Animal Rescue and Human Well-Being
Theory and Practice
Relationships are essential to human well-being. The need to love and be loved, to belong and be accepted are high level motives characterized by Abraham Maslow and prioritized on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Meyer, 2014). Many humans use animals to fill this special niche in their emotional bank account (Amiot & Bastian, 2014). Humans need to feel needed. In saving the life of an animal, humans feel their work is important and worthwhile. Rescuing animals can bring a great sense of accomplishment and well-being.
The attachment theory, developed by Bowlby in the late 1960’s, has been used to explain the need for humans to protect and to be protected. In rescuing animals, humans feel they are the protector. This, along with the need to belong and be loved, could explain why over 70 million households report dogs, cats, and other animals kept as pets in the United States (Dotson & Hyatt, 2008). Many pet owners seem to develop anthropomorphic attitudes towards their animals in which they project human feelings, motives, and qualities, and often perceive their animals as human substitutes (Fine, 2010). Many people believe human-animal relationships are more reliable than human-human relationships. A rescued animal is forgiving, loving and faithful to their human savior. Biophilia is another theory explaining why humans are interested in animals. Biophilia is the emotional attachment humans have for non-human life forms (Kahn & Kellert, 2002). The need humans have to bond with animals is well documented. In rescuing animals, empathetic people try to heal the damage done to animals, and in doing so the animals help heal suffering human beings.
Relationship is a rather broad term, and is used here to refer to the interaction of humans with domestic animals. Companionship, attachment, bonding, connection, and perceived emotional closeness may spring from rescuing a pet animal. Human-animal relationships vary from assisting humans in maintaining homeostasis, to filling high-level motives such as feeling safe and being loved. However, some cultures maintain the human-animal relationship for food and clothing (Amiot & Bastian, 2014).
The proven benefits of a close human-animal bond are biopsychosocial. In other words, the benefits to humans may be physical, mental, and social. More academic information is found on the biological benefits of having a relationship with an animal than the psychological aspect of the relationship (Meyer 2010).
The biological benefits of rescuing animals and developing human-animal relationships, have become more apparent in the last 20 years as more studies have been done, and the results published. Close emotionally based human-canine relationships can activate a region of the brain called the prefrontal-cortex which is responsible for the release of “feel-good” hormones such as oxytocin. Oxytocin has a calming effect and has actually been proven to reduce anxiety and lower blood pressure, as well as lower cortisol levels and increase beta-endorphins and dopamine (Fine, 2010). Animals have been a part of human’s lives for thousands of years; humans touched animals and animals touched us. Animal contact has been proven to raise oxytocin levels and oxytocin is in part responsible for positive social behavior.
It is safe to say, the lack of contact with animals has created an oxytocin deprivation in our society today. The mental and physical changes that have crept over our society since we have given up an animal-reliant existence, speaks for itself (Olmert, 2009). Health benefits to humans doing animal rescue have been touted in several important studies. One such groundbreaking study involved 92-outpaients in a cardiac care unit. These patients, who were all involved in animal rescue and were dog owners, were found to outlive patients who did not own dogs (Friedmann et al., 1980). This report prompted an entire series of health related studies and also opened the door for discussion of the apparent health benefits of pet animal rescue and ownerships.
The majority of people don’t own pets for the physical benefits, but for the social and mental health benefits (Coulter & Pichot, 2007). People accompanied by an animal, even in a picture, are perceived in a more positive manner by other people, than if they were without an animal (Amiot & Bastian, 2014). People who do animal rescue are held in high regards by most people.
Animals are nonjudgmental, quick to forgive, and are not emotionally demanding. Forming relationships with animals eases mental stress and fills the need humans have for companionship. The act of rescuing a helpless animal lifts the spirit and improves over-all well-being. Animal-assisted therapy (AAT), animal-assisted psychotherapy (AAP), animal-assisted activities (AAA), and animal-assisted interventions (AAI) are a few of the well-documented programs in which human-animal interactions are developed to improve human mental health. Rescuing and owning a pet animal helps facilitate social interactions between other human beings.
The Monash Dog Owner Relationship Scale (MDORS), was devised by Monash University in Victoria, Australia, to measure human-canine relationships in a psycho-metrically sound, multidimensional way, so as to increase understanding and the scope of the relationship in an empirically valid manner (Bennett, Coleman & Dwyer, 2006). The scale recognizes the fact that self-interest underlies all human-animal interactions. A portion of the scale is based on what social psychologists call the social exchange theory, which suggests that only when the perceived benefits of the relationship outweigh, or are balanced with, the perceived cost, will the relationship be worth maintaining (Meyer, 2014). The mental well-being humans feel when they rescue an animal helps balance the scales of the social exchange theory.
The animal advocates, who rescue animals from neglectful and abusive situations, and even death, are generally thoughtful, compassionate, caring individuals wanting to make a difference in the lives of the animals they rescue, people in the world, and the environment. Animal activists, in contrast, are usually an emotional group of people ranging from harmless eccentrics to dangerous fanatics who think less of people than they do animals (Stallwood, 2001). Whether an animal lover is an advocate or activist, rescuing animals brings a sense of gratification or well-being to the person or persons doing the rescuing.
The two emotions common to all who rescue animals are gratitude and compassion (Winegar, 2009). Compassion and gratitude are essential to mental well-being. Compassion and gratitude also open the door to kindness regardless of the species. Compassionate people dedicate their lives to creating a more peaceful world for all who share it. The benefits of rescuing animals isn’t limited by fame or fortune, poverty or privilege, sexual preference, or even politics or religion. Walter Kutchler, in Karin Winegar’s book Saved, (2009), said it best, “Animals are Gods gift to us, they take our heartache away and warm our soul. They essentially save us.”