Animals Make Us Human
By Temple Grandin & Catherine Johnson
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 342 pages, $26
Dogs have evolved to read and interpret humans’ facial expressions; cats have not. Chickens are happy to peck continually at the same piece of string installed in their cages (which prevents them from pecking at each other), while pigs need a constant rotation of novel items for contentment, particularly fresh straw. To gently herd untamed cattle, walk right to the edge of their “flight zone”—the closest a person can approach without causing them to flee—and slightly enter it; move away when the cows are going in the proper direction. Black cats tend to be more relaxed and social than orange cats. Although wolves and domesticated dogs are genetically very similar, the more baby-faced dogs exhibit fewer of the behaviors shown by full-grown wolves, and are best understood as immature animals. Temple Grandin‘s new book, Animals Make Us Human (coauthored by Catherine Johnson), is packed with fascinating tidbits like these. If you’ve ever wondered what an animal was thinking, Grandin supplies plenty of answers for specific species, and her insights about animals often carry over to that most difficult to understand species—humans.
Grandin, a professor at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, is widely known as one of the most accomplished people with autism in the country. She is an in-demand consultant for livestock operations, and in this book as in her others, she offers a lot of no-nonsense advice about the best ways to handle animals and to get the most out of people with autism. In one observation that combines her two fields of expertise, Grandin writes, “People with Asperger’s or dyslexia are often good with animals because their thinking is more sensory-based than word-based. Many times I have told my students that to understand animals you need to get away from language and think in pictures, sounds, touch sensations, smells, and tastes.”
As the title suggests, however, animals, not autism, is the primary focus of Animals Make Us Human. Grandin explains her pragmatic approach to animal welfare in this way: “My theory is that the environment animals live in should activate their positive emotions as much as possible, and not activate their negative emotions any more than necessary.” This statement applies equally, in Grandin’s view, to wildlife, livestock, and pets.
Grandin divides the book into separate chapters on different species, each of which she analyzes through a rubric provided by the theories of neuroscientist Dr. Jaak Panksepp, who wrote about the “blue-ribbon emotions” that guide human and animal behavior. These emotions, which Panksepp and Grandin alike write in capital letters, are SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, PANIC, LUST, CARE, and PLAY. Each animal, depending on its body type, habitat, relationship to humans, and whether it’s a predator or prey species, is more dominant in some of these emotions than others. When an animal is not given enough avenues to experience PLAY and SEEKING, and is driven to RAGE, FEAR, and PANIC, all sorts of behavioral problems can arise, particularly the occurrence of “stereotypies,” when an animal behaves in a repetitive manner, such as pacing or compulsively digging.
One of the most interesting qualities Grandin discusses is SEEKING, which has to do with looking forward to something pleasant or searching out novel experiences. “The pleasure people feel when their SEEKING system is stimulated,” Grandin writes, “is the pleasure of looking forward to something good, not the pleasure of having something good.” This is the pleasure all goal-oriented people feel when they are working toward their aspirations, and the pleasure a pig feels when provided with a lot of novel objects to investigate.
All animals can benefit when their SEEKING system is stimulated. Grandin discusses the case of a polar bear named Gus in Central Park Zoo, who “had a figure-eight swimming stereotypy he was doing for 80 percent of his waking hours.” In the wild, polar bears range and swim for miles, so it’s difficult to prevent them from exhibiting stereotypies in captivity. The Central Park Zoo ameliorated Gus’s suffering by providing him with “a bunch of barrels with different levels of buoyancy in his pool,” which he would play with for hours, because the barrels always responded in a different way when he pounced on them. After zookeepers introduced the barrels, Gus engaged in his repetitive swim only 10 percent of the time.
Grandin writes that the most frustrating part of her career is that after she consults at a livestock plant or slaughterhouse and instructs the staff on the best way to minimize animal suffering, the old bad habits often return. “It took me thirty-five years to learn that about 20 percent of employees can maintain good stockmanship on their own, but the rest have to have incentives because good stockmanship is so against their nature. Incentives work and they turn on a person’s SEEKING system.” Grandin writes that a plant that offers its employees prizes for the fewest animal deaths or injuries, along with a public chart that tracks the employees’ scores, is able to maintain good animal welfare.
Grandin has been criticized for working with slaughterhouses, but she’s right when she says that the majority of Americans are not going to stop eating meat any time soon, so there is merit in trying to make the lives of the animals intended for slaughter as comfortable as possible rather than consign them to an existence of unremitting suffering. Furthermore, Grandin writes:
“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…Dogs that live a more confined existence are less likely to get killed, but their quality of life may be poorer unless their owners spend a lot of time playing and interacting with them. I think the most important thing for an animal is the quality of its life. A good life requires three things: health, freedom from pain and negative emotions, and lots of activities to turn on SEEKING and PLAY.”
Although Grandin is frustrated that her ideas are often ignored to animals’ detriment, it’s clear from reading in Animals Make Us Human about her innovations and accomplishments that by working with the meat industry she has done more to improve the lives of more animals than most animal activists.
Dr. Temple Grandin will deliver a lecture entitled “Animals and Autism” at the University of Utah on February 13 (12 p.m., 155 Goodwill Humanitarian Bldg) and she will discuss her book at the Boulder Book Store on February 16 (7:30 p.m.).