Healer in the woods

April 2014

By Shivi Verma

The capacity of animals to self-heal throws light on the lost and disconnected path of natural healing amongst human beings, says Shivi Verma


When I first saw my pet dog trying to eat grass as I was walking her, I tried to stop her. How could grass be her food? But my more knowledgeable father asked me not to. “She may have a stomach problem.” Later, I saw her vomiting. After that she rested for a while and became fit again. She would also catch her tail and move round and round in circles, which I later learnt was a way to relieve herself of stress and anxiety. But even though I would promptly take her to a vet for every minor ailment, my pet could not complete her life. She died at the age of four.

“Would she have lived longer had she had less human intervention in her life?,” I often wondered.

Animals and birds do not have access to high-end medical care. Yet if left to themselves, they remain largely healthy as long as they live.

Animals living in the wild are much healthier than those living in captivity, or as pets. They never become obese, unlike those domesticated. On the other hand, human beings as well as domesticated animals report a large number of diseases even though they have a treatment for every problem. Can we take a cue from animals and see what they do which we do not, to stay healthy?

What is their secret?

They do not have a mind to confuse them

Says Dr Silloo Bhagvagar, a veterinarian and founder of NGO called PALS (Plants and Animal Welfare Society), “It is not that animals in the wild do not suffer from infections or wounds. But they do not interfere mentally with their problem. They accept their situation. They do not bother about insults or financial losses unlike human beings who mentally connect one problem with another. They obey their gut and act accordingly. This tendency helps them to heal faster. They are not bound by social dos and don’ts. They obey their instincts.”

They benefit from living in their habitat

Says Dr Shally Jalali, Veterinary Surgeon at Dr Batra’s Pet Care Hospital, Delhi, “Animals in the wild have a peculiar affinity towards certain herbs and plants. Their well-developed sensory system enables them to identify and utilise natural healing resources in the environment — herbs that are naturally effective in maintaining their physical health. It is through such self-healing mechanisms that animals develop tangible organic healing abilities. This also reduces their stresses considerably. In addition, it restores their body’s natural balance, while supporting the immune system and helping them to prevent and/or ease symptoms of the illness.”

An article published by Gary Le Mon on wonderpets.com makes the following observations, “When a pregnant African elephant was observed for over a year, a discovery was made. The elephant kept regular dietary habits throughout her long pregnancy but the routine changed abruptly towards the end of her term. Heavily pregnant, the elephant set off in search of a shrub that grew 17 miles from her usual food source. The elephant chewed and ate the leaves and bark of the bush, then gave birth a few days later. The elephant, it seemed, had sought out this plant specifically to induce her labour. The same plant (a member of the borage family) also happens to be brewed by Kenyan women to make a labour-inducing tea.”

The article says that not only do many animals know which plant they require, they also know exactly which part of the plant they should use, and how they should ingest it.

“Chimpanzees in Tanzania were observed to carefully fold up, then roll around their mouths the bristly leaves of Aspilia leaves before swallowing. The prickly leaves ‘scour’ parasitical worms from the chimpanzee’s intestinal lining. The same chimpanzees also peel the stems and eat the pith of the Vernonia plant (also known as Bitter leaf). In bio-chemical research, Vernonia was found to have anti-parasitic and anti-microbial properties. Both Vernonia and Aspilia have long been used in Tanzanian folk medicine for stomach upsets and fevers. It was also observed that only the sick chimpanzees eat the plants.”

Macaws eating kaolin clay for detoxification in a South American forest reserveMacaws eating kaolin clay for detoxification in a South American forest reserve

The report continues, “Many animals eat minerals like clay or charcoal for their curative properties. Colobus monkeys on the island of Zanzibar were seen stealing and eating charcoal from human bonfires. The charcoal counteracts toxic phenols produced by the mango and almond leaves which make up their diet. Some species of South American parrot and macaw are known to eat soil with a high kaolin content. The parrots’ diet contains toxins because of the fruit seeds they eat. The kaolin clay absorbs the toxins and carries them out of the birds’ digestive systems, leaving the parrots unharmed by the poisons. Kaolin has been used for centuries in many cultures as a remedy for human gastrointestinal upset.”

The science of Zoopharmacognosy

Prolonged observations combined with scientific evidences have proved that animals possess knowledge of natural medicines. They have access to the world’s largest pharmacy, ie nature itself. This research has become a goldmine for people and doctors looking for natural ways to heal their bodies, and has given birth to the emerging science of Zoopharmacognosy. This science studies how animals use leaves, roots, seeds and minerals to treat a variety of ailments. Indigenous cultures have had knowledge of animal self-medication for centuries. Many folk remedies have come from noticing which plants animals eat when they are sick. Biologists witnessing animals eating foods not part of their usual diet, realised the animals were self-medicating with natural remedies.

Explains Seema Bhattessa, who holds a B.S. Hons. Degree in Pharmacy from the University of London, a Diploma in Zoopharmacognosy, as well as other animal relevant qualifications, “All vertebrates have co-evolved with plants and other natural organic components. They have enough knowledge of their own immune responses and vulnerability to diseases. They have evolved with highly developed sensory systems, and interpret their territory through sights, sounds, smells, tastes and emotion. This wealth of accumulated innate knowledge and well developed sensory systems enables animals to identify and utilise natural healing sources in their environment. Free roaming animals self-medicate and heal using secondary medicinal and aromatic plants, some toxic, along with soils, clays and charcoal. They utilise them in a variety of ways such as inhaling, consuming, as well as using external remedies, such as back-rolling to expose themselves to a variety of treatments.”The more we align ourselves to nature, listen to our bodies, and live in harmony with our animal friends, the less we will have to depend on chemicals to heal our bodies.

Says Dr Shally Jalali, “If we could live in an insecticide- and pesticide-free environment as animals in the wild do, it will lead to a reduction in nutritional and other deficiencies, including genetic abnormalities, tumour, and cancer in our bodies. Indiscriminate use of antibiotics and various medicines for simple ailments such as gastroenteritis, cough, cold and fever, damage the immune system as we don’t allow our body to self-heal. By adopting organic, natural and herbal alternatives, we can improve our healing and regeneration process. Stress in human beings is known to exacerbate physical illnesses; it may affect an animal’s physical health too. When we lead a stress-free life we can heal ourselves in a much better way… like our animal friends.”

Animals do what we all are internally programmed to do. Eat when hungry, rest when tired, fight or run when endangered, shrug off tensions, listen to our bodies, and obey our instincts. But since we believe more in dogmas and doctors, and less in our own innate intelligence, it is animals who are leading the way for us in self-healing.

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