Animals Make Us Human

Animals Make Us HumanTemple Grandin’s Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior  occupies a special place among the animal books of the last few decades. Grandin’s autism gives her a special understanding of what animals, whether house cats or cattle, think, feel and — perhaps most important — desire. There is a revelation on almost every page, and Grandin’s prose (she wrote with Catherine Johnson) is ungainly in the best possible way: blunt, sweet, off-kilter and often quite funny.

Grandin’s new book, Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals, also written with Johnson, picks up where Animals in Translation left off. It has a slightly different focus: she concentrates this time on the emotional rather than the physical life of animals, although the two are clearly related.

Grandin bases many of her observations in Animals Make Us Human on the work of Washington State University neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp, who identified a series of core emotion systems in animals: seeking, play, care and lust (on the positive side) and fear, panic and rage (on the negative).

“The rule is simple,” she writes. “Don’t stimulate rage, fear and panic if you can help it, and do stimulate seeking and also play.”

There are provocative chapters here on dogs (she quibbles with some of the alpha-male ideas of Cesar Millan, television’s “Dog Whisperer”) and cats. Grandin is at her best, however, when she is talking about animals like cows, pigs, horses and chickens, as well as wild animals and those in zoos.

Grandin has designed humane and stress-free slaughter systems that are used now to process about half of all the cattle in the United States and Canada. There is some cognitive dissonance here. She is often asked “How can you care about animals when you design slaughter plants?”

Her reply is that “some people think death is the most terrible thing that can happen to an animal.” She argues that “the most important thing for an animal is the quality of its life.”

She adds: “The more I observe and learn about how dogs are kept today, I am more convinced that many cattle have better lives than some of the pampered pets. Too many dogs are alone all day with no human or dog companions.”

She worries about the “totally adversarial” relationship between animal advocacy groups and the livestock industry. She has kind words for companies like McDonald’s and Wendy’s (she has consulted for both), which are forcing their suppliers to treat animals more humanely. But she also praises activists. “The big companies are like steel, and activists are like heat. Activists soften the steel, and then I can bend it into pretty grillwork and make reforms.”

One of the major points in Animals Make Us Human is the importance of hiring and training good people to work with livestock. Strong, caring managers are needed; bullying and sadistic employees should be fired; and because turnover in these industries is high, constant training and retraining are necessary, as well as constant auditing from the outside.

Grandin is in favor of almost total openness — she’s among the writers who believe that slaughterhouses should have glass walls. “No animal should spend its last conscious moments in a state of terror,” she writes, and any visitor should be able to observe that they do not.

She loves solid, declarative sentences: “Cattle hate being yelled at”; “Pigs are obsessed with straw”; “Cows like to learn new things.”

We’re lucky to have Temple Grandin.

She has already written one very fine memoir, Thinking in Pictures . Human beings can often be made to feel like cattle, especially in large cities. What would she have to say about subways, housing projects, stadiums, prisons, office cubicles, long-distance buses, shelters for the homeless, elevators or the security line at an airport? What are her thoughts about urban planning in general?

This blogger would love to know.

Full review by Dwight Garner at New York Times, January 20, 2009.

One response to “Animals Make Us Human

  1. Temple Grandin is brilliant. Very interesting post.

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