Animal Emotions

Do animals think and feel?

Do Animals Typically Think Like Autistic Savants?

Temple Grandin's claim that other animals typically behave as autistic savants is unsupported by scientific evidence about how their brains work and their behavior. As one expert in animal behavior and neurobiology notes, "You may find some animals are autistic but it's not characteristic of animals in general." My own field observations support this view. Read More

Book Review Fall

Book Review Fall 2005:
Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior

By Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson
2005 Scribner, 356 pages hardcover

Reviewed by Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns

“People and animals need to use their faculties, and curiosity is an important faculty. So people and animals need new things to stimulate their brains with.” – Temple Grandin, p. 98

“Birds should not be exposed to disturbing noises or visual stimuli or strong vibrations, whether originating inside or outside the house. Visitors should not be allowed without proper supervision, because they could cause birds to panic and injure themselves in their rush to escape and for biosecurity reasons. Wild birds, pets, and other animals should, likewise, not be allowed in the poultry house.” – United Egg Producers, “Animal Husbandry Guidelines for U.S. Egg Laying Flocks,” 2003 Edition

Temple Grandin is an animal science professor at Colorado State University and a consultant to the meat industry. Catherine Johnson specializes in neuropsychiatry and the brain. Johnson has two autistic sons, and Grandin has autism. Both writers have doctoral degrees and have published other books. In Animals in Translation, they team up to argue that autism is “a kind of way station on the road from animals to humans – putting autistic people in the perfect position to translate ‘animal talk.’”

People with autism have impaired social and communication skills and do not relate to the emotional states of other people, so it is fair to ask how autistic people actually compare neurologically and experientially with competent adult animals equipped with complex social and communication skills. Are autistic “translators” of animal life common and credible enough to support the contention that they’re in a perfect position to do this work? How do autistic perceptions of nonhuman animals compare with those of non-autistic animal empathizers? Bypassing these questions, the authors contend that animals and autistic people are alike in having mostly simple, unambivalent emotions. According to Grandin, animals “never have psychodrama” (apparently she never spent time in a lively chicken yard). “Children don’t either,” she says (oh, really?). “Emotionally,” says Grandin, “children are more like animals and autistic people, because children’s frontal lobes are still growing” (pp. 88-89).

This is a familiar grouping: normal human children, mentally-challenged human adults, and nonhuman animals are pitted together as having the same basic level of (in)competence and a simple pictorial view of the world as “a swirling mass of tiny details” (p. 67). Grandin writes that even though autistic people have normal-sized brains, they have “trouble making connections.” Their brains ”function more like a child’s brain or an animal’s brain, but for different reasons” (p. 90).

Grandin says she loves animals, especially cows, but fully upholds the human right to own, control, manipulate, mutilate, buy, sell, inseminate, incarcerate, and slaughter animals, ship them into outer space, and have sex with them for business purposes. (See the section, “How to Make a Pig Fall in Love,” where she describes men masturbating captive pigs – getting sows to “stand for the man” – and concludes that these pig breeders “respect the animals’ nature, and they do a good job with their animals,” p.104). Wanton and ignorant abuses are of course unacceptable, but economics and the property status of animals are sacrosanct. The question isn’t whether we should slaughter cows but “What does a cow headed to slaughter need in order to have a happy life?” (p. 179).

Matthew Scully, in his book Dominion, marvels at how Grandin tries to balance her purported empathy for animals with “her consistent support of intensive farming and its economic objectives” (p. 239). Grandin is commendable for getting meat industry people to pay a bit of attention to the animals they slaughter (at least when she’s around) and to how the slaughterhouse (“packing plant”) environment affects animal behavior. Getting cows to walk “nicely” to their death improves the bottom line (animal handling, meat quality and profits) while reducing animal stress.

Animals in Translation is a compilation of often contradictory scientific data, personal anecdotes and conclusions (e.g. animals can’t have mixed emotions though examples in the book show otherwise), little of which is owed to the “mysteries of autism.” And Grandin is an iffy witness at best. Noting for instance that chickens show pain following debeaking (“trimming”), she goes on: “Ranchers trim chickens’ beaks because chickens get into horrible fights and will peck each other to death. The vet trims off the sharp point so the chicken can’t use it as a knife blade” (p. 183).

For one thing, it isn’t a “vet” who debeaks chickens at the hatchery but an ordinary assembly-line worker, and Grandin says nothing to enlighten the uninformed reader that the pecking to which she refers is abnormal behavior brought on by crowding, caging, boredom, filth, fear, disease, intentional food deprivation and other destructive factors of human origin. (Her discussion, elsewhere, of “psycho hens” focuses on the side-effect of high-strung anxiety in egg-industry hens bred to be pure white and “feed-efficient.” She attributes their “beating their own feathers off against the sides of their cages, until they were [are] half nude,” and their “violence” to the point of killing each other, to “warped” genetics, without a hint about the role of cages [p. 77]). Indeed, Grandin says several times in the book that horrible fights in the wild are not compatible with survival – “ Few adult animals apart from humans ever attack each other so violently that one of them dies” (p. 153).

In the section called “Rapist Roosters,” Grandin describes the abnormal violence that has begun to appear in roosters used for breeding “meat-type” offspring (the 6-week old baby birds consumers know as “chicken”). These so-called broiler breeder roosters often destroy the hens they’re locked up with in the breeder houses. Noting that “If roosters killed hens in nature, there wouldn’t be any chickens,” Grandin cites a poultry researcher’s claim that these types of roosters attack the hens because an unexpected consequence of breeding them for abnormally fast growth and overgrown muscles for human consumption is that they don’t do the courtship dance that tells the hen to crouch into a sexually receptive position. When the hen tries to escape, the rooster attacks her with his spurs or toes and slashes her to death (p. 70). Grandin lulls the lay reader, who may not get her little joke about companies “solving” the problem by “culling” the worst offenders from the flock, into thinking it’s been fixed. “I saw some of these chickens just a few months ago,” she says, “and they all behaved just as nicely as can be” (p. 77).

