- There is much interest in collective trauma among humans given the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and other conditions.
- Domestication is one among several examples of collective trauma experienced by animals.
- We should include nonhumans among those who can suffer from collective encultured trauma and do all we can to coexist with them.
Dr. Sarah Bexell of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection (IHAC) at the University of Denver recently sent me a very interesting email.1 She wrote, "A student, Stephanie, asked if there are cases of collective trauma [in other animals]. I talked about PTSD in elephants, rescued companion animals with triggers from incidences of their past, but what about collective trauma like humans have from war, genocide, or mass starvation?" Nowadays there is much continued interest in collective trauma among humans given the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, drought, the war in Ukraine, and many people feeling edgy.
Sarah and I decided to write something to motivate broader discussions of collective trauma, a topic that typically focuses only on humans.2 For example, in "What Is Collective Trauma?" Danielle Render Turmaud writes, "Whereas the term 'trauma' typically refers to the impact that a traumatic incident has on an individual or a few people, collective trauma refers to the impact of a traumatic experience that affects and involves entire groups of people, communities, or societies. Collective trauma is extraordinary in that not only can it bring distress and negative consequences to individuals but in that it can also change the entire fabric of a community" (Erikson, 1976).3 There is no mention of nonhuman animals (animals).
The Ill Effects of Domestication as Collective Trauma
Here are some examples of collective trauma experienced by animals that fit into accepted definitions of this phenomenon. The first is domestication, because so many terrible things are done to produce purpose-bred domesticated animals en masse. Domestication has changed the ways we treat entire species and their lives, collectively, lives that were changed permanently. Whether that is a lived trauma experienced every day is situational, of course. Humans' demand for meat and other animal products meant that industrial agriculture, including Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), then brutally changed domestication into abject denial of almost anything a living being would feel is pleasant. This is a change in history that continues to cause mass trauma today.
We also recalled David Nibert's book Animal Oppression and Human Violence: Domesecration, Capitalism, and Global Conflict in which he defines domesecration as "a perversion of human ethics, the development of large-scale acts of violence, disastrous patterns of destruction, and growth-curbing epidemics of infectious disease."4 The process of domestication fits into Nibert's definition of domesecration and clearly would be "a traumatic experience that affects and involves entire groups of people, communities, or societies" that "can also change the entire fabric of a community."
If we substitute "companion animals" such as dogs or cats for the word "people" that Turmaud uses, there is no reason to think that domestication could not result in collective trauma. All one has to think about are individuals of different breeds of dogs who can't breed or give birth on their own or members of brachycephalic breeds who die very young because they can't breathe. They exist because some humans wanted them to be available and would perish as a group without our interfering in their lives to keep them alive.
A social group of dogs called "homed dogs" also suffer because of our interference in breeding them for who we want them to be and for keeping them in different degrees of captivity to have them conform to what is best for us rather than for them. We yell "No!" or "Don't do that!" far too often and they all too frequently don't get what they need from us.
Homed canine companions lose countless freedoms, and dog trainer Louise Glazebrook puts it succinctly: “I actually got really emotional, because I saw in lockdown what we as a society were doing to dogs. I remember sitting there one night just crying—we call ourselves a nation of dog lovers, yet essentially, we’re F**king them over. It felt like this really horrible moment for dogs."
Dr. Jessica Pierce provides an extensive discussion about the compromised lives of homed dogs in her book Run, Spot, Run and in Love Is All You Need, Jennifer Arnold notes that dogs live in an environment that “makes it impossible for them to alleviate their own stress and anxiety.” According to Arnold, “In modern society...we are unable to afford them the freedom to meet their own needs. Instead, they must depend on our benevolence for survival.”
The Anthropocene: An Epoch of Collective Trauma
Another excellent example of collective trauma in nonhuman animals is the rise of humans that kicked off the sixth mass extinction within the Anthropocene. This epoch is often called "The Age of Humanity," but, in actuality, it is "The Rage of Inhumanity." Data show that humans are responsible for unprecedented and sustained strong negative influences on the behavior of countless nonhuman species and individuals who globally live highly stressed and extremely traumatic lives because of our insatiable drive to expand our desires into their homes and lives at their expense. Vaughn Wilkins writes about animals' "loss of ecological participation" and the collective symptoms of captive and other animals as excellent examples of collective trauma.
Other examples of collective trauma might be grieving and mourning in a herd of elephants or other animals that has wide-ranging effects on their social behavior and social organization that also influences how they interact with other groups of the same or other species. Also, when one member of a herd is killed for their tusks, this is a seriously traumatic event, and enough herds have witnessed this, so it may very well be epigenetically a part of their collective psychology.
Why It Is Important to Recognize Collective Trauma in Nonhumans
Our hope is that when more people recognize that nonhumans as well as humans suffer from collective trauma and that we are responsible for perpetuating it globally, it will have positive effects on changing how we interact and behave toward all living beings and that we will stop subjecting them to trauma that is influencing their lives and the lives of numerous other individuals because of the domino effect that crosses species and habitats.
There is no reason to think that the emotional state of a group or society of animals doesn't influence others in their neighborhoods, and their trauma can be contagious and shared via odors (stress pheromones), animals' voices (distress vocalizations), and visible movements.
Collective trauma isn't good for other animals; nor is it good for us. The least we can do is include nonhumans in the arena of those who can suffer from collective encultured trauma and do all we can to coexist with them for our collective benefits.
1) This essay was written with Dr. Sarah Bexell.
2) A notable exception is Vaughn R. Wilkins' Enculturated Captivity: The Ecopsychology of Collective Trauma.
3) Turmaud continues: "In fact, collective trauma can impact relationships, alter policies and governmental processes, alter the way the society functions, and even change its social norms (Chang, 2017; Hirschberger, 2018; Saul, 2014). For example, after the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, the United States altered their transportation and travel policies and procedures to enhance security. Although this traumatic incident occurred 19 years ago, the societal changes in travel policy can still be seen today."
4) in the bigger picture, Nibert also "links domesecration to some of the most critical issues facing the world today, including the depletion of fresh water, topsoil, and oil reserves; global warming; and world hunger, and he reviews the U.S. government's military response to the inevitable crises of an overheated, hungry, resource-depleted world."
Bekoff, Marc. Dogs Want and Need Much More Than They Usually Get From Us.
Pierce, Jessica and Marc Bekoff. A Dog's World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World without Humans. New World Library, 2021.