For 25 years, Vint Virga, D.V.M., has been watching animals. Early in his veterinary career, he witnessed how compassion was just as critical as medical care in helping an injured dog, Pongo, recover from an injury. It opened his eyes to the emotional life of animals, and now, as a leader in veterinary behavioral medicine, Virga helps all kinds of animals — and their owners and keepers — heal not just their bodies, but their minds and souls as well. And as he demonstrates in his new book, The Soul of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human, he’s also an expert at translating animal behavior into lessons we all can learn from. We caught up with him between zoo appointments to ask a few questions:
Books for Better Living: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about animals during your career?
Vint Virga: I started out as a young vet with a mission to take care of animals by tending to them with my knowledge and skills. It was all about what I was doing for them. But beginning, with Pongo, that first dog in my book, my focus began to shift. I came to realize what they offered me was the chance to step out of my shoes, as I knew them, and into an entirely different perspective of the world. In the shift from emergency medicine to behavioral practice with pets and at zoos, I’ve learned from my patients to look not so much at what I can do for them but what they can teach me. And in doing so each day, it seems, I learn something new.
BBL: You point out that if all of an animal’s behavior needs can’t be expressed (play, hunting, sleep, etc.) then they become unbalanced and may develop bad habits, like obsessively grooming. It’s a stark reminder of the balance we all need in our lives. How do you find balance in yours?
VV: In truth, far too often I feel out of balance. Those parts of my life that I value most can seem to compete for my attention and time. So, when my days are stretched thin, I view that as a signal to consider my priorities and how I can best balance them. As I do for the animals in my care, I sketch the aspects of my life I feel are most important as spokes on a wheel—health, family, work, spirituality, exercise, creativity, connection with others. The length of each spoke reflects how fulfilled I feel with my choices relating to that priority. When connecting the spokes, if the wheel is misshapen, I decide how to best make adjustments—often by simplifying my life to honor what’s most important. Many times a change in one spoke leads to a shift in the others. It’s an ongoing process with each adjustment of finding what feels right and when I’m off track.
BBL: If you could speak with any animal for 5 minutes, which would you choose, and what would you ask him/her?
VV: I’d choose to speak with Yaku, the ocelot I write about in my book, to ask him what he was noticing that kept him in hiding for hours in the tree while T’ika, his mate, roamed unfazed through their habitat. For three years I sweated and stewed over Yaku, searching for what could be troubling him—from every perspective and angle I could, trying to step out of my human perspective and into that of an ocelot’s. In the end, though I helped him, I never found what “it” was, and I still struggle with, “What is it I missed?” In fact, one of the most common questions I’m asked by people who’ve read the book is, “What happened with Yaku?”
BBL: I was really struck by your tales of animals who suffer from similar mental disorders that humans can suffer from. What are some ways to keep your pets in good mental health? And if you suspect your pet does have some emotional issues, what should you do?
VV: We can help our pets maintain good mental health in much the same way that I do with zoo animals: giving them an environment that is comforting and stimulating; offering opportunities to think and invent, chances to explore their world, plenty of exercise; taking time to share our affection for them through activities they most enjoy—whether playing or simply snuggling together.
If you suspect your pet has emotional issues, I’d suggest you meet with your family vet in an appointment to share your concern, just as you would with a medical issue. Your vet can help you decide what to do next—whether keeping a log, recording a video, or perhaps seeing a specialist.
BBL: You say in the book that you believe animals, like humans, have souls — that we all have unique character, emotions, identities and spirits — and that’s why we can feel such deep connections with them. What animal souls are in your life these days?
VV: We live at home with two remarkable cats, Fritz and Clara. True to their Norwegian Forest cat pedigree they’re among the most gregarious cats I’ve known: running to the door to greet friends as well as strangers, rubbing against them for love and attention, and when everyone’s settled, joining them on the sofa. Being Norwegian Forest cats, as big as they are, they make sure guests don’t miss them.
And then there are all my patients in zoos. It’s the best job in the world to care for so many different animals—African wild dogs, zebras, giraffes, red pandas, otters, gibbons, snow leopards. But, beyond the broad range of species I work with, I’ve come to know so many remarkable creatures—every one a distinct individual and soul.
To learn more, visit vintvirga.com.