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On the Importance of Appreciating Animals

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Cross-posted from TheDodo.com.

You can tell a lot about people from their screensavers. Mine is a picture of gazelles: They are my role models. They run and flee when there is a danger -- say, a leopard or a lion approaching -- but as soon as the danger passes, they stop and go back to grazing peacefully without a care in the world. But human beings cannot distinguish between real dangers and imagined ones. As Mark Williams, a clinical psychology professor at Oxford, explains, "the brain's alarm signals start to be triggered not only by the current scare, but by past threats and future worries... So when we humans bring to mind other threats and losses, as well as the current scenario, our bodies' fight-or-flight systems do not switch off when the danger is past. Unlike the gazelles, we don't stop running." This is modern man's predicament, perfectly summed up by Michel de Montaigne: "There were many terrible things in my life, but most of them never happened."

I've had gazelles -- and lots of other animals, actually -- on my mind lately, because I just finished putting the final touches on a book about the Third Metric and about what makes life worth living. And in the course of researching and writing it, I arrived at a deeper understanding of all that animals can teach us. That's why I'm delighted at the arrival of The Dodo to lead the conversation on all the ways animals are deserving of our respect and compassion, at a time when the public is more interested than ever before in understanding and empathizing with animals.

While my two daughters were still in middle school, they brought into our home a Maltese, who we named Oliver Pistachio Huffington -- Ollie to his friends. Having a pet reinforced one of my core beliefs -- that one purpose of life is to expand the boundaries of our love, to widen the circle of our concern, to open up rather than shut down, expand rather than contract. And every week brings more stories and science about the amazing ways in which pets open our hearts and enhance our lives. Allen McConnell, professor of psychology at Miami University, wrote in Psychology Today that it's well known that our social network is important for our emotional well-being. But that network is not limited to people. According to research from McConnell's lab, pet owners have higher self-esteem, fewer feelings of loneliness, and are more physically fit and socially outgoing.

In another study involving 97 pet owners, some in the group were made to feel rejected socially (sounds like high school all over again). Afterwards, some in the study were asked to write about their best friends, while others wrote about their pets. What the researchers found was that thinking about a pet provided the same power to recover from the negative feelings of rejection as thinking about a best friend.

Like spouses and close friends, pets can become "included in the self," the core of our being that forms our perspective. McConnell says "they become as much a part of the self as many family members." His conclusion? Pets are often "friends with benefits" and our health and happiness improve in meaningful ways from pet ownership.

But the benefits of pets go beyond the everyday. "Pets offer an unconditional love that can be very helpful to people with depression," said Ian Cook, psychiatrist and director of UCLA's Depression Research and Clinic Program. For those suffering from depression, pet ownership can be an invaluable source of healing.

The role of animals, and especially dogs, as roving ambassadors of goodwill can be seen most clearly in their role as therapy dogs. After the tragic massacre in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, therapy dogs from all over the country were brought in to help the community, and especially the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School. Six months later Newtown held a "Day of Thanks" to show its gratitude. The gathering was attended by 50 dogs (and many more owners and residents). One parent explained that her daughter had had a rough time after the shooting. "But when she talked about the dogs that she saw every day at school, she lit up."

Another young girl and a therapy dog developed an especially moving bond. At a Christmas party for Sandy Hook children just after the shooting, 9-year-old Emma Wishneski happened upon a therapy dog named Jeffrey, whose nickname is the "Positively Peaceful Pit Bull." Jeffrey was rescued from a New York City shelter by Milford, Conn., hospice worker Michele Houston. When Emma met Jeffrey, it was love at first sight, and the two were inseparable for the whole party. And since then they've had regular play-dates. "It was still a really vulnerable time for her, and she just was comfortable sitting next to Jeffrey," Emma's mother said. "He's strong and I think she just feels safe." Since then Emma has begun to train her family's dog Jedi (also a rescue dog) as a therapy dog. "Emma has a smile that could light the world, and I feel like we used to see that smile a lot more, but it's definitely still there," her mother said. "And when she's with Jeffrey she doesn't stop smiling."

Animals help us be better humans. Quite often, they show us how to be our best selves. Always in the moment, sticking their noses into everything (literally), they see a world that we take for granted, one we're usually just hurriedly passing through on our way to lives we never quite reach.

The Dodo would not be launching if not for Izzie Lerer, its co-founder and editor-at-large. Izzie is wrapping up her doctoral studies in philosophy at Columbia, where her research focuses on animal/human relationships. I have known Izzie for almost 10 years and know how passionate and intelligent she is about this most important subject. Her vision is nothing short of wanting to change the world in the way animals are treated. I'm betting on her, and I am sure she will become an important voice in this country on this issue. And that The Dodo, with Izzie and with Kerry Lauerman as its CEO and editor-in-chief, will become a very important vehicle in this conversation. All of us at HuffPost are excited about this addition to the media world and will be cheering you on!