Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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What do animals need to have a good mental life? This question seems easy to answer until we realize that even though we can provide for an animal’s physical welfare, we actually don’t know that much about the specifics of an animal’s emotional life and what they need to be happy. In this book, Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2009), animal welfare guru Temple Grandin explores what the most commonly kept species of domestic animals need to live a good life — to be happy.

But unlike with most humans, we cannot directly ask animals what makes them happy, so instead, we have to infer that answer based on their behavior. Basically, if animals act normally, then they are probably happy, whereas animals that act abnormally probably are not. But most people don’t know what behaviors are normal for domestic animals or, if we do, these normal behaviors are not allowed by modern society. Therein lies the crux of the problem.

Grandin’s main premise is that autistic people share a similar perception of the world with animals, and since she is a high-functioning autistic with a lot of training and experience in animal handling practices, she is the best person to teach people how to understand the animals that we share our lives with. The author begins her discussion with an overview of neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp’s research where he defines the “blue-ribbon emotions”: when specific brain regions that correspond to those core emotions are stimulated with a tiny electrical current, specific and predictable behaviors are elicited. If you stimulate the fear centers, the animal runs away, for example. Panksepp identified these core emotions, which he always writes in all capital letters;

  1. SEEKING: the basic impulse to search, investigate, and make sense of the environment. In other words; curiosity.
  2. RAGE: probably evolved from the experience of being captured and held immobile by a predator. Frustration is a mild form of RAGE resulting from a mental restraint.
  3. FEAR: results when continued survival is threatened in any way, ranging from physical to the mental to the social.
  4. PANIC: results when social attachments are upset or lost. Animals make contact calls when their PANIC system is activated.
  5. And there are three core emotions that are more specific and limited in their expression;

  6. LUST: sex and sexual desire.
  7. CARE: maternal love and care-taking.
  8. PLAY: poorly understood, but behaviors include roughhousing that young animals and humans engage in, and indicates happiness and good health.

Grandin introduces stereotypies, which are abnormal behaviors that are repeated for many hours at a time. These behaviors range from pacing (in captive carnivores), chewing (in captive grazing animals), and other non-locomotory movements, such as rocking or self-injurious behaviors (in children). Stereotypies provide comfort to animals and humans that live in an impoverished environment, and the presence of these abnormal behaviors indicate that an animal (or human) is either miserable now or was miserable in the past.

Building on these basic premises, Grandin tells her readers that her “one rule is simple: Don’t stimulate RAGE, FEAR, and PANIC if you can help it, and do stimulate SEEKING and also PLAY.” She devotes one chapter each to dogs, cats, horses, cows, pigs, chickens and other poultry, wildlife and zoo animals. She gives her readers tips for recognizing various emotional states in these different animals and provides specific advice for how to avoid triggering negative reactions. Overall, I found this information to be very useful, even when I remained unconvinced that it was always valid.

At least some of Grandin’s comments are just common sense, but most people who have not grown up with various types of animals need to have these things explained to them, just as Grandin had to have human social behavior explained to her. Such as; horses are high-fear prey animals, tame cattle can’t be herded, and pigs are highly curious animals that need to have something to do with their minds and their snouts.

Based on my own lifetime of experience with animals (I grew up in a farming community where I lived with cats, dogs, chickens, etc., and cared for the neighbor’s horse for years), I think that Grandin clearly is most comfortable talking about cows, which she adores, and pigs, which she spent years studying for her dissertation work, and her chapters about dogs and horses were interesting and quite insightful. I also think that her book is a useful guide for helping parrot owners to think about how to enrich their birds’ environment in a way that is meaningful for them (Grandin does briefly mention feather pulling in parrots, but otherwise does not discuss them).

But her chapters about housecats are, at least in part, just plain wrong. Grandin cites English shelter worker, Sarah Hartwell, as saying that personality in cats is related to hair color — something I am completely unconvinced is true. For example, she cites Hartwell as claiming that black cats are friendlier and more social overall with both other cats and with humans than cats with other coat colors. I found this to be a most extraordinary claim, especially since I’ve not found this to be true, despite having lived with and cared for many cats all my life.

This book contains footnotes that refers interested readers to a variety of additional resources in the back, and it includes a user-friendly index. I found the writing to be peculiar; blunt, honest and very linear, sometimes stilted and other times quite amusing, but it was easy to follow once I decided that I trusted Grandin’s ability to express herself accurately. Grandin’s co-author, Catherine Johnson, is also very well-educated, having a PhD in neurobiology as well as being the mother of two autistic sons. Overall this book is well-worth reading and the tools it provides its readers for thinking about how animals probably perceive the world will be evident long after you’ve finished the book.

Temple Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She has devoted her career to improving conditions at large slaughter and processing plants in the United States, and is a strong advocate for humane livestock handling. She has designed numerous innovations at such facilities that help to reduce stress in animals during their final minutes of life. Born with autism, Grandin realized that animals and autistic people both rely on visual clues to navigate the world. She is viewed as a strong supporter of animal welfare and regularly provides insight into autism. She has co-written a number of books, including The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger’s (2008), Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (2005), Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships (2005), Developing Talents: Careers for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism (2004), Thinking in Pictures and Other Reports from My Life with Autism (1995) and Emergence: Labeled Autistic (1986).

