2014 common reading book, Zoobiquity, explores intriguing link between human and animal health

Barbara Natterson-Horowitz
Barbara Natterson-Horowitz

Cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a co-author of Case Western Reserve University’s 2014 Common Reading selection, Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Humans and Animal Health, will explore how animals and humans often share similar health issues, including major diseases, such as heart trouble and cancers.

The public is invited to hear Natterson-Horowitz discuss Zoobiquity during fall convocation, the official opening of the 2014-15 academic year, at Case Western Reserve. The free event is at Severance Hall on Wednesday, Aug. 27, at 4:30 p.m.

The author’s appearance is supported by the Elaine G. Hadden Distinguished Visiting Author Fund.

The idea for the book originated from an emergency call to Natterson-Horowitz, while working at the Los Angeles Zoo. An emperor tamarin monkey was in heart failure.

As she approached the distressed animal with direct eye contact, the cardiologist from UCLA Medical Center and the zoo’s cardiac consultant, was warned by the zoo veterinarian to back off.

Approaching the primate that way, she was cautioned, could cause the primate to suffer “capture myopathy,” a sudden-death condition.

Even with her medical education and experience, Natterson-Horowitz was unaware of the condition. But through research, she soon discovered a similar ailment existed in humans, called Takotsubo cardiomyopathy—a sudden, heart-stopping fright reaction.

That discovery prompted her and co-author Kathyrn Bowers to write Zoobiquity, a bestseller about how humans and animals share a common genetic blueprint that makes the species more alike, health-wise, than people might know.

Each year, CWRU’s common reading book serves as a basis for programs and discussions for first-year students—beginning at orientation and continuing through fall semester. Incoming students receive the book to read during the summer.

Bowers, who will accompany Natterson-Horowitz to Cleveland, is a fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., and an associate editor of Zócalo Public Square, a Los Angeles-based online idea exchange. She will lead a private discussion with students and others from campus in a prior event.

Timothy Beal, the Florence Harkness Professor of Religion and chair of the common reading program, believes Zoobiquity raises important questions for students and scholars from many different fields to explore, such as: “What does it mean to be human? To be animal? How are they different? How the same? What can we learn from each other?”

The potential to stimulate cross-campus discussions and engage students and faculty, from biomedical engineers to philosophers, makes the book an ideal common reading selection, Beal said.

“Drawing on the latest in medical and veterinary science—as well as evolutionary and molecular biology—Zoobiquity proposes an integrated, interdisciplinary approach to physical and behavioral health, including cardiology, gastroenterology, pediatrics, psychiatry and many other sub-specialties,” according to the book’s self-description.

After her experience with the tamarin, Natterson-Horowitz began investigating whether animals and humans shared other diseases.

She found jaguars can get breast cancer from the BRCA1 gene that affects many Jews of Ashkenazi decent.

That rhinos can contract leukemia.

And penguins and buffalo can suffer from melanoma…the list goes on.

“It was frankly humbling,” writes Natterson-Horowitz, “and I started to see my role as a physician in a whole new way.”

Understanding such animal-human health connections offers many benefits, from learning more about our poor physical and emotional wellbeing to how we parent our young.

The book is a New York Times bestseller, a Discover Magazine Best Book of 2012, the China Times 2013 Best Book for Translated Title and a finalist in the prestigious AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books.

As Publishers Weekly once wrote: “After finishing (the book), you’re guaranteed to never look at your dog, cat, or any other animal in the same way.”

For information, visit case.edu/events/convocation/. For free tickets, call Severance Hall’s box office at 216.231.1111.