Animals In Translation – A Book Review

In Book Reviews, Pasture & Livestock by James0 Comments

Animals In Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior by Temple Grandin is a book about the minds of animals and humans. Temple Grandin is a high functioning autistic who revolutionized how animals are treated by farmers, meat packing plants, and all people who are interested in better understanding why animals do what they do. Temple unlike an average person thinks in pictures.  And only pictures, she has no words in her head that are not in picture form. This is an advantage sometimes, but most of the time it makes everyday tasks and learning a challenge. Her perception is heightened to the point that it can become distracting and maddening. It’s the small details that pop out for Temple that ordinary people miss or block out that she can’t ignore and if her acute focus is not properly managed the experience can translate into a quite frightening situation. And the research shows it’s the same for animals. The human brain is segmented into three parts, or more accurately we have three brains: The first and oldest brain, which is physically the lowest one inside the skull, is the reptilian brain, followed by the paleomammalian brain in the middle, and the third and newest brain, highest up in the head is the neomamammalian brain. The reason we have three seperate brains instead of one is because nature doesn’t throw away what works, it adds and sometimes takes away if not used (more on that later). Humans and animals use all three brains, just differently, and in some ways more similarily  than you might expect. Throughout the book Temple delves into our brains and why they evolved the way they did, how we have separated ourselves evolutionary from animals during this process, and how despite our differences we can and should connect with animals and be the partners nature designed us to be for each other.

What’s in the Book? 

The book is divided into seven chapters concluding with a Behavior and Training Troubleshooting Guide. Chapter 1: My Story. Chapter 2: How Animals Perceive the World. Chapter 3: Animal Feelings. Chapter 4: Animal Aggression. Chapter 5: Pain and Suffering. Chapter 6: How Animals Think. Chapter 7: Animal Genius: Extreme Talents.

Highlights

There are a lot of great stories along with the detailed science in this book. Temple’s story itself is an inspiring story. She spent decades traveling the country designing humane and effective feed lots and slaughter houses. In any big operation like a feed lot or slaughter plant time is money. If the animals do not move or are too scared to do what is needed of them (mostly moving into the right places) companies lose money. Through many years of hard work and dedication Temple found ways to make the animals move, and move happily. Temple could go to a slaughterhouse floor and observe and find the smallest detail that was causing a  problem. Shadows at certain times of the day were causing cattle to balk. One time it was a yellow ladder – they painted it gray and the problem was solved. There’s countless stories of Temple being able to see what the animals were seeing and understanding the fear that caused them to act they way they did. The outcome of her work resulted in greater profits due to greater efficiency and the better treatment of animals – a win win.

One tragic story Temple tells in the book that stood out was of a woman who had 6 springer spaniels, a type of dog. Dogs are pack animals and operate within an established pack order. This woman’s dogs of course being dogs had established a pack order, that they decide based on their genetics. The woman picked up on this and as a result would give the two dogs on the lower end of the order attention before the leaders. For example when she came home she would greet them first and gave them more attention. The pack leaders did not like this and started bullying and attacking the lower ranked dogs who were getting the owner’s attention out of the established pack order. The lady was growing concerned with the aggressive behavior of the alpha dogs and asked for some advice, and was advised to not do what she’d been doing, but instead to respect the established order. The lower ranked dogs would not feel bad about this, and even better they’d stop getting attacked by the pack leaders. She chose to ignore this advice and continued to give them favor over the alpha leaders and the results of her ignoring the nature of the pack ended in tragedy. The two lower dogs were killed by the lead dogs and then she had the two lead dogs put down because they killed the two lower rung dogs. If she would have respected the pack order four dogs would not have died. This is a common mistake with people anthropomorphizing their animals. Humans and animals share more than they don’t, but it’s important to respect the differences that do exist.

Another interesting piece of history and science I did not know about comes from some Australian anthropologists whose research suggests that humans evolved with wolves. This was some of the most intriguing information I found in the entire book:
 Even more it was wolves that made humans into humans. Wolves hunted in groups; humans didn’t. Wolves had complex social structures; humans didn’t. Wolves had loyal same-sex and nonkin friendships; humans probably didn’t, judging by the lack of same sex and nonkin friendships in every other primate species today. (The main relationship for chimpanzees is parent-child.) Wolves were highly territorial; humans probably weren’t – again, judging by how non-territorial all other primates are today. By the time these early people became truly modern, they had learned to do all these wolfie things. When you think about how different we are from other primates, you see how doglike we are. A lot of the things we do that the other primates don’t are dog things. The Australian group thinks it was the dogs who showed us how. They take their line of reasoning even further. Wolves, and then dogs, gave early humans a huge survival advantage, they say, by serving as lookouts and guards, and by making it possible for humans to hunt big game in groups instead of hunting small prey as individuals. Given everything wolves did for early man, dogs were probably a big reason why early man survived and Neanderthals didn’t. Neanderthals didn’t have dogs. Paul Tacon, principal research scientist at the Australian Museum, says that the development of human friendship “was a tremendous survival advantage because that speeds up the exchange of ideas between groups of people.” All cultural evolution is based on cooperation, and humans learned from dogs how to cooperate with people they aren’t related to.
Maybe the most amazing new finding is that wolves didn’t just teach us a lot of useful new behaviors. Wolves probably also changed the structure of our brains. Fossil records show that whenever a species becomes domesticated its brain gets smaller. This happens because once humans start taking care of these animals they no longer needed various brain functions in order to survive. One example is domestic animals have reduced fear and anxiety compared to wild animals. Archaeologists have discovered that 10,000 years ago, just at the point when humans began to give their dogs formal burials, the human brain began to shrink, too. It shrank by 10 percent, just like the dog’s brain. And what’s interesting is what part of the human brain shrank. In all of the domestic animals the forebrain, which holds the frontal lobes, and the corpus callosum, which is the connecting tissue between the two sides of the brain, shrank. But in humans it was the midbrain, which handles emotions and sensory data, and the olfactory bulbs, which handle smell, that got smaller while the corpus callosum and the forebrain stayed pretty much the same. Dog brains and human brains specialized: humans took over the planning and organizing tasks, and dogs took over the sensory tasks. Dogs and people coevolved and became even better partners, allies, and friends. The Aborigines have a saying: “Dogs make us human.” Now we know that’s probably literally true. People wouldn’t have become who we are today if we hadn’t co-evolved with dogs.

Final Thoughts of a Wannabe Farmer 

This book was a fascinating read. I’ve always loved animals and it’s a big reason why I want to get into farming. Any farmer or wannabe farmer would benefit from knowing the information presented in this book. Likewise anyone who owns a domestic animal would benefit as a large part of the animals referenced are dogs and cats. It’s not often a mind like Temple’s is able to communicate to ordinary humans. Here’s hoping that more unique minds are able to continue to contribute to the advancement of human knowledge.

Buy the book via Amazon by clicking HERE (It’s an affiliate link so I get a little kickback if you buy. Thanks!)

 

Temple Grandin’s website: Here

Here is Temple giving a Ted Talk. Enjoy!

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