Sometimes a poor interview can ruin a perfectly good book. I heard animal science expert Temple Grandin interviewed on NPR several years ago. The interviewer focused almost entirely on Grandin’s personal experience as an autistic person and her observations of animals. I was left with the definite impression that Grandin had come up with an oddball theory—that animals’ brains work like autistic people’s brains—and was now making a killing by selling a book (Animals in Translation) promulgating that theory and that people were buying it because it sounded right, not because there was any research to support. I dismissed Grandin’s ideas as pure pop science.
But I am fascinated by animals and love reading about what makes them tick, so I decided to give Grandin a chance with Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals. Instead of dwelling on the parallels between the autistic brain and the animal brain, this book focuses on animal emotions and how people can ensure that animals have the best emotional lives possible. Central to her premise are what she calls the four “blue ribbon emotions”: seeking, fear, panic, and rage. She encourages readers to do what they can to promote the first emotion and limit the other three. She discusses how these emotions manifest themselves in dogs, cats, livestock, and wild animals, and she offers advice for people who live and work with these animals.
Whatever skepticism I had about Grandin’s science was quickly silenced as I heard her cite brain research and behavior studies verifying her ideas. I’m sure some of her thoughts are open to debate—what ideas in science aren’t?—but she’s not pulling thoughts out of the air either. She knows her stuff, both because she’s read the studies and because she’s spent time in close contact with animals and tried out many different techniques for keeping them stimulated or calming them. In fact, she devotes a whole section of the book to the importance of doing research both in the field and in the lab. And she makes some excellent points about the need for scientists and engineers to work more closely and share information with the animal handlers who might actually be able to apply their findings and use their designs. Her publications list shows she’s been working that way since the 1970s.
Much of what Grandin has to say will be troubling to some readers. She tells some terrible stories of poor animal handling, particularly in the chicken industry (confirming once again my decision not to purchase grocery store eggs). Grandin has worked extensively in the meat slaughter industry, ensuring that animals are given as stress-free a life and as pain-free as death as possible. Because Grandin is a known spokesperson for animal welfare, but also one who works for the meat industry, I found her insights about animal activism to be especially interesting. As much as I would like for every farm animal to be raised under conditions like those at Polyface Farm, where I’m lucky enough to get most of my meat, I do wonder if such a system could be scaled up to feed everyone. If it can’t, I’m glad people like Grandin are working to make the industry we do have better.
This video will give you a sense of Grandin’s thinking and how she applies science and her observations to animal handling:
I’m glad I put my doubts aside enough to listen to this book. This was definitely a case where the slim pickings in my library’s audio section worked to my advantage!