Animals in Translation…

by Translation Guy on January 13, 2010

Temple Grandin was profiled in a BBC Horizon documentary a few years ago as ‛the woman who thinks like a cow.’ Now, if someone called you that, you would not necessarily take it as a compliment, but if you thought like a cow, you would surely feel different. Grandin would surely consider it a compliment.

That’s because she believes that thinking like an animal is good. Animal thought is not all hung with the cobwebs of words and syntax. Animals and autistics think the same way, she says, and Grandin should know, since she’s autistic.

She also runs a consulting service for the slaughterhouse industry. She troubleshoots cattleshoots, rubbing off all the psychological rough edges of these production runs so that the cattle stay calm as they file along to meet their maker. (Baulking is bad for production.)

Someone has to do it, Grandin believes, because people are going to keep eating meat, and so is Grandin. But before Grandin, no one was working on keeping the cattle happy. No one knew how. No one even saw it. Grandin saw it ― and fixed it.

Growing up on a ranch, Grandin discovered that she and animals saw the world the same way. She found that she just knew what was bugging the cattle when they were agitated. And the solution, sometimes as easy as pulling down a piece of plastic, was perfectly obvious from a cow’s-eye view. Combined with her prolific research and writing, autism has offered her insights into a non-linguistic way of thinking.

Her remarkable insights have enabled a remarkable career. Grandin challenges us to question a lot of what we might believe about animal behaviour ― and for that matter autism ― and does so with humility and humor.

Grandin’s knowledge comes from close observation of animals coupled with extensive research. Cats’ sixth sense, prairie dog dialects, and the body language of pig snuggles all point to the similarities of thought and cognition between dumb animals and talkative primates.

Years ago, animal behaviorists did not want to be accused of anthropomorphism when interpreting animal behavior, so the parallels between animal and human cognition and consciousness were ignored. I’ll bet as a farm kid, Grandin heard the same message I did. “They don’t feel pain” was a bit hard to buy into seeing some of the stuff I saw. Last week someone said that dolphins are persons too, and they had the research to make the case, too.

How long before we discover that language is not an exclusively human trait?  Or when we can talk to animals… and they talk back?!


  1. orDian says:

    She’s also one of the nation’s top designers of livestock facilities…

  2. An associate professor at Colorado State University, Grandin is the author of Animals Make Us Human and Animals in Translation.

  3. I was slightly dismayed with Grandin’s writing style itself, though I’m not sure whether this is just a lack of writing skill, or a by-product of her autism.

  4. Ken, you’ll like this, right up your alley:

  5. Certain says:

    It’s good to see someone choose not to embrace the “victim” label, but it’s a stretch to see it as a “pride” movement.

  6. Rod S says:

    It is a bit horrifying to think of all the autistic people through out the years who were marginalized as retarded… and may not have been retarded at all!

  7. Shaunovision says:

    Thanks Ken for eloquently and elegantly explaining what the experience of autism has been for her. I hope it leads to more willingness on the part of the mainstream to meet autistics where they are.

  8. St. Pat says:

    I can relate. As a visual artist and author, I have always been keenly attuned to the world through my senses, and at times transfixed by a sound, smell, or sight.

  9. CrookedPete says:

    Agreed, thanks Ken!

  10. Even the schizophrenic, severly depressed, mentally retarded and tortured prisoners a la Guantanamo make sense sometimes. Give me a break.

  11. If the rest of the world doesn’t understand, then it isn’t actually communicating.

  12. Freddie says:

    Thanks for choosing to publish the story. I worked with autistic children as a psychiatric child care worker in San Francisco 20 years ago…this took me back briefly

  13. Robot123 says:

    As someone with an autistic family member, I have mixed feelings when reading pieces like this one. While they are certainly uplifting, they are also, to a certain extent, misleading.

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