Transforming Trauma: Healing Through Connecting with Animals

An interview with the editors of a new and important book.

Posted Jul 10, 2019

"Have you ever looked deep into the eyes of an animal and felt entirely known? Often, the connections we share with non-human animals represent our safest and most reliable relationships, offering unique and profound opportunities for healing in periods of hardship."

An outstanding forward-looking new book called Transforming Trauma: Resilience and Healing Through Our Connections With Animals recently crossed my desk and it's my pleasure to spread the word about it through an interview with its editors, Philip Tedeschi and Molly Anne Jenkins of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection in the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver. Philip also is on the governor-appointed People for Animal Welfare (PAW) Panel.  

Transforming Trauma is a book many people have long waited for. The outstanding original transdisciplinary essays by renowned scholars cover a wide array of topics, all of which focus on nonhuman animals' (animals) ability to help us learn the importance of forming and maintaining deep, meaningful, and reciprocal relationships with them and other human animals. These range from an analysis of the interpersonal neurobiological implications of connections with other animals to the power of play — just having a good old time with others.

There also are informed discussions of the ethical considerations of relationships with nonhumans and the importance of recognizing, appreciating, respecting, and honoring nonhuman sentience and the neurodiversity of these remarkable beings. In an increasingly human-dominated world, nonhuman animals need all the help they can get and this seminal volume deserves a broad global audience. 

I previously wrote about two chapters in this landmark book because of my interest in how nonhumans fare in our relationships with them, and I keep going back to Transforming Trauma for more details about all aspects of our relationships with other animals. Below is an interview with  Tedeschi and Jenkins. 

Why did you compile the essays for Transforming Trauma?

The relationships we share with non-human animals – whether through close, personal friendship or brief encounters in therapeutic settings — are increasingly gaining serious recognition as important components of our health and well-being. This relatively recent development has led to rapid growth in the study and implementation of animal-assisted interventions (AAIs), particularly for people coping with the trauma of war and inhumanity, personal and community violence, child maltreatment, large-scale natural disaster, chronic pain and illness, and profound loss. Despite recent advancements, post-traumatic stress remains a difficult condition to treat successfully, with various forms of trauma showing treatment resistance. Moreover, as the risk and rates of trauma-related suicide continue to increase, the need to provide effective and informed treatment options for this population has become all the more urgent.

Purdue University Press
Source: Purdue University Press

From our research, practice, and personal experiences in the growing field of human-animal interaction (HAI), we know that connecting with and caring for, non-human animals are associated with a wide range of therapeutic benefits. For example, studies show that animals can help alleviate anxiety; reduce depression; provide social support, companionship, and purpose; and even improve physical health. Likewise, when thoughtfully included in traditional treatment settings and interventions, animals may enhance mental health outcomes by strengthening the alliance between therapists and clients and providing a motivating and safe presence for people to engage in therapy. Taken together, these benefits can have a powerful impact on one’s ability to recover and heal from trauma.

Given the exciting potential of trauma-informed AAIs, we knew we wanted to create a comprehensive and transdisciplinary resource on the topic for practitioners, researchers, students, and the general public. One of the first catalysts for this book was a conference we hosted in 2015 called "Transforming Trauma: Research Developments and Methods for Trauma-Informed Animal-Assisted Interventions." This event, held at the University of Denver as part of our “Animals on the Mind” conference series, offered two days of presentations by our colleagues at DU’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection and other inspiring scholars, including you, on the contemporary research, practice, and ethical considerations of AAI for trauma. 

Equally important were compelling accounts from our students and other conference participants on how bonding with animals has helped them overcome the challenges of their own trauma histories. Indeed, over the last decade, many students enrolled in the animal-assisted social work program at DU have shared that their interest in AAI stems from personal experiences in which an animal helped them cope with the impacts of child maltreatment, parental divorce, and grief related to other losses.

Overall, this conference helped shape the primary themes and areas of focus for this book’s essays, including: 

  1. Highlighting child maltreatment, military service, and crisis response as three main sources of human trauma.
  2. Advocating for ethical standards and mandates regarding the respectful treatment of individual animals who take part in AAI.
  3. Emphasizing the important and often transformative impacts that human-animal relationships can have for diverse populations, species, and environments across the globe.

How does the theme of this collection follow up on your past and current interests?

As social workers, we are inherently committed to social justice and to elevating the well-being of others, including human and non-human animals, in their social and natural environments. At the heart of this book (and our work at DU) is that people thrive through connection with other living beings, but only when animals and their surrounding environment are thriving too. For a person who has experienced trauma, merely seeing an animal who is feeling well and receiving gentle affection may alleviate much of his or her anxiety by signifying that the immediate environment and those within it are safe and non-threatening.

Given that the health of humans, animals, and the planet are all interconnected, it is our role as animal-assisted social workers to underscore the broad impact of treating individual animals with kindness; to recognize the deeply-rooted issues of privilege and oppression that exist in our relationships with other animals; and to ensure that ethical standards are established and followed regarding the inclusion of animals in human health agendas, such as trauma treatment.

