2014 common reading book, “Zoobiquity,” explores link between human, animal health

Zoobiquity book coverThe emergency call came in from the Los Angeles Zoo. An emperor tamarin monkey was in heart failure.

As she approached the distressed animal with direct eye contact, Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a 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 all 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: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health, a bestseller about how humans and animals share a common genetic blueprint that makes the species more alike, health-wise, than people might know.

Zoobiquity, which explores how animal and human similarities can be used to diagnose, treat and heal patients of all species, has been chosen as Case Western Reserve University’s 2014 common reading selection for first-year undergraduates.

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.

Natterson-Horowitz, the Elaine G. Hadden Distinguished Visiting Author, will discuss the book during fall convocation, the official opening of the 2014-15 academic year, in Severance Hall on Wednesday, Aug. 27, at 4:30 p.m.

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