2014 SXSW Interactive Session Spotlight: Animal Madness

Written by Megan Simpson | January 31, 2014

Laurel Braitman discusses animal behavior (and how it relates to humans) at SXSW 2014

San Francisco-based author Laurel Braitman will take a look at animal insanity this March at SXSW Interactive. Her session "Animal Madness" is a product of her recent position as a TED Fellow. Braitman's new book on this topic bears a slightly longer title ("Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves ") and is scheduled for release in June 2014. We spoke with Braitman for this installment of the Session Spotlight about all of the reasons that her presentation at SXSW isn’t just for the birds. (Yes…pun intended.) Connect with her on Twitter @LaurelBraitman, where she posts about guard dogs who protect lambs from bald eagles, outlaw flamingos, coyotes playing under people's decks and other super important things.

SXSW: Briefly, what will your SXSW presentation address?
Braitman: If you want to understand the human mind and behavior, look at another creature. People, for example, aren't the only animals to lose their minds. Plenty of others do too - from compulsive dolphins to depressed dogs. Luckily, almost all of us can recover. In this talk, I’ll take attendees on a journey through the surprising history of insanity in the animal kingdom to argue that almost everything we know about the unhinged human mind, we learned from other creatures first. From suicidal horses and compulsively masturbating orangutans of the late 19th century, to today's nervous dogs with OCD, zoo gorillas with human psychiatrists, and parrots on Prozac - other animals have been mirrors and proxies for what's most incredible, most disturbing, and most hopeful, about being ourselves.

SXSW: Who should attend "Animal Madness" and what will they gain from attending?
Braitman: This talk is only for the most beautiful, handsome, educated and charming animals. Kidding, anyone can come, and should. Those people interested in Charles Darwin, old insane asylums, dogs on Prozac, demented sea lions and the science of animal behavior will have the best time. Participants will walk away being able to diagnose angry pigeons as psychotic. Well, not really. But they will look at other animals differently than they did before.

SXSW: For those attendees who know nothing about this topic - will they be able to follow the talk?
Braitman: I knew nothing of animal insanity until my dog jumped out my third floor window. If I learned enough to write a book about it, everyone else can too.

SXSW: Tell us a little bit more about yourself and why you’re able to speak as an expert on this topic.
Braitman: I have spent seven years researching mental health of other animals. I have traveled all over the world in search of those people who try to heal disturbed elephants or spend time with forgiving whales. I have also spent a lot of time in historical archives and I got a PhD in this stuff. Mostly though, I have always just had a soft spot for the weirder creatures among us.

SXSW: Do you have a blog?
Braitman: Yes. On my blog I post links to cat circuses and chat about anthropomorphism on the Internet, among other topics in the humanimal kingdom.

SXSW: Who do you follow on Twitter and why?
Braitman: My favorite twitterer is my buddy @Jmooallem, a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and other publications, he's maybe the only other writer I know on the animal beat, and he's so funny I'm constantly jealous. I also follow chef @CiaoSamin because not only does she make the best food but she's always sharing things I want to read.

SXSW: One more question – favorite website?
Braitman: It's hands-down Capybara Madness. There is nothing better than fan sites for rodents.

Watch this website for more installments of the 2014 SXSW Interactive Session Spotlight. Click here for the complete list of programming for March in Austin. For tips on interesting sessions to attend, vista the new Recommendation page. Register now to attend “Animal Madness” and other incredible programming at SXSW Interactive 2014.