Animals Make Us Human

Temple Grandin explains what animals feel and why it matters

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Our Sheba is the Sarah Bernhardt of dogs. If we pull our coats on to go out for the evening, she immediately deflates into a limp ball of canine sorrow, shooting us looks of such utter despair that we’ve occasionally been known to change our plans.

Those of us who live with companion animals are often acutely aware of their feelings. But “a lot of executives, plant managers, and even some veterinarians and researchers still don’t believe that animals have emotions,” writes Temple Grandin in her sharply informative new book Animals Make Us Human.

Grandin is a renowned expert in the field of animal behavior, famed for decades of work advocating for the humane treatment of livestock on its way to slaughter. Things have gotten better, she says and yet, still, “When I listen to long technical lectures about cow hormones at conferences I want to say, ‘There’s an animal attached to that ovary,’ ” she writes.

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“Researchers need to look at the whole animal.”

The need to improve human-animal relations by better understanding animal emotions is the theme that runs through “Animals Make Us Human.” Grandin begins with cats and dogs, the creatures that many of us know best – or at least, think that we do.

But for most readers, Grandin’s book will contain at least a few surprises.

Forget, for instance, what you learned on “The Dog Whisperer” about dogs needing to live in a pack with an alpha leader. Dogs like to live in families, Grandin says, and what they really want are “parents” who offer the same kind of clear-cut behavior guides to which children respond.

As for cats, they are social and they are trainable, Grandin insists. The trick is teaching them through positive reinforcement rather than punitive measures.

(Also interesting: Mutts may have better social skills than pure-bred dogs, cats only look impassive because they have no eyebrows, and if you’re adopting a cat at a shelter, look for a black one – they’re often the most affectionate.)

Grandin moves on to horses, cows, pigs, poultry, wildlife, and zoo animals, always dealing with five core emotions: rage, fear, panic, seeking, and play. The way to work with animals, she explains, is to find ways to “turn off” rage, fear, and panic, and to instead engage an animal’s positive desires to play and explore.

She finds that horses are so keyed into color that one may fear a trainer in a black hat but relax with another wearing white. Cattle are so sensitive to detail that a dangling chain that wasn’t there the day before may prevent them from being willing to enter a chute. Also, cattle hate (the italics are Grandin’s) being yelled at.

Grandin, who has a PhD in animal science and is an associate professor at Colorado State University, was diagnosed with autism as a child. Grandin says that she thinks in pictures rather than in words – as she believes animals do. She is also extremely sensitive to all kinds of sensory stimuli and very conscious of detail – characteristics that she says help her to understand the way that animals see the world.

Over the years, some animal advocates have lamented Grandin’s willingness to serve as a consultant for ranchers and slaughterhouses. Others, however, argue that the innovations in animal handling she has pioneered have done an enormous amount to relieve animal suffering.

Grandin is not a vegetarian. She has said that she thinks that it is right to eat meat – but also imperative that the animals consumed be allowed a humane existence. “People forget that nature can be very harsh and death in the wild is often more painful and stressful than death in a modern [food processing] plant,” she writes.

Grandin credits McDonald’s, Whole Foods, and Wendy’s with doing much to raise the standards of livestock treatment by insisting on audits.

“The good news is that conditions in the plants are much better today than they were ten years ago,” she writes.

The bad news is that pigs (whom Grandin ranks as among the most intelligent of animals) are still forced into restrictive sow stalls, and conditions for chickens (both those to be eaten and those who lay eggs) are still generally abysmal.

Grandin is a scientist. “Animals Make Us Human” is an engaging read narrated in a human voice that even borders on the folksy. But in writing about animals. Grandin’s manner – although always empathetic – is brisk rather than sentimental.

It’s probably the quality that allows her to witness difficult scenarios in slaughterhouses and zoos. It may also be the reason that people who see animals as their business turn to her for advice.

She appeals to pragmatics with statements like, “If we get the animal’s emotions right we will have fewer problem behaviors.”

But for those of us whose connection to animals is through the heart, her words ring every bit as true. What “35 years of experience working with animals have shown me,” Grandin says, is that “emotions come first.”

Marjorie Kehe is Monitor’s book editor.

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