The Importance of the Human-Animal Bond

There’s some indication that the human-animal bond has affected evolution.

| June 2014

  • The human-animal bond is a metaphor for the roles animals play in our lives.
    Photo by Fotolia/Andres Rodriguez
  • Aubrey H. Fine, a licensed psychologist, explores the relationships we form with pets, and their value, in “Our Faithful Companions.”
    Cover courtesy Alpine Publications

Explore the nature of the bond humans have with animals in Our Faithful Companions (Alpine Publications, 2014). Aubrey H. Fine illustrates the ties we form with these beings that are vital to our health and theirs. Within the past thirty years, animals have been employed by psychologists in animal-assisted therapy (AAT) thanks to research suggesting that our relationships with them help us cope with emotional stress. In the following excerpt from chapter one, Fine uses this scientific data along with personal stories to begin explaining the importance of the human-animal bond.

So what is what we call the human-animal bond? In many ways, the definition captures the spirit of the infant/parent bond, which is actually the reason why the term was originally developed. People like Leo Bustad, one of the founders of the Delta Society (now called Pet Partners), basically believed that when they looked at the relationship we have with other species of animals, in many ways what we see is a support system that parallels the infant-parent relationship. In another sense, the phrase “human-animal bond” is a metaphor for the roles animals play in our lives.

Bill McCulloch, DVM, another Delta Society founder, explains a defining moment in 1959 early in his small-animal veterinary practice in Des Moines, Iowa. He recalls that when he left his veterinary practice to pursue a masters degree in public health at the University of Minnesota, a client who owned a Beagle came into the hospital to give him a present. “What they said was to be the seed of my eventual interest and efforts in the human-animal bond: ‘Dr. McCulloch, you know that my husband and I could not have children and our Beagle was like a child and member of our family to us. Somehow, we sensed that you understood this attachment. We love you for that!’” In essence, Bill understood the impact of the bond.

While he may have emulated these feelings as a veterinarian, Bill’s understanding of the importance of the bond was established as a young child. He grew up on his grandparents’ farm in Minnesota in the late 1930s and 1940s, and his early life experiences helped form his impressions of what a veterinarian should be. His grandfather owned draft horses and never rode a tractor, even after a time when the family had three John Deeres on the property. He remembered with great emotion the day his granddad sold his two horses to a neighbor in the fall of 1994. “I saw tears in the old Swede’s eyes as the horses left his land. Although they may have been draft horses to others, they were part of his life.”

It seems apropos that a graduate of Iowa State University (ISU) would develop this keen sensitivity of what it means to be a caring doctor. ISU is home to one of the most famous statues in veterinary medicine, called the Gentle Doctor. In fact, the statue reminds all of us about the compassion that is often present in a patient/doctor relationship. Bill often sat in front of this wonderful piece of art, perhaps not even realizing its message. It doesn’t take long to recognize that the image of the “gentle doctor” has been illuminated deep within his soul. Bill was the “gentle doctor” to that Beagle’s family; he understood the value of the dog to its family, not because of his veterinary training, but because of a life built deeply on understanding the principles of the bond.

Today, Bill’s story is increasingly more common. There is a new interdisciplinary field called anthrozoology that highlights the study of the relationships between humans and animals. One key area in the field is studying the bond.

7/16/2014 6:47:22 AM

One problem woth this article is the continuing insistence that there is something that distinguishes "humans" from animals. Christianity plays an important role in this by granting humans "domininion" over all other life on earth. We so-called humans are animals and a particularly noxious species of animal at that. Just ponder the word " humanity" or humanitarianism" and try to find any trait that is commonplace that supports the mythology. The sooner we recognize our kinship with all other life on earth, the sooner we can reverse the damage and suffering we bring to earth every day.

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