April 2005

Barbara J. King


The Animal Translator: A Profile of Temple Grandin

Last fall in a Virginia hotel, I witnessed Temple Grandin captivate an audience of about 700 people -- psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and parents -- all trying in some way to help children with developmental disorders. Twenty years into a career heavily dependent on public speaking, I can spot a pro; Grandin stayed in synch with her audience for nearly an hour, conveying her points with clarity and humor. Hundreds of people rose as one, at the end, and gave her an ovation.

A noted author and a PhD in animal science, Grandin herself has autism. A heroine to those whose lives are touched by autism, she embodies a success story and at the same time conveys beautifully (in words and body language) what it feels like to be autistic. Grandin, for example, has always thought entirely in images rather than words (see Thinking in Pictures). And years ago she built herself a squeeze cage modeled on one used for cattle, so she could enjoy gentle touch without the panicked feeling she got when people would hug her (“It was like a tidal wave of sensation drowning me”).

Now, the view from this window has broadened. In Animals in Translation (AIT), Graindin offers insights into how animals think and feel. Hyper-specificity is the key: “This is the single most important thing to know about the way animals perceive the world: animals see details people don’t see. They are totally detail-oriented.”

How does she know? “Autism is a kind of way station,” she writes, “on the road from animals to humans, which puts autistic people like me in a perfect position to translate ‘animal talk’ into English.” But Grandin’s no pet psychic. For years she has worked with meat-packers, sometimes as a hired consultant for corporations like McDonald’s. Her goal, a humane death for the animals, requires that she see what the animals see, and feel what they feel. Once, Grandin visited a plant where the pigs refused to walk properly into a certain chute; employees were using electric prods to keep the animals moving. Grandin got down on her hands and knees, and moved through the chute as a pig would. She immediately noticed tiny reflections glinting off the wet floor, a detail that she just knew had completely spooked the pigs. Shifting some overhead lights caused the reflections to disappear; the animals became calm.

AIT is filled with examples like this one. Readers come to understand why Grandin’s getting a yellow metal ladder painted gray made a big differences in the lives of cows. The book careens from cow joy and the increasing stupidity of collies as they are bred for narrower faces (“I call collies brainless ice picks”), to the newly-discovered use
of adjectives by prairie dogs and Alex the parrot’s ability to spell. Embedded along the way are great tidbits about training one’s pets (well, dogs anyway, she’s a realist about cats) and about human life in general: “There’s so much psychodrama in normal people’s [she means non-autistic people’s] lives. Animals never have psychodrama.”

That Grandin knows what she is talking about is supported by data from comparative neuroscience. Unlike animals, we humans see what we expect to see in many given situations, a conclusion that will surprise no one who has read Rashomon (or Larry Summers’ remarks about women in science). Our brains have evolved to see, or when need be create, patterns and generalizations.

Some people are no doubt puzzled -- even repelled -- that Grandin doesn’t channel her talents towards ending large-scale slaughter of animals for human consumption. Page after page in AIT, animals walk to their death; it’s mind-numbing. To me, though, Grandin is an animal activist, working in realistic ways to make a difference for animals in a carnivorous society. What she has done is to cut, cleanly, any necessary link between language and consciousness: “Without language you can think more abstract thoughts than probably anyone has believed possible.”

A popular theory in some academic circles is that thinking was evolutionarily enabled by language: in other words, thinking is dependent on language. It’s crystal clear where this view leaves animals without language, and people with no or severely limited language. No wonder 700 people who care for, and about, autistic children were on their feet, applauding Grandin’s alternative perspective! Because I study apes, and worry about the dangers they face in the wild, it’s unsurprising that Grandin moves me the most when she links animal emotion, consciousness, and intelligence with human responsibility: “The single worst thing you can do to an animal emotionally is to make it feel afraid.” Acting responsibly toward animals is the right thing to do and it has a payoff for our species. We evolved with animals, we’re meant to share the planet with them, and “people who can talk to animals are happier than people who can’t.” Amen.

Read Grandin on autism, and read her on animals; you’ll think about thinking in new ways. AIT passed the ultimate book test in my house: I read aloud from it at the dinner table for several nights in a row. Happily, we weren’t eating meat those nights. We rarely eat meat; now we’ll be eating less.

See http://www.councilhd.ca/mission/mission.htm