If you live with animals, the real question isn’t whether they can think or not. It’s “What do they think of humans?” I often find myself mulling that over when I go out to gather eggs or feed the pigs. It isn’t a personal question—Have I earned the horses’ respect?—it’s a philosophical one. Living with animals means coming to terms with who they are and what makes them tick. That’s what you want to know when you train a dog or ride a horse or try to catch a barnyard goose. At least that’s what I want to know. I live and write on a small farm in New York State, and since my work, most days, means asking questions about the world around me, I find myself wondering about the animals I live with. I take it for granted that they also wonder about me. I can see the questions in their eyes, in the tilt of their ears: Who are these humans? Why do they behave the way they do?
There’s no point asking these questions of the cattle staring at me on this warm November Sunday. They won’t answer, not in so many words. But if I ask the woman standing beside me—the cattle are staring at her too—I’m likely to find some answers. That’s because the woman is Temple Grandin.
The cattle were dozing, perhaps a hundred of them in several long pens a few minutes north of Fort Collins, Colorado. Then we showed up. The steers roused and strode toward us, following their curiosity. They would have walked right up to us, as near as their caution allowed, if they could have. They stand at the fence, head-on, impassive, like the Charolais they are—patient, buff-colored animals.
Say the words cattle, autistic, and woman, and a surprising number of Americans will come up with the name of Temple Grandin. Thanks to her writings, and those of Oliver Sacks, she is perhaps the best-known autistic person in America.
And if you eat at fast-food restaurants—McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken—you’re eating meat that’s been slaughtered in plants audited to Grandin’s standards, meat from cattle and pigs that walked calmly to their fate through handling systems she designed. In the human scheme of things, those animals are economic units whose death is inevitable. By designing chutes and alleys that respect a cow’s sensibilities—reducing its fear and uncertainty—Grandin has done more to improve animal welfare than almost any human alive. Increasing a cow’s comfort as it nears death may seem like a futile subtlety to many humans. But fear is one of the critical differences between humane and inhumane slaughter. It also happens to be one of the differences between good meat and bad.
Grandin defines what works when it comes to handling cattle in feedlots and slaughterhouses because she defines it from the cow’s point of view. Because of her autism, she’s able to see what cattle see and humans don’t. She understands, for instance, that even a tiny thing, like a harsh lighting contrast, will startle cattle, stopping them in their tracks. She knows that fear is a landmark emotion for a cow, just as it is for an autistic person. “You can’t get anything past a cow,” she writes. She knows this partly because you can’t get anything past an autistic person either.
In her new book, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, Grandin examines the surprising similarities between an animal’s mind and an autistic mind—her own. “Autistic people,” she writes, “are closer to animals than normal people are.” This may sound like a cruel judgment, the sort of thing a cold-hearted clinician would say, but it isn’t. It’s an acute observation, all the more important because it comes from an autistic person. Her autism, Grandin suggests, puts her somewhere between normal human mentality and animal mentality, not as a matter of IQ but as a matter of perception and emotion. Being closer to animals isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, that’s what makes Grandin such an uncanny translator of animal behavior.
Scientists and animal trainers (and plenty of ordinary people) have devoted their lives to trying to understand what the world looks like to animals. After all, the planet teems with perceptive creatures—of whom we are a small minority—and it’s more than a matter of idle curiosity to consider how life appears to them. Humans can’t help approaching this problem from a human perspective. We posit our own intelligence, our behavior, emotions, and language skills, as the norm. A horse-trainer friend of mine is often asked if horses are intelligent. “It depends who’s writing the test,” he likes to say. I’ve often wondered how it would turn out if humans weren’t the ones writing the tests, defining the norm.
What if we accepted the sensitivity, the acute worldliness of a dog or a horse or a cougar as the norm? What would humans look like if we were measured from a crow’s perspective? What kind of theory of human consciousness would a good-natured pig or an inquisitive dolphin arrive at?
A curious thing happens in Animals in Translation. Grandin sets out to portray the mental and emotional character of animals and its resemblance to that of autistic people—all of it set against the familiar backdrop of normal human intelligence and behavior. But what emerges, almost incidentally, is a fascinating portrait of “normal people” from her perspective and, by analogy, from the perspective of animals too. Reading Animals in Translation is like looking at a photographic negative of ordinary human behavior and consciousness. This is perhaps as close as most of us will come to seeing humans through animal eyes. Humans may be “regular” and “normal,” but it’s clear that, by animal and autistic standards, we’re also very strange.