Know a thing or two about slaughterhouses, animal behavior and autism? Or maybe nothing at all? Either way, Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation walks you through a fascinating world which involves all three, and leaves you with a passel of ideas to chew on. Grandin, a prolific author, subject of a biopic film and autistic professor at Colorado State University, adds to her accomplishments here. Together with co-writer Catherine Johnson, a neuropsychiatrist and mother of two autistic children, Grandin has written an ambitious book which tackles (1) what it’s like to be autistic; (2) how an autistic person’s perception of detail is similar to animals’ perception; and (3) how this similarity helps her, and us, understand animals; and she manages to tie it all together in a way that entertains and challenges a lot of assumptions.
Grandin theorizes that like autistic people, animals think in pictures and are exquisitely sensitive to visual details. While traditional animal science focuses on environmental factors, reward and punishment, she focuses on visual stimuli. She spent years in slaughterhouses and stock yards, saw meatpackers technically complying with health and safety regulations, and in reality failing horribly. An inspector might be busily checking off things like dry floor, good lighting, efficient excrement removal, and completely miss cows literally being flayed alive.
She recounts how at one farm, managers couldn’t get their pigs into the barn — shouting, shoving, giving them electric shocks, nothing worked — so they asked for her help. She got on her hands and knees and was able to see what the managers overlooked: puddles on the floor reflecting light in a way that was frightening and irritating to her, and, she theorized, to the pigs. Sure enough, once the floor was dried, the pigs calmly walked into the barn. She designs simple, visually-based inspection systems to help make sure that animals aren’t frightened or mistreated. Her methods are credited with revolutionizing the meatpacking industry. Several corporate buyers, including MacDonalds, require that their suppliers use her methods.
She’s the target of a fair amount of criticism, first, for demeaning autistic people by comparing them with animals. This misses her point, which is that autism is as much enhanced and specialized ability as disability. She’s also on the hot seat for fostering the slaughterhouse and meatpacking industries. As one critic puts it, “Dr. Grandin never asks the only relevant question here: Is it right to do this at all?” No matter what you feel about slaughterhouses, they aren’t going anywhere soon, and there is no question that Grandin changed the way animals are treated. It’s a complicated issue, and the science, politics and thinking about it are changing all the time. Her two cents on the subject are well worth the read.
Grandin examines problems caused by selective breeding, aggression in horses and dogs, how parrots learn to identify colors, how elephants use vibration to communicate with relatives 25 miles away and how dogs affected human evolution. She offers new ways to think about autism, noting for instance that autistic people’s visual abilities make them uniquely suited to certain kinds of jobs, like airport security scanners. An autistic person can often sit for long periods of time with complete concentration and pick out on a scanner things that “normal” people miss. She goes as far as to imply that abstract thinkers, which most of us are, often need visual thinkers to make common sense decisions. It’s a wonderful romp, full of entertaining stories and science explained in a way that non-scientists can understand. Writing with compassion and understanding, Grandin has a gift for revealing mysteries that most of us miss. Bravo.