An advocate for survival of the kindest

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By Kelly LeVan

Los Alamos residents know veterinarian Bob Fuselier not only for his compassionate treatment of their pets, but for his pensive nature – the consideration he gives every animal, person, action and idea.

A lunch-hour conversation with Fuselier will jump from dogs to parrots to Gandhi to “sacred violence” to mirror neurons to hunting to the tremendous tolerance he sees displayed by today’s youth. Listening, you have no doubt he’s intellectual, spiritual and thoroughly kind.

When he’s not seeing patients or discussing, as he puts it, “what life is about,” he’s reading: Gil Baillie’s “Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads,” for instance, or Jaak Panksepp’s “Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions” – a topic that interests him deeply.

“One of the things that got me into animal behavior was the similarity between animals’ emotional states and people’s,” he said.

When a dog feels it’s in an unstable environment, Fuselier said, it becomes anxious and “a lot of people mistake their dog’s anxiety for happiness because they get all excited.”

Humans not only express the same basic set of emotions as other animals, but often mistake which ones we are expressing, he said.

“We’re always in an emotional state,” Fuselier said. “Panksepp defined four basic emotional systems that control what we do, sort of like an operating system: Fear and anxiety, panic, seeking/desire, and rage.”

He said many human arguments center on one of these feelings, but the people involved confuse what they’re feeling and escalate the conflict – when recognition of the true source of the emotion would likely ease it.

The key seems to be regaining the seeking emotion, which Fuselier also called “social emotion, a feeling of oneness with others – and what mammals are really pushed around by.”

He said humans – like dogs, cats and even rats – react most negatively when feeling separated from others, isolated or abandoned. As a consequence, we descend toward fear, panic or rage, drop our higher-level functions – such as cognition and planning – and feel a “psychic pain” because the emotions activate the same area of the brain that processes physical pain.

Evolutionarily, it makes sense: “It’s a short-term survival mechanism,” he said. “If it wasn’t painful – if it were pleasant – we wouldn’t react.”

If a prehistoric human heard a lion approaching, for example, then fear – and an immediate, instinctive reaction – might keep him or her alive.

On the other hand, the social emotion helps us survive in the long-term.

“It keeps us bonded,” Fuselier said, “and it gives us the best chance we have of being creative and truly free. When I’m reacting using the other, lower-level emotions, I’m not going to be the best I can be.”

One of Fuselier’s missions is promoting nonviolence – the essence of the social, seeking emotion.

“Violence is a feeling in your heart of wanting to hurt somebody, expressing anger and rage,” he said. “We lose the oneness.”

He said violence ranges from the most abhorrent forms, such as murder, to small, common expressions like ignoring or “dissing” someone.

Assuming humans are most happy and successful when responding from a social emotion, the less obvious types of violence are clearly harmful, he said.

“Most of our biggest arguments begin because of a feeling of being left out, blamed or unappreciated,” Fuselier said. Because of empathy – which has both positive and negative consequences – everyone involved in the argument ends up feeling these negative emotions and the situation escalates.

Similarly to dogs, he said, “when we feel a threat to our existence or oneness, we get defensive and more easily activate our rage system.”

But if the empathetic reaction can turn in a more prosocial direction, he said, the urge toward violence disintegrates – a result he has seen time after time with his canine patients.

“Every religion has this idea,” he stressed. “Nonviolence doesn’t mean running away. It means taking the second punch without punching back.”