Zoopharmacognosy is a relatively new word in the dictionary that basically means animal self-medication. Many animals, including our beloved house pets and their wild relatives, have their way to treat variety of ailments. The concept emerged in 1996 when biologist Michael Huffman, who worked at Prime Research at Kyoto University, observed that a parasite-ridden constipated chimpanzee treated himself by eatingaspella leaves- a plant the chimp would normally avoid. It was later discovered that the bristly leaves and stem of the plant helped clean the intestines of the constipated chimpanzee. From there, Huffman established criteria for judging when an animal is self-medicating. Read about the criteria here.
The wide use of these criteria has lead to many discoveries. Did you know that pregnant lemurs in Madagascar snack on the leaves and bark of tamarind and fig to induce milk production, kill parasites and increase the chances of successful birth? That is a mouthful of benefits! Now we know that animals have their own medical centres in their habitat, but what does this mean for us?
Caroline Ingraham founder of a new approach to animal welfare, which gives domestic and captive animals the chance to ‘self-medicate’, acts as a guide to let wounded animals heal themselves. By doing so she discovered incredible healing techniques that can be applied to different animals. Her work doesn’t only limit by guiding animals, Ingraham actively observe and interact with animals questioning how would these animals heal themselves in the wild? Ingraham emphasises that everyone should realise that animals are active creatures instead of perceiving them as passive. Her incredible methodology is laid out on her website and her book How Animals Heal Themselves.
Ingraham does not ‘speak’ to the animals and tell them how to treat their ailments, her healing art is in listening and watching them choose what and how much to treat themselves with. –Michael Huffman
How can these amazing findings benefit the human race? Understanding animal self-medication behavior and allowing domestic and wild animals have access to natural remedies they need, not only will lead to new medical discoveries and prevention of epidemics but further extends to domestic livestock benefits. In a simple scenario, when animals are given the option to self-medicate, farmers will no longer have to rely on costly antibiotics giving farming industry billions of saving, which then pass these savings onto the consumers.
In contrary, the feasibility of this organic movement today is a long-term commitment. Our world relies on mass produced products to survive. Plants and animals are pumped with chemicals to grow faster, the demand for food only keeps growing. As recently published in the National Geographic on August 13 on Earth Overshoot Day we have already consumed more than the earth can produce this year. Every year we reach our biocapacity earlier than last year!
The proactive application of Zoopharmacognosy could be justified in conflicting ways but nonetheless, the concept of animal self-medicating is a promising concept for us humans in the future. We could discover why and how turtles live up to more than 100 years, could it because of the way they heal themselves? Can this method or characteristic of turtles be applied to humans? I can go on forever questioning these scenarios!