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?!