Monday, May 11, 2009

Review: Animals Make Us Human

If you've read Animals in Translation, you already know author
Temple Grandin's theory that animals and people with autism perceive the world in similar ways. In their newest book, Animals Make Us Human, Grandin and co-author Catherine Johnson continue this theme, focusing on meeting animals' basic emotional needs in order to help them have the best possible life.

The book begins with dogs and cats, and I expected to lose interest when it moved on to horses, cows, pigs, and poultry. I figured I'd skim those chapters and slow down again when I got to wildlife and zoos. I was pleasantly surprised--the farm animals turned out to be as fascinating as the others. Best of all were the pigs.

"Almost everyone who spends a lot of time around pigs ends up thinking they're very smart animals," Grandin writes. "That's why George Orwell made the pigs the leaders of the revolution in Animal Farm. It's probably also why Winston Churchill said, 'I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.'" (174)

Unfortunately, all too often we treat pigs (and other farm animals) as raw material, with no concern for the animals' welfare. A sow, for example, is put in a gestation stall, where she is "kept confined during her entire pregnancy. The sow can lie down and stand up, but she cannot turn around. It's like being stuffed into the middle seat of a jam-packed jumbo jet for your whole adult life, and you're not ever allowed out in the aisle." (176)

Sow stalls were developed when pig farming was moved indoors. Farmers didn't know how to group the pigs so that they would live peaceably together (in another place Grandin explains how to do this), so they devised computerized feeders that allowed pigs access to the trough one at a time. "Electronics hadn't been miniaturized yet, so the sows had to wear a great big huge transponder the size of a tennis ball [attached to seat-belt strapping] around their necks to signal the gate." The devices were uncomfortable, though, so many of the pigs would chew through the strapping and remove them. "Some of the pigs figured out that the transponder was the key to the gate, so they'd pick up a chewed collar from the ground and carry it over to the gate and get to eat double rations while the other pig went hungry." (201)

You've got to love an animal as devious as that.

Grandin, who is autistic, nevertheless earned a PhD in animal science and is now an associate professor at Colorado State University. According to one of her web sites, "she has designed the facilities in which half the cattle are handled in the United States, consulting for firms such as Burger King, McDonald's, Swift and others." Thanks to her work, a lot of animals have much happier lives--and, as she points out, happier animals produce more and better meat.


Amy T said...

As much as I think this book would interest me, I'd rather bury my head in the sand on the issue of factory farming. As you know, I don't eat meat ... so that's not the issue. It's just that these issues are so desperately sad to me -- espcially, when it comes to the pigs. Anyway, did the book depress you?

LaVonne Neff said...

No, it isn't depressing, though some of the stories she tells are certainly sad. But she has made a big difference in the treatment of farm animals--directly, by designing systems that make their lives happier; and indirectly, by raising public awareness. It appears that the system is better now than it was a decade ago, though it still has a long way to go.

Matt Gunter said...

Though at different times he kept one or the other, my dad seemed to have a preference for cattle over pigs. I think one big reason is that they are not as smart (and devious) and are thus easier to manage.