Comments

  1. #1 MadScientist
    June 12, 2009

    I love dogs because they’re easy to please. :) Feed them, run around, wrestle them, let them sniff other dogs’ butts, and they’re happy.

  2. #2 Patience
    June 13, 2009

    As someone on the autism spectrum, I also disagree on the cats/colour/personality thing, but it’s a very, very common stereotype, so I’m not terribly surprised–Grandin doesn’t have a lot of experience with cats, from my understanding, compared to many of the other animals featured. My parents, who were cat breeders before they were just regular breeders, even make comments about coat and personality combinations; I’m searching for the right kitten (I’m picky) and found one that was terribly cute who had a torbie coat (tortioshell/tabby mix) and got comments from both that she’d be a hellion (calico cats are supposedly the most difficult).

    Personally, I think cats make the best sort of therapy pet for someone on the spectrum, and a mildly tongue-in-cheek book entitled “All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome” probably agrees with me (I think it was meant to introduce children to the concepts of Asperger’s, actually, but it reads like proto-lolcat).

  3. #3 Bria
    June 13, 2009

    I haven’t read Animals Make Us Human, but I did read Animals In Translation a few months back. If I understood correctly, her argument was more that underlying light skin color, not fur color, was indicative of some degree of albinism and predicted developmental problems in cats. Light colored eyes and pink noses were also mentioned as indicators. I’m not sure how convinced I am of this, as I haven’t gone back to read the evidence, but will note that my paltry sample size of 2 anecdotally supports her claim.

    I did have big problems with her group selectionist arguments elsewhere in that book and with her dismissal of certain behaviors as having absolutely no evolutionary foundation without considering them in the context of signaling theory. Even so, maybe I’m ready to give another of her books a whirl. Thank you for the suggestion.

  4. #4 David Harmon
    June 13, 2009

    I loved her book Animals In Translation, I’ll certainly be checking this out.

    Bria #3: I think it’s more apparent that leucistic animals can be different in temperament, let alone things like deafness or epilepsy. I wouldn’t be astonished to hear of correlations between temperament large amounts of either red or black melanin, but I’d surely want to see the research before I quoted it.

    My own cat is a black/black/red tortoiseshell who is very affectionate and not very active — but I’m sure that has less to do with her color, than that she was hand weaned and raised affectionately.

  5. #5 Patience
    June 14, 2009

    Bria, there are actually several different genes that control white fur (or light coloured skin under a coloured fur) in cats. One is the dominant white, which is the gene that links blue-eyed white cats and deafness. Then there are a whole set of genes under the albinism grouping that actually control the pointing/Siamese pattern and, at the most extreme end, do produce a fully albinistic cat. These two gene sets express differently, and if you have a fully white cat with blue eyes, a simple way to tell which genetic type they have is by the eyeshine: the standard/dominant white gene produces the regular green eyeshine, but the albinistic gene produces red eyeshine. Additionally, there’s a gene for white spotting, which is semi-dominant and produces anything from fully other-colour and a single hair of white to fully white and a single hair of other-colour, including familiar patterns like tuxedo and van. A cat with this may have black skin/nose/pads under her black or grey fur (grey is muted expression of black), but not under her white; if she’s ginger and white she’ll probably be pink all over.

    Without having had a chance to read it, I’m questioning the claims as you state them. I would want some serious evidence, because there are so many genetic factors in a cat’s colour–I haven’t even touched on lyonization in female cats/xxy male cats to produce calicos/torties. My experience is that, like humans, cats each have their own personality and that a loving home where they’re happy is what they want, just like the rest of us–and that their personalities are not tied up much in how they look, which is a bit more than could be said for many of my fellow humans.

  6. #6 Mary
    June 17, 2009

    I’m reading this right now, so was searching around for other feedback. I really like Temple Grandin’s books – and she always makes me think twice about what I think I know or understand about animals.

    My one issue with her writing is similar to what you have expressed – she often related anecdotal stories as if they are fact. She often qualifies the statements with “it’s possible” or something to that effect – but then continues on in her writing as if it’s not just a possibility but is a fact. This tends to lead her down the path of speculation into territory that may not be proven. The mix of documented source material mixed in with anectodal stories can be disconcerting.

    I take her speculations with a grain of salt and am still able to get lots of good info out of the books (I work part time as a dog trainer). I give her alot of credit for challenging my well-developed beliefs and making me look at behaviors in a new way.

    Trisha McConnell is going to be releasing a pod-cast interview with TG sometime soon. If you search for Trisha’s blog, you can find the details if interested (theotherendoftheleash.com)

  7. #7 Colby
    July 15, 2009

    Thanks for participating in the Puppy In Training Blog Carnival. This is a thorough review of Animals Make Us Human. I’m really interested in reading the book. I had not heard of the author Temple Grandin and thought you had a typo at the beginning when you wrote about her having autism, but confirmed that this was correct after reading the authors bio at the end. Although I’m not a cat expert I’ve lived with cats my entire life and can’t imagine a cats personality being directly linked to her color. It sounds like a very interesting read though and I’m going to add it to my list of books to purchase on Amazon.com.

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