Animals in Translation


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This is a very lively exploration of how animals perceive the world, think and feel, and of special animal talents. It has helpful insights for people caring for animals, especially cattle, sheep and pigs. The author, Temple Grandin, also explores ways in which austistic people see the world, and similarities between autistic perceptions and the perceptions of animals.

Grandin is herself autistic. This has been both a handicap and a gift. She is able to perceive details that normal people miss, and which animals notice. One of her achievements has been to reduce stress levels for animals going to slaughter. She both likes cattle, and likes eating meat, and figures that the least we can do is to make animals' last moments as stress-free as possible.

People have a huge responsibility towards domestic animals, Grandin stresses, because we control their enviornment. This control includes selection pressures on animals. Breeders selecting for particular physical traits, such as fast weight gain, or appearance, may change other traits, and can even create animals with emotional and behavioural problems. This was the case of the rapist roosters, where courtship genetic information was accidentally deleted, leading to dead hens, killed by roosters which no longer knew how to court them, and killed them in attempts to mate. Breeders may not notice the unintended emotional consequences because they are focusing on physical, rather than emotional traits.

A great strength of this book is the way that Grandin draws on different fields of academic knowledge, her practical experience of working with animals, and insights from being autistic. The tone of the book is thoughtful and conversational. It is not a book for people who like to see 'science' as cut and dried.

No-one can cover as much ground as Grandin does without making mistakes. On some issues she is just plain wrong, for example, her tendency to overgeneralise about mutts, or mongrel dogs, and to forget how much they can vary in terms of health and temperament. In a curious way, this weakness is also a strength, in that readers are forced to think about the ideas that she presents, rather than accepting them passively as coming from a higher plane.

The book is very accessible, with a mix of anecdote and hard science. It is often funny and moving, and is a gripping account of animals perceptions and motivations. It is highly recommended both for pet owners and livestock farmers, as well as for anyone curious about human perceptions and motivations.