As such, we felt it was essential that animal welfare considerations be discussed as a central theme in this book—one that is as important, if not more so, than those regarding the improvement of human psychological health through AAI. Because, at a fundamental level, if an animal’s well-being is jeopardized during an intervention, that interaction is no longer ethical nor can any meaningful therapeutic transfer take place.  

In this book, we were also interested in highlighting the need to fund more varied and progressive models of HAI research informed by current practice. In order to be competitive for grant funding, most researchers must adhere to fairly consistent, “gold standard” design methodologies, such as randomized controlled trials with large sample sizes, multiple study sites, validated and physiological measures, and strict treatment protocol fidelity. While it is not our intention to undermine the value of these research elements, we worry that an absolute expectation of their inclusion may be quite costly on the whole, as well as prohibitive for a number of prospective researchers who envision a new or different approach.

Moreover, we tend to agree with other scholars who have argued that the very specific conditions present in rigorous studies reporting positive HAI findings often lack authenticity or practicality in “real world” settings and scenarios. Going forward, we hope that a commitment to high research standards can be augmented by an expanded view of what is considered worthy of our time, attention, and monetary support. 

Who is your intended audience?

With Transforming Trauma, we hope to reach a broad audience of transdisciplinary practitioners and researchers (in the HAI, mental health, animal welfare, and conservation fields), as well as students and the general public (pet owners). As animals and animal relationships are important to the well-being of people all over the world, we were also committed to drawing attention to the culturally diverse AAI practices of our international colleagues. In part, this volume is intended to be a resource to inform and optimize formal AAI practice for people who are struggling with the aftermath of trauma.

However, we hope that it will also serve as an opportunity for readers to rethink their everyday relationships with other animals, and to begin to see the parallels between their own health (or trauma) and that of the animals they cherish, briefly encounter, or never even meet. As we continue to be collectively traumatized through witnessing the health decline of our planet and its inhabitants (“solastalgia”), this book may indeed play an important role in identifying how we may start to repair or transform some of the damage we have done through respectful, compassionate, and mutually beneficial human-animal relationships.  

Are you hopeful that our connections with other animals will be used more and more in the future to heal trauma, perhaps ours and theirs? And how do you factor in the well-being of the nonhumans so that it's not a one-sided relationship? Many people are concerned that if it's "all for the humans," there are some serious ethical issues. 

We couldn’t agree more that there is significant potential for animal stress in interventions designed primarily to benefit humans and our well-being. To date, research findings regarding animal stress in AAIs have been mixed. In fact, we and our contributors highlight this point time and again throughout the book in an effort to challenge our readers to think critically about whether the inclusion of animals (or an individual animal) in trauma work is appropriate, and what may be necessary to ensure their well-being before, during, and after an intervention.

Indeed, both of us worry that, if we and others succeed in demonstrating the fundamental effectiveness of AAI, the field could likely serve as yet another way to exploit animals for the purpose of serving human needs. In each chapter of Transforming Trauma, the reader will find a thoughtful discussion regarding these and other ethical considerations, as well as specific steps that one can take to safeguard animals from any harm or distress that may arise during AAI participation. 

At the same time, both of us are firm believers in the multifaceted benefits of connecting with animals—for us, for them, for the planet we share, and for our collective (one) health. In fact, we feel that the AAI field may be one of our best mechanisms of improving animal well-being by modeling how to respectfully interact with an animal, and through encouraging AAI recipients to provide empathic caregiving based on the animal’s individual needs, history of trauma, behavioral and emotional responses, personality traits, and preferences. Integral to this process is an unwavering commitment to applied ethics and ethical standards in the field; in essence, AAI mental health practitioners must also be ethicists.

Over time, we have observed that, while well-intentioned, many other disciplines that promote animal well-being have not significantly improved human behavior. We hope that this book, as well as the AAI field as a whole, not only highlights the importance of animals in our own health and recovery from trauma, but also the significance of animal lives and our responsibility to actively advocate for their welfare. 

What are some of your current projects?

The Institute for Human-Animal Connection seeks to intentionally elevate the value of the living world and the interrelationship and health of people, other animals, and the environment. This is accomplished through natural and social science-informed education, applied knowledge, research, and advocacy, with ethical regard for all species. Both of us work closely with graduate-level social work students in the classroom and on a variety of projects.

Note from the artist on the cover image — “Safe” by Elicia Edijanto, 2014, watercolor on paper.

“My art is my cathartic release, just like a journal or diary where I can share my feelings. For me, nature is always the best remedy. River flowing, herd of horses running, sun setting, moving grasses of the savanna, and so forth can always bring tranquility and reassure my mind. The relationship between human and animals and nature is very beautiful. I use children and animals as my subjects because they’re honest and sincere. They both have inimitable compassion toward each other. It’s so easy to catch the subtleties in their gestures and expressions because they’re unpretentious. 

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