Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Temple Grandin's exquisite, moving examination of Animals in Translation

From The Week of February 25, 2013

Humans trust most what they can see, touch and taste. For ones senses not only provide a means by which reality can be verified, they grant us the opportunity to distinguish the advantageous from the punitive, the pleasing from the painful. They are the filters by which we come to understand our world. Sadly, though, like any useful tool, relying too much on our senses can be dangerous, welcoming us into a kind of dependence that causes us to discard any piece of information we do not comprehend. We hear birdsong, but do we understand that it conveys information? We see pollution clouding our skies, but do we investigate the damage it causes? We re-shape the earth, but do we consider the domino effect this has on the climate and the species who share it with us? No. We blunder forth, our reliance on our senses having programmed into us an arrogance that all-too-often leads us to our doom. Rarely has this ignorance been so winningly demonstrated than in Ms. Grandin's charming and fascinating examination of animal behavior.

Autistic long before the condition was even notionally understood, Temple Grandin grew up in a world she did not understand. The world that we take for granted, the world that seems so orderly and obvious to us, was, to her abnormal brain, a chaotic mess of stimuli and distraction which not only made little sense, but kept her from maturing alongside her peers. However, what Ms. Grandin lacked in sociability with humans she more than made up for with animals, creatures whose motives and actions seemed comprehensible to her in a way that the rest of us either dismissed or took for granted.

Harnessing this fondness, Ms. Grandin embarked upon a career working with animals of all stripes. From healing to killing, she has spent 30 years watching their behaviors, experiencing their emotions and sussing out the bent of their thoughts. And in this she has made some wonderful discoveries about what triggers their rages, what sooths their spirits, and what defines their desires. These personal experiences, along with her extensive research into the creatures she's devoted her life to, are gathered together to reveal an animal world that is hardly the two-dimensional game of predator and prey that we see, but a universe of emotions, experiences and talents that are not only beyond human ken, but human capacity as well. This is a world of dogs and horses, cows and cats, that seems all-the-more obvious for this journey.

animals in Translation is mesmerizing work. Peppering her chronicle with facts about the creatures most familiar to us, Ms. Grandin needs only 300 pages to convince the reader that the animal kingdom is a rich and diverse world defined as much by motive as genetics. From the subsonic vibrations of elephant communication to the complex emotions of horses, from the sexual violence of roosters to the brutality of dolphins, she captures an environment of routine and mystery, of power and death, that is as far from the fluffy and the cartoonish as it's possible to get. Though she devotes considerable time to numerous other creatures, dogs feature here most prominently. From their bites to their mysterious abilities to sniff out our seizures and our cancers, Ms. Grandin uses their minds and their attitudes to reveal to us a world that has to be studied without biases, without blinders, to be properly understood.

The work is not without its flaws. To someone who has not experienced autism, the validity of Ms. Grandin's theory, that this condition helps the human to think more like an animal, is unclear. The author provides examples of how animal and autistic behaviors overlap, experiments whose results are admittedly quite striking, but these conclusions are largely drawn from anecdotal data. This is a problem also apparent in the parts of the work that concern animal behavior. Here, Ms. Grandin uses personal experiences, along with those of her acquaintances, to exemplify her contentions about the work-ings of the animal mind. It may well be that anecdote is the easiest means by which the author can convey her decades of accumulated knowledge to the reader. If so, it is certainly successful. But it does leave some doubt as to the scientific veracity underpinning her conclusions.

Notwithstanding its personal nature, Animals in Translation is a captivating adventure through the minds of creatures who, for some of us, are not only our friends but our sustenance. In this, it is as revelatory as it is enlightening. The animal mind will never be thought of the same way again. )& # ((4/5 Stars)

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