The fierce light of the white star pierced her thick white fur as the mother froze. She was trying to imagine how her cubs could make the jump from one jagged ice flow to another in the cracked deep blue waters.
Just a few months ago she had birthed them on solid well frozen ice – cubs who knew nothing but nurture – feelings of safety, love, rich abundant milk – trusting their mother implicitly – the solid blue ice that supported them was home. Now her children faced the threat of death by drowning… A mountain of despair flooded the bear’s mind and body. Blind fear slammed through her young. To lose her cubs was more than the mother could bear. All the accumulated bear wisdom – 50 million years of bear knowing – could not help her now. Her children were helpless.
A polar bear that is forced to confront a situation like this one will live with consequences that will change her life. Nothing has prepared her for this day. Just how she will be affected we do not know…but developing PTSD is a possibility/probability. (Her children, if they survive will have a 1 -3 chance of developing this disorder as well).
According to the most recent research in Neuroscience/Neuropsychology PTSD is a physiological state brought on by sudden trauma, or prolonged trauma that stretches back to childhood. Either way this trauma affects the individual at a cellular level, pre-disposing that animal or person to experience the world through a “darker lens”, one that may be dominated by fear. There is no cure.
The etiology of PTSD involves shock or violence of one kind or another. PTSD may occur suddenly as a result of a single trauma or it may extend over a lifetime beginning in early childhood. Approximately one out of three individuals (animal or human) may develop this disorder.
It is only recently that non human animals have been diagnosed with PTSD. Generations of wild animals like elephants, and whales who have been tortured and hunted down without mercy are starting to ‘crack’ – some erupting into acts of rage that are unprecedented…
Why? They have been unhinged by human violence.
Violence begets violence.
Neuroscience/Neuropsychology is providing us with explanations for this apparently bizarre behavior thanks to scientific researchers like Gay Bradshaw and Naturalists like Charlie Russell and myself.
I think one of the most important consequences of this cutting edge research/understanding is that it takes PTSD out of the category of “mental disorders” (removing a stigma) and places it where it belongs – in the cells of our bodies. PTSD is a physiological disorder. Having suffered from PTSD for a lifetime it was a relief to have validation for my gut sense that this thing was ‘living in my body’, and that there was nothing I could do to stop “it” once the disorder was activated by yet another social stress.
Intuitively I knew…
As a researcher I recognized PTSD in animals that I studied years ago but could never find evidence to support my observations until now.
For anyone interested in understanding more about PTSD in wild animals (and more insight into our own behavior) I highly recommend Gay Bradshaw’s books “Conversations with Bears” or “Carnivore Minds.”
Sara is a naturalist, ethologist ( a person who studies animals in their natural habitats) (former) Jungian Pattern Analyst, and a writer. She publishes her work regularly in a number of different venues and is presently living in Maine.