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Animals and their people
Photos, programs show appreciation for bond
Monday, Mar. 5, 2012
By Linda Weiford, WSU News
Photos, from left, by Holly Irish: Partners, Girls Will Be Girls and My Love.
PULLMAN, Wash. - Last spring, Washington State University veterinary students were invited to display art work on campus under the theme: What do you find beautiful about veterinary medicine?
For Holly Irish, then a fourth-year veterinary student, it was a no-brainer: The bond between people and their pets. Drawing on her college studies and personal experience with pets, she visited people’s homes and ranches and then raised the Canon to her eye and started shooting.
Irish’s photographs, on display this semester at WSU’s Animal Health Library, fit right into the College of Veterinary Medicine’s view that the human-animal bond is an important one. The college curriculum infuses students with science skills, but also teaches them about human-animal interaction. In fact, there’s an entire course about it, as well as a class on pet bereavement where students answer calls at WSU’s Pet Loss Hotline.
"Considering what I’ve learned here and what I’ve felt when being around my own pets, it seemed natural to depict the bond in photographs,” said Irish, who will graduate in May.
Friendship in freeze-frame
At first, people went stiff in front of the camera - a man with bunched up shoulders forcing a smile at the lens while his oblivious dog scampered at his feet wasn’t the image Irish had set out to capture.
"But once I started asking them questions about their pets, they completely opened up,” she recalled. "The bond literally unfolded before my eyes.”
Among the photographs: A demure-looking young girl seated on a burgundy couch proudly dangles her pet snake; a boy eyes the parrot perched on his head with a tuft of the boy’s hair in its beak; a bearded man in a Harley-Davidson shirt beams at his boxer dog seated inside a rough-and-tumble truck.
Yes, pictures do tell a thousand words, but here’s a tidbit of information about the bearded man and his boxer that makes the image of them even more meaningful. The man is a dump truck operator who built a small bed for his dog on the passenger seat so the two can travel to and from the dump yard together, said Irish.
"He had constructed a platform with a pillow on top for the dog to sleep or to just sit and watch the world go by,” she said.
WSU pioneers in creature comfort
How much good can a creature that gnaws on shoes and chases rubber toys really do for humans? In the early 1960s, when clinical psychologist Boris Levinson suggested in published papers that caring for pets in childhood enhances emotional development, many of his colleagues laughed.
But no one is laughing now - thanks, in part, to the late Leo Bustad, dean of WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine 1973-1984, who is considered a pioneer in the human-animal bond movement.
Sylvie Cloutier, a research
assistant professor with WSU's
veterinary college, with her
late cat, Darwin.
Additionally, Bustad created the course, "Reverence for Life,” where he lectured students about how the human-animal bond influences veterinary medicine and research. Since his death in 1998, the class has been taught by two other professors. The most recent is Sylvie Cloutier.
"Because of Leo, there’s a growing body of research into the human-animal bond. What used to be anecdotal is now being scientifically investigated,” said Cloutier.
"What’s becoming more apparent is that a bond doesn’t exist only between a person and their dog or cat, but extends to farm, zoo and research animals,” she said. "And we’re starting to see that a positive connection is beneficial to both the people and the animals.”
But Cloutier, like Irish, recognizes that, on a personal level, it doesn’t take data and controlled studies to determine that a special bond exists that bypasses the brain and goes straight for the heart. Cloutier’s 15-year-old cat, Darwin, died just before Christmas.
"He was a wonderful cat. He loved running down the stairs at my house and sitting on my lap,” she said. "Losing him was hard, and I still miss him.”
Friends with benefits
Back at the photo exhibit, in a close-up shot where their eyes seem to melt into each other’s, Irish and her 4-year-old pointer-lab mix Maggie May reveal what close pals they are. And Maggie May is just that, said Irish - "a dog who’s my pal.”
A pal who doesn’t gossip, is never critical, doesn’t file lawsuits or go on talk shows and yell. Is it any wonder that we humans are happier with animals in our lives?