December 2, 2020

The repertoire of mental disorders, first diagnosed in a non-human species


Sara, a little chimpanzee barely a year old, waits behind the scenes to make her triumphal entry on set to a shower of applause. As every week, he has arrived at the television studio, on the outskirts of Barcelona, ​​from Valencia, where he lives with his caretaker, owner of nine chimpanzees such as Nico, Pepito, Pancho or Paquito, who appear frequently in other spaces of the chain. The program, ‘Crónicas Marcianas’, is the undisputed leader of the late nights of Telecinco.

Anyone of a certain age will remember the space that Xavier Sardá presented from 1997 to 2005. For a time, Sara was one of his big stars. They dressed her up as a Sevillian, they made her clap and dance, among other things. She was personable, obedient, and soulful, and the audience loved her reactions.

Once removed and far from the spotlight, all the aftermath emerged. Sara had been separated from her mother as soon as she was born and trained for television. He lived in a caravan with the owner in a very humanized environment, and when he arrived at the Mona Foundation, created in 2000 for the rescue and rehabilitation of primates, suffered from claustrophobia, a near total lack of social skills, extreme aggressiveness and various injuries, including three broken ribs and severe trauma to the jaw. He died very young, at the age of 14, due to pneumonia. On average, a chimpanzee lives about 40 years.


Sara’s case is just one of many that the biologist and primatologist of the Girona University Yulán Úbeda, who after ten years researching at the Mona Foundation has just presented an ambitious investigation in which, for the first time, he has diagnosed the repertoire of mental illnesses in a non-human species. A study which has been published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research and which has evaluated the repertoire of psychopathologies present in chimpanzees.

“Mental disorder in chimpanzees was very little studied”, Yulán tells Nietzsche’s El Caballo. “When I began my research for my Ph.D. in Personality, Well-being and Psychopathology, I found hundreds of publications on personality in these animals, but little more than a dozen on mental disorders.” Most were theoretical, related to the causes, diagnosis and treatment, and only five of them made an approach to the diagnosis of mental disorders, although with little or no data analysis, “he says.

To this must be added another key element: practically all of the studies were not primarily intended to help animals. “Often when you are into science, it seems that only the scientist’s CV matters. It seems that the only relevant thing is that he has a lot of published articles. Yes, it is also essential that interesting things are discovered for science but , “Where is the benefit for the animal?”

In total, the research worked with 23 chimpanzees, who were evaluated by three keepers who had been working with them for more than 12 years. The animals came from the field of entertainment (tourist claims, circus shows, television programs or advertisements, among others) and from being kept as pets. The conclusions were clear: the categories of disorders obtained were very similar to those established for humans, including bipolar disorder, depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, destructive impulse and behavior control disorders, and paraphilic disorders, among others.

To carry out the study, Yulán used the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a psychiatric classification system that includes more than 200 identifiable disorders. It did, yes, adapting it to the peculiarities of the species and the different circumstances of primates. “The main stumbling block is that not everything can be adapted to chimpanzees”, explains the scientist. “To begin with, there are methodological problems. For example, a handicap is that the caregivers in charge of evaluating these mental disorders are with them during the day, but not during the night. Thus, all sleep-related disorders could not be diagnosed. But that does not mean that they do not have insomnia or parasomnias – a disorder that includes sleepwalking or night terror, among others -: we simply could not evaluate it. ”

For Yulán, making a diagnosis of mental disorders in chimpanzees has one main objective: raising awareness. “It is a powerful argument to fight against the kind of life these animals have had. A life that begins with the separation of their mothers, often with the death of the mother and the rest of the group, and with the chimpanzee babies witnessing real After that, and thanks to the trafficking of species, they reach an environment that does not suit their ethological needs. If they are to be used for show business, they are subjected to forced training that often includes physical abuse. AND finally, they end up suffering sensory and social isolation. The latter happens especially when they turn five or six years old, since they become very strong animals and are removed from the show to be isolated in a cage in complete solitude. Chimpanzees are very complex animals , cognitively and socially speaking: isolating them socially has very serious consequences for them. If this is coupled with sensory deprivation and an absence of stimuli they need, the result is tragic, “says the biologist. “I’ve seen real monstrosities.”

Reporting that suffering is not the only purpose of the study: it also involves increasing the welfare and protection of these animals. Regarding the first aspect, the importance of Yulán’s work is clear. “As soon as an animal is diagnosed, the treatment can be much more specific, whether it is psychotherapeutic or psychopharmacological,” he explains. “Obviously, in the first of them there are a series of limitations, since the animal cannot speak, but even so certain strategies can be adopted. As for the second, it is important that it is accompanied by a correct dosage. Ideally, the centers apply a combined treatment (psychotherapy-psychotropic drug), although unfortunately in many cases they are basically limited to the supply of antidepressants and antipsychotics without pursuing a recovery objective “.

Protection is the other great workhorse. “Currently, the laws change according to the autonomous community, and that makes it difficult to protect the animals,” laments Yulán. “In 2008, the Great Ape Project defended a Non-Law Proposition before the Congress of Deputies whose main objective was to protect them from this type of use and possession as pets, but unfortunately it did not go ahead. Perhaps this investigation will serve as a I argue more to keep applying pressure and achieve changes, “he says.

“Hopefully people, when they read an article like this, become aware of this problem. And perhaps tomorrow, when they see a chimpanzee on YouTube or in a television commercial, they will be aware of what is behind and report it “, concludes Yulán. Perhaps it is the way that cases like Sara’s never exist again.

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