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Living: Books: ANIMAL MAGIC!; How human health could benefit from the secrets of the wild.

Byline: RICHARD WILLIAMSON

CELEBRITY chefs may make our food look beautiful but the reality of where some of the ingredients come from is enough to turn your stomach.

We all know the consequences of forcing cattle into cannibalism by feeding them the ground-up brains and spinal cords of others of their kind.

That led to mad cow disease which, in turn, infected humans with the horrific killer vCJD.

How could anyone have been daft enough not to see that feeding meat to grazing, vegetarian animals is unnatural?

In America they feed chicken excrement to cattle and the French even admitted to feeding human sewage sludge illegally to cows.

Even when we are not cramming waste down their throats, intensively reared factory farm animals are kept in much higher densities than in the wild. That means parasites and diseases spread more easily, which may well have been a factor in the foot and mouth disaster.

We have stuffed them with hormones to increase growth and antibiotics in a bid to counter-act the consequences of our unhealthy farming practices.

Now we are worried that the build-up of all those chemicals may have an adverse effect on us.

But what if, instead of abusing them, we sat down and tried to learn some of the wisdom of animals?

That's the intriguing idea at the heart of Cindy Engel's Wild Health (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 20). The subtitle of her book is this: 'How animals keep themselves well and what we can learn from them.'

Her suggestion is that animals understand the art of selfmedication. They know how to select the diet that is best suited to maintaining their health and can even find curative herbs and minerals to help them with specific ailments.

Dr Engels - she has a PhD in biology and teaches at the Open University - is well aware that saying such things can make you sound like a crackpot.

She is careful not to make outrageous, magical, romanticised, 'new age' claims and understands how cynics may dismiss much of the evidence as mere folklore.

But growing scientific evidence suggests that we should be taking a greater interest in how wild creatures build up natural immunities and can both prevent and cure illness.

As she says, there is no proof that animals are skilled pharmacists.

They tend to take a broader approach, eating plants that may treat a variety of ailments.

Even so, there is a compelling catalogue of stories of chimpanzees and gorillas eating specific leaves to help with intestinal problems.

There are animals that smear themselves with natural insecticides to get rid of parasites and birds that find herbal pain-killers.

Certain caterpillars threatened by lethal parasites switch their diet to toxic hemlock to protect themselves.

Domesticated animals also retain some of this knowledge. Cows find clays that help them cure diarrhoea and sheep seek out plants that combat illnesses.

Or, at least, they do when they have the freedom to go looking for a cure.

We humans seem to have lost much of this knowledge.

We evolved and developed to survive on a hunter-gatherer diet of fruit, vegetables and lean meat and, according to some scientists, we are not particularly well adapted to eating the cereals and dairy products that are now our staples. We should eat more fruit and veg but, as Cindy Engels says: 'The processed food industry supplies what we want, not what we need.'

There are some compelling arguments here for revolutionising our approach to animal welfare - not just for humane and compassionate reasons but out of self-interest.

There are those who argue that it is too expensive to provide the conditions necessary to keep farm animals content and healthy.

But Engels points out: 'Because human health is directly reliant on the health of the food we eat, we risk paying for cheap food with our health.'

Sadly, we may well be destroying a huge reservoir of knowledge before we have even begun to tap into it.

The precious wilderness and its myriad species are being destroyed by pollution, over-exploitation, loss of habitat and the sheer stress of coming into contact with humans. There is obviously much work still to be done in this area before we can be sure about the self-medicating skills of wildlife.

But it is difficult to disagree with Cindy Engels when she says: 'By working with nature rather than against it, we could save time, effort, money - and our own health, as well as the health of our animals.'
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Jan 13, 2002
Words:747
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