The smart mischievous chicken, the sweet sensitive cow and the problem-solving pig are the stuff of cartoons. But these almost human qualities are based in reality, according to scientist and animal welfare pioneer Dr. Temple Grandin, and that’s hard to swallow when the animals become breakfast or dinner.
"All animals and people have the same core emotion systems in the brain," she writes. All sentient beings—from wildlife and zoo residents to farm animals and family pets—deserve greater understanding, humane treatment and respect, according to Grandin, who has targeted massive industrial farming companies and meat plants as well as the average pet owner with her award-winning animal welfare work.
"I feel strongly we have to give animals a decent life," she says by phone from Fort Collins, where she is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University.
Grandin’s work with animals has been strongly influenced by her own autism, a condition that has helped her understand how animals perceive the world. She has explored the connection in two best-selling books, Thinking in Pictures and Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior.
Her extraordinary new book, Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals makes a connection between the humane treatment of farm animals and the physically and emotionally healthy life that household pets deserve.
Most animal behavior—pleasant or obnoxious—is driven by "the blue ribbon emotions," according to Grandin, which include seeking (searching, investigating and making sense of the environment); rage (frustration sparked by mental and/or physical restraint); fear; lust; care (maternal love and caring); and play.
She identifies the primary emotions motivating animals in various locations: the wild, the "enriched environments" of zoos, industrial farms, ranches and homes. Then she explains how to recognize the physical and behavioral signs of both stress and satisfaction to bring out the best in any species.
"Usually—but not always—the more freedom you give an animal to act naturally, the better, because normal behaviors evolved to satisfy the core emotions," she writes.
Grandin’s interest in animal welfare dates back to her childhood, when she can recall happy, emotionally healthy dogs wandering her childhood neighborhood ("We never had leash aggression," Grandin says), which contrasts with her current observations of lonely dogs barking and whining in isolated backyards.
But the "normal" behaviors for a dog—roaming the countryside for miles per day—usually aren’t possible for the modern pet owner, so Grandin identifies good substitute behaviors like off-leash romps, plenty of games with humans and a rotating stash of toys which stimulate the play and seeking drives.
"Dominance aggression" or leash aggression has become extremely common in modern dogs. But Grandin suggests that aggression—which isn’t an animal emotion—has its basis in fear and anxiety, which are painful emotions that can be addressed through frustration tolerance and obedience training.
Her own childhood struggles with autism and her perception in pictures rather than words helped Grandin comprehend how animals see the world. Observing how cattle became calm in the "squeeze" chutes used to perform veterinary procedures on her aunt’s ranch, she discovered the same calming sensation for her own hyper-awareness and anxiety. After earning degrees in animal science at Arizona State and the University of Illinois she then designed a similar, humane chute now used by more than half of the beef processing plants in America.
In Animals Make Us Human, her anecdotes about working with the meat industry, zoo keepers, ranchers, farmers and other animal owners make for fascinating reading. She helps cowboys shoo "riperian loafers" grazing on protected land by getting them to work with the cattle’s nature instead of against it. She explores why cats are trained effectively with a clicker. ("A cat . . . hasn’t evolved to read people, and he isn’t motivated to scrutinize his owner for signs. You know a cat is going to hear a click.") She helps a horse owner figure out why his mare went "berserk" when a carriage harness was put on after discovering that a previous owner had made his harnesses out of rubber, snapping the horse’s skin like a big rubber band. And she stares at the flip side of abuse, the farm workers too tenderhearted to put runts or sick animals down. "When employees repeatedly go through the pain of holding onto an animal and watching it suffer and then finally euthanizing it or watching it die, eventually they’re going to become desensitized to animal suffering. That’s how habituation works."
Grandin has dedicated her entire career to meat-industry reform and animal welfare, designing plant audits for huge corporate buyers like McDonald’s, and showing often-reluctant CEOs that animals can be processed quickly and humanely with a few often inexpensive modifications, as well as better training and monitoring of staff.
"I would have liked that they just stopped being mean to the animals," Grandin says. "But if you want change to happen, you have to do it on business terms."
She encourages her students to enter the animal welfare field, and encourages ordinary animal lovers to find out where their food comes from, then consider writing a hand-crafted note to big corporations rather than a form letter or e-mail ("Those count," Grandin says). And she hopes that her insights into horses, dogs and cats in the book will perhaps turn a "mere" pet owner into a gentle agitator, bringing "real change on the ground."
"You have to be consistently insistent," Grandin says of her tireless and unsentimental work on behalf of animals. "Activists soften the steel, then I bend it into pretty grill work."
Deanna Larson writes from Nashville.
Author photo by Joel Benjamin.