing you can do about it. I’m employed and pretty functional, so I think I’m a good example that things like this are treatable and can happen to anyone.”
“Do you think that the stress of graduate school had anything to do with your mental health getting worse?”
“It definitely did. I was pretty isolated in graduate school – the people I knew were more my colleagues than my friends, and we talked mostly about work. When I first got there my assigned advisor had gone on sabbatical, so I didn’t have an advisor for my first year, which I felt was negligent. Also, math was starting to feel sterile and abstract. I didn’t feel that I was doing anything useful with my life; I was just solving little puzzles. I remember having an idealistic view of what it was like to be a professor; in reality, it wasn’t nearly as nice.
“There were minor things too, such as my office not having any windows, which after six months made me feel stuck. Since then I’ve learned, of course, that my problems are fundamentally neurological, so it’s not like having a window would’ve cured anything. At the same time, mental hygiene is important. It’s possible that if I had found an environment in graduate school where I was happier, I might have gone to treatment before I had to go to the hospital. Instead, I wanted to work on short term goals, pushing through my papers and assignments to avoid focusing on the long term.”
“Does your condition affect your current work?”
“It does. I was hired full time, but I moved down to part time fairly recently. I needed more time to space out my week in order to resolve all the issues I was accumulating. My illness also strongly affects my professional advancement. It’s difficult to accept that I can’t think too far ahead about my career. Making sure I’m employed is enough of a challenge that I can’t afford to have my head in the clouds and set great goals for myself.”
“What else have you learned from this experience so far?”
“I’ve learned that once people get to know you, the stigma tends to go away. Often people will get to know me not realizing that I have any problems. We come to like each other really well, but then they say something insensitive. Schizophrenia is the archetype of mental illness and, for many, is synonymous with crazy person. So people would see someone and say, ‘Oh, that guy must be schizophrenic.’ Then I would say, ‘You know, that’s actually not very nice because… ‘
“I think a lot of people haven’t been exposed in their personal lives to schizophrenia or severe bipolar disorder. Once they are, the stigma goes away. That’s why I think that someone going through something very severe should open up to their friends about it, without worrying about the reaction. It’s not going to be as bad as your brain is telling you. For me, it was very difficult to sort of ‘come out.’ I think a lot of people have the fear that they are going to lose friends. The truth is, if people are going to ditch you, they are not really your friends. That is not a good reason to end a friendship.”
“Did you ever think, I can deal with this myself. It’s not a neurological issue, and I’ll be OK.?”
“Not really. Instead, I blamed myself a lot. I would think, ‘I’m sitting here thinking about suicide when I should be doing work. What’s wrong with me?’ The correct answer was ‘I need to go to the doctor’, but instead I interpreted my condition as just being lazy. I think that’s a good example of why you need a therapist, someone outside your own brain who can help you through it.
“One of the problems, I think, is that we as a society don’t view mental illness in the same way as physical illness. We have a hard time accepting that the brain is a physical organ where things can go wrong. We prefer to ignore that fact because mental illness affects people’s behavior and personality. I’m not ashamed to talk about my condition because I view it as a medical diagnosis like anything else.”
Ok, so all of the HONY posts usually have 30,000 posts within a day of posting. Right now this has 604. So while the commentary is long, I am posting it again. The content is so DAMN important!
About a week later and only 707.
Read the content and then reblog. It explains so much.