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Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior    by Temple Grandin & Catherine Johnson order for
Animals in Translation
by Temple Grandin
Order:  USA  Can
Harvest, 2006 (2004)
Hardcover, Paperback, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Temple Grandin, author of Thinking in Pictures, begins Animals in Translation with her own story. She tells us that growing up autistic 'made school and social life hard, but it made animals easy.' Essentially Grandin postulates that both animals and autistic people think visually, in pictures, and she has made a career out of telling people 'why their animals are doing the things they do.'

There are many valuable insights to be found in this book. One of the most striking, for me, was Grandin's discussion of our inattentional blindness, that is verbal thinkers' high level of filtering of what our senses report on everything around us. (I've been struck while on long hiking trips by an opening up of my senses to details of nature not normally perceived). She tells us that visual thinkers, on the other hand, 'are detail-oriented', seeing and reacting to everything (she gives many examples from her own experience with animal behavior in which the animals react to 'tiny details' that most people never notice). Grandin tells us that she hopes what she's learned 'will help people see' both autistic people and animals more clearly.

There's a fascinating discussion of our 'Lizard Brains, Dog Brains, and People Brains', layered on top of each other - no wonder we get confused! 'The lizard brain breathes, eats, and sleeps; the dog brain forms dominance hierarchies and rears its young', while people brains make connections and generalize (animals don't generalize which explains a lot of human misunderstandings of their pets). Animals also have very different perceptions of the world through their senses - one example given here is elephants' ability to communicate through infrasonic sounds and seismically (through their feet!)

Equally fascinating, though also very disturbing - both in terms of what has been done and might be done in the future - are many examples of 'warped evolution' resulting from strange side effects of animal breeding. Breeding programs have had unexpected, and unwanted consequences in rapist roosters, purebred dogs who bite more than mutts do, and lean pigs with low sex drives. Other aspects of animal behavior covered include seeking and novelty behaviors, locomotor play in both animal and human young, aggression, the need for socialization, dominance hierarchies, how much animals feel pain and fear, and how they use the latter to predict future events.

I appreciated Grandin's examples of the failures of verbal people to focus on what's important in animal welfare audits, which generalize very easily to the failures of bureaucracies in general - there are lessons to be learned (and avoided) here. Overall, she concludes that 'Most birds and animals are almost certainly smarter than we know', discussing for example research on the extensive use of language in prairie dogs. I enjoyed her comment that 'What's unique about language is that the creatures who develop it are highly vulnerable to being eaten' (so much for our feelings of superiority over use of language!)

Temple Grandin concludes with an advocacy for the study of animals 'for their own sake, and on their own terms ... What are they doing? What are they feeling? What are they thinking? What are they saying? Who are they? And: what do we need to do to treat animals fairly, responsibly, and with kindness? Those are the real questions.' I recommend Animals in Translation to anyone interested in understanding the animals around us, and ourselves, better.

Listen to a podcast interview with Temple Grandin at

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