As I mentioned in the post about my trip to England, one of the things that made me decide to study Applied Zoopharmacognosy was the book Wild Health by Cindy Engel. It is a fabulous collection of examples of how plants develop secondary metabolites (compounds that plants produce that are not needed for their immediate survival but to help fend off fungi, pests, herbivores, etc. – morphine and quinine are two well-known examples) in order to survive, and how animals in the wild (and most indigenous people) use those compounds in order to self-medicate (and also as preventative medicine).
Wild Health is filled with one fascinating example after another (I have already mentioned the acacia trees and grapevines (in the Applied Zoopharmacognosy and My Trip to England post) as well as several others in the Applied Zoopharmacognosy – Helping Domestic Animals Self-Medicate post, and here are a few more:
The Brazilian maned wolves’ favorite food is lobeira, a member of the nightshade family, also known as Wolf’s fruit. Even though other food sources are readily available, they will seek lobeira out and make it the main part of their diet. The wolves are often infected by giant kidney worms (which are a major health issue in Brazil and kill many a host by destroying their kidneys), and in an experiment at the Brasilia Zoo, it was found that maned wolves in captivity who were not allowed access to lobeira all died (post-mortem revealed that they all had severe giant kidney worm infestations) while wolves who were given access to the plant all survived.
The (adorable) North American Pika (a small mammal related to rabbits and hares) take things a step further. In the summer, they feed on low phenol plants while also collecting and storing another plant (Acomastylis rossii) with a higher phenol content, to be consumed during the winter months. The pikas choose plants for their winter pantry wisely; because of the phenols, bacteria can’t grow, and during storage, the phenol levels degrade (phenols are secondary compounds which can be highly toxic but are also very effective antimicrobials), so by the time the pikas eat them, the levels have dropped enough that they are safe to consume.
Another interesting fact is that many scientists have found that animals that live in the wild carry a variety of pathogens, but they don’t get sick (unless their food supply becomes compromised, through droughts, floods or humans, etc.). Captive animals afflicted by the same disease causing organisms will succumb to illness. Why? Most likely because of diet.
Wild Health is one of those books that you read and go “wow, listen to this” and read out loud to people around you all the time. In addition of being amazed at how the animals seek out certain plants etc. for various conditions, this book really opened my eyes to the fact that food can be/ideally also is medicine. I knew of course that eating salad is better than eating junk food, but it made me look at food in a whole new way. I was already a healthy eater, and stick to a vegan diet whenever possible, but after reading this book, I pay even more attention to what I put in (and on) my body. Every meal is an opportunity to support or improve ones health.
And (something else we all know of course, but this book really hammers it home) it is also a strong reminder of how important it is to save biodiversity and natural habitats and stop ruining rainforests and other sources of irreplaceable plants and ecosystems. At a time when more and more bacteria and viruses are becoming drug resistant, and Western medicine stands helpless against so many illnesses, we are forever eradicating not only the plants that may hold the key to solving these problems but also the animals that can show us how they can be used.
This really is a fantastic book and I highly recommend it. I have bought many copies to give as gifts and have read it several times myself (and I know I’ll read it again). Regardless of whether you are new to the whole idea or you are already a “save the rainforest” kind of person, I promise Wild Health will amaze you.
Learn more in our other articles about Applied Zoopharmacognosy, and in these other recommended books: