on 11 March 2008
Temple Grandin was profiled in a BBC Horizon documentary a year or two back as `the woman who thinks like a cow'. A somewhat uncomplimentary portrayal you might think, until you appreciate that Grandin is a gifted professor of animal science and champion for autism, and that cows are far more interesting creatures than might often be assumed.
Grandin discovered that her way of viewing the world corresponded very closely to the perceptions of many animals. As a trouble-shooter on farms and ranches across the USA, she found that she could very often just `see' the problems which were scaring cattle and bringing their owners to the brink of despair. Combined with her prolific research and writings, autism has been a rare gift, enabling her remarkable work.
As a novice in the field of animal science, I felt fascinated and challenged by the wide mix of ideas this book presents. Topics as diverse as why pigs enjoy snuggling up to each other and genetic aggression are introduced in easy, layman's terms, giving interesting details about the research but also recognising that scientists don't yet have all the answers. Grandin challenges us to question a lot of what we might believe about animal behaviour - and for that matter autism - and does so with humility and humour.
A wealth of down-to-earth anecdotes ground the research and open questions posed. For example, we learn about a friend's cat who knew when `mother' was entering the lift of their apartment block some 12 floors below and of the prairie dogs of Arizona who've not only evolved a language involving nouns, verbs and adjectives, but even different dialects amongst local colonies!
At the same time, familiar stories are looked at a new light. For example, the story of the German `counting' horse Clever Hans is looked at not as a disappointing scam (it was revealed that Hans couldn't really count), but remarkable for the fact that a horse had taught himself to tune into subtle human cues in the first place. This is just one example of what is often unseen `animal genius'.
Grandin appeals for humane treatment of all animals, which she argues must come through a new understanding of how they interact with their world and how we deal with our husbandry of them.
The joint writing with Catherine Johnson works well, coming across as a conversation between friends (including the reader). But what is remarkable is that Grandin and Johnson manage to present deep insights into both autism and animal communication, as well as linking the two together. Rarely does a book inspire us to think both about the animals around us and our fellow human beings in a new way.
This is a truly wonderful book, and one which I have found myself constantly wanting to recommend to others.
on 21 October 2013
This is fascinating book on animal behaviour written by Temple Grandin, a remarkable woman, who lectures all over the world on animal welfare, especially livestock, and on the nature of autism. The book is co-authored by Catherine Johnson, a mother of two children with autism.Temple Grandin is an associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She courageously went public about her diagnosis of autism. She also has an international reputation in the meat-packing industry, for her ground-breaking designs of humane cattle-handling equipment, techniques, and setting standards of good practice in handling animals.
Grandin has two main aims in this book. She aims to show how problems in animal behaviour can be resolved by understanding the causes of the behaviour. To this end, she has analysed livestock behaviour down to its smallest details, so that she can predict what an animal will do. She has extensive experience in being called in to trouble-shoot difficult behaviour in domestic and agricultural animals, including cattle,pigs, dogs and horses. She has synthesized the knowledge of animal breeders, trainers and ethologists, into rules and practical advice on how to manage difficult animals.
Her second aim is to develop a new theory of autism. She argues that the autistic mind is closer to the animal mind than it is to the typical human mind, when it comes to perception of detail. This opens the possibility of new ways of understanding autism. There are autistic "savants" who can identify a prime number with uncanny speed, or can perform complex calculations faster than a computer.. In all of these instances, the individual has systematized a mathematical system. Grandin extends her understanding to living creatures.
Grandin has tried to systematize animal behavior. She starts from the animal's perspective and asks; what kinds of stimuli might make an animal frightened? What kinds of stimuli might make an animal aggressive? What do we know about the neuroscience of animal drives that might help us predict its behaviour? Grandin's analysis of animal behaviour results in her understanding it to the point of being able to predict it, and to remedy faults and problems.
Here are some examples of how slight changes in an animal's environment can produce strong, often alarming reactions. Changes in lighting from outside to inside building can frighten cattle and pigs. Pools of water can frighten them when caught in the light. Flapping objects such as coats or rags near where they have to walk can really scare them.Unfamiliar noises from generators etc can unnerve them and cause panic.
As a dog trainer and elephant handler, I realise the importance of knowing your animal and trying to see things they way that the animal does. I have learned to read the body language of my dogs, so as to predict their behavior. Their running action when hunting squirrels is totally different from that when they have the scent of a bitch in season. My German Shepherd has a fast purposeful trot with his head up when he is planning the pursuit of an interesting female dog. He also stops looking around for me, because at that time I have temporarily ceased to exist for him, so if I want to stop him, I know I have to act fast with a stop command. If I know the bitch is friendly to him, I usually just let him get on with it and re-call him when his curiousity and/or lust is satisfied.
I know one elephant in Chiang Mai Province who is terrified of small white birds, if they are feeding on the ground in a flock. She gets nervous and simply will not proceed past the birds. I just let her back up and find another route, or I dismount, leave her at a safe distance, and scare the birds off for her. She doesn't mind them at all if they are perched in the trees. She was probably startled by a flock of these birds when she was young.Many animal trainers and animal problem solvers such as Cesar Millan, who often deals with dog phobias, are aware of the importance of close observation and trying to see things the way the animal sees them. Grandin goes further in trying to systematize this knowledge.
She has also examined the causes of aggression in domestic animals such as horses or dogs, and developed a set of rules. If a stallion is kept locked up and deprived of the opportunity to learn to socialise, it will be very aggressive to other stallions, and will try to rape mares. If a dog is not properly socialised with other dogs and people outside its family, it may well be aggressive, through fear. Or if it is allowed to be too dominant and intimidate its human family, then it may be aggressive to them. If it knows its place in the family, and is given clear boundaries, it will be contented and not cause such problems.
Finally, she has examined animal breeding. If you cross a fast-growing rooster with a fast-growing hen, you get fast-growing chickens. But she identifies that such single-characteristic genetic breeding programmes always come with a down-side. The fast-growing offspring also have weak hearts, for example. If you cross fast-growing chickens with those selected for their strength, you get long-lived, fast-growing chickens, but they are monstrously aggressive. I think some of the accounts of the mistakes and cruelties inflicted on livestock here will cause more people to question the ethics of the whole process of commercial meat production, however well managed. In my view that is a good thing.
Some readers may be shocked that Temple Grandin is saying that autistic people are more similar to animal than normal people. Isn't this suggesting that autistic people are subhuman? In fact, Grandin's claim is that animals have superior perception of detail, and so do people with autism. So, far from offending people with autism, she is if anything suggesting that non-autistic people have less sharp perception. In a way she is saying that it is the "normal" people who are handicapped, because they miss all this detail, and make many mistakes when trying to remember events. We know that this is the case from "eye-witness" testimony, which often turns out to be unreliable , because our brains construct memories, make assumptions, and change details and sequences, often in the very process of recalling them.
She links the two themes of her book by arguing that a person with autism will have a greater affinity for animals than will a person without autism, because the same sorts of unexpected changes like flickering lights, or sudden small movements or sounds that might startle an animal, might also startle a person with autism. She goes further to argue that understanding animal perception might help us understand autistic perception.
Getting back to the elephant example, Grandin mentions the fact that they use infrasonic (low rumbles) to communicate and possibly even seismic communication (ground vibrations) to send messages to their family members across distances as great as 25 miles. Elephants when distress, slam their trunks on the ground. The elephant I know with the white bird phobia does this if the birds get too near her. I agree with Temple here, that the elephant is communicating her distress to other elephants. In fact elephants do a whole range of things with their prehensile trunks. They explore their environment, comfort each other, pick up food and objects such as sticks to scratch with. Elephants normally sleep standing up, and often with their eyes open. You know when an elephant is asleep because its trunk is totally relaxed and resting on the ground at the tip. This is important because you should never startle a sleeping elephant. You should make a gentle sound, and let it wake up first, and you should never approach an elephant from behind or straight ahead of it. Their vision is poor and they are happier if you approach from the front but to one side, so they clearly see you coming.
I am delighted to see that towards the end of the book, she discusses the evidence that humans co-evolved with wolves, in other words that we changed them and they changed us. This is something that I have long believed. Dog and human bones have been found in burials dating back 14,000 years, so some archaeologists concluded that domestication of dogs too place then. But Robert Wayne and his team at UCLA examined through DNA testing found that dogs started to diverge from wolves about 135,000 years ago. He suggest, and Temple and I agree with him, that proto humans, wolves that were slowly becoming dogs, were developing together, and were already closely associated. Many finds of wolf bones and humans bones together,date from more than 100,000 years ago.This suggests that they were associating at a time when homo sapiens were just evolving from homo erectus. This means they had few tools, were perhaps pre linguistic. The wolves with their superior sense of smell and superior pack based hunting skills, probably taught the proto humans the value of cooperation with them and with each other. Grandin argues that human social structures resembles that of wolves, more closely that that of primates. Even stronger evidence is that fact that the mid-brain of humans, which handles sensory data, including scenting smell, shrank over 10,000 years ago, while the fore-brain which handles language, reasoning and planning skills remained the same. The suggestion is that many of the mid brain functions of humans were not needed so much because the dogs were handling that side of things. The camp dogs were scenting, hearing and identifying prey and dangerous threats, for the humans, so the human brain was free to specialise and organise, develop language and cultural skills. Grandin suggest that this is probably why homo sapiens were able to flourish, while Neanderthals with similar brains to humans, did not, because they were not cooperating with wolves or proto dogs.I think this evidence may well explain why so many humans, including me, have such a strong affinity with dogs, and wolves. We are ancient companions.Interested readers can find out more about my experiences with dogs, elephants and other animals, in my book: OF MICE & ZEN.ANIMAL ENCOUNTERS IN THE LIFE OF A WANDERING BUDDHIST (free samples of Goodreads and Amazon).
As I have made clear, I greatly appreciated this book. One important detail on which I disagree with her, is on the use of shock collars and invisible electric fences on dogs who chase joggers and cyclists, or dogs who roam. She advocates these as necessary to prevent these problems. I disagree. Such devices often traumatize dogs and can cause the dog to get injured. One unfortunate collie was so traumatized by the shock fence, that she would never leave the house and started pooping on the floor. These devices are barbaric if used by careless, inexperienced people, and they are not necessary. I have trained many dogs not to chase people, vehicles, or livestock and not to run off, without recourse to such devices. It just takes more time and effort on the part of the trainer. You have to be able to bond with, and communicate with the dog, to predict its behaviour, and intervene then. Anyone resorting to these electric shock devices is simply evading that responsibility. I think this issue is one where Temple Grandin's background in livestock management works against her. There, the use of electric devices is seen as normal, but in dog care ? Surely not acceptable.