This pathological rooster behavior shows what happens when you breed obsessively for a single trait at the expense of overall wellbeing. You get what Grandin calls “warped evolution,” and humans adjust to “the bad becoming normal” (p. 72) – a good way to describe the entire factory farm system and “evolved” depravity (not just some tweakable details of it) that Grandin defends.

Her explanation of why “broiler breeder” roosters attack hens isn’t satisfactory anyway, as we have these very kinds of chickens here at our sanctuary, and I can tell you that the hens crouch during the spring and summer mating season if you so much as lay your hand gently on the backs, or they will walk or run a little, then stop and crouch abruptly as you come up behind them, at which point I say to them, “At ease.”

“Broiler” roosters (and hens) suffer from genetic fragility and unfitness. They’re prone to painful lameness, obesity, heart failure, respiratory weakness and infection, heat stress, and juvenile death. Part of what’s wrong with them is that they have been artificially bred to become sexually mature at around three months old instead of the normal six months, so that, halfway out of their infancy, if they are being used for breeding, they have adult sex hormones driving them without the neurobiological maturity of an adult bird.

Add to this the barren environment and semi-starvation diet to which “broiler breeders” are subjected to control their weight for fertility purposes, plus the fact that the “broiler breeder” rooster’s body, legs, and feet are too big for the hens, who themselves are abnormally heavy, disproportioned and slow-moving, have thin, easily torn skin, and nowhere to escape to, and you have a human-engineered sick situation.

Grandin’s proclaimed paucity of emotion, compartmentalized emotions, and subnormal sensitivity to pain (pp. 89, 188), her focus on technical fixes and disconnected brain functioning, her contention that slaughterhouse cattle don’t know they’re going to die and claim of being unable to watch horror movies because the images stay in her conscious mind (because she doesn’t have an “unconscious” like normal people, she says on page 92), while having a stomach for the slaughterhouse but no stomach for vegetarianism (it makes her sick, she says, and isn’t part of our “animal natures,” which, elsewhere she says, humans have outgrown, pp. 180, 307), dents the notion that she’s an animal-friendly “savant.”

Many of the problems Grandin presents herself as uniquely spotting in the slaughterhouse environment are the kinds of things that an intelligent non-autistic outsider sees on entering an inbred culture comprising attitudes and customs so “normal” to the enculturated as to be invisible to them. At the beginning of the book Grandin strategically distances herself from the crude cruelty of the B.F. Skinner school of animal experimentation, in part because, as she rightly observes, it is ‘totally artificial. What animals do in labs is nothing like what they do in the wild – so what are you actually learning when you do these experiments? You’re learning how animals behave in labs” (p. 16).

Actually, the whole world is becoming, and much of it already is, like one of those labs, and Grandin shows no evidence of seeing this. This laboratory is already being extended into outer space, and Grandin is complicit, not because she’s autistic but because she epitomizes normal societal schizophrenia – our “love” for animals is compatible with subjecting them, anthropomorphically, to human-contrived dysfunction, degradation, family and social dismemberment, imprisonment, prurience and death, as long as it’s done “humanely.” If we ever become extinct, “the bad became normal” should be our epitaph.

REVIEW by Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns.

Animals are socially curious

I was baffled by Grandin's standpoint, too. In my estimate, animal psychology is characterized by a very "infeeling" attitude. Animals are socially very curious; they always take notice of you and they always interact in some way. They are never "remote". Cats can appear aloof, but this is only pretence. In reality, they are always "connected". They are always relating. So I cannot see that animal psychology is related to autism. There is one apparent likeness, namely that animals take notice of details, such as a pin that falls on the floor. But this is another phenomenon which isn't coupled with autism. This I say as a layman on animal psychology. /Mats W

interesting line of thought

I personally have always felt that animals (the ones that I've known personally) have their own personalities, and are distinct individuals. Some are more intelligent, some are less intelligent; some are more friendly, some are more fearful and less friendly, etc. So, I'm willing to believe that as an individual, an animal might become mentally ill due to disease or mistreatment, or be born with "bad wiring" or "bad chemistry", in the same way that people can be.

I think its been pretty well documented that wild animals that are held in captivity can go insane, or at least get to a point where they can't take captivity any longer and trigger into rage; there are lots of incidents of elephants, orca whales, chimpanzees, and big cats going berserk and killing their trainers or caregivers.

I'm not so sure that animal cognition is the same as autistic cognition, though.

That just doesn't seem plausible to me. If an animal like a deer or a wolf was unable to successfully "read" and relate to the signals of other animals in its herd or pack (unable to respond appropriately to mating signals, unable to recognize or respond appropriately to danger signals, unresponsive to hierarchy challenges, etc.) that would be counter-survival.

A famous experiment illustrates this point: infant monkeys were removed from their mothers and raised in total isolation for a year or so, and were then exposed to juveniles who'd been raised more normally: with their mothers in social groups. The monkeys raised in isolation shrieked in terror and cowered at the approach of the normally socialized monkeys, and this abnormal extreme fear reaction generated extreme fear and rage in their fellows; the isolated monkeys were savagely attacked as though they were dangerous.

So, yes, I think its possible for mammals and birds to be born with or to develop mental disorders such as attachment disorders, mental retardation, paranoia, autism, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other "human" conditions and disorders.


Wild animals are hardly defective genetically

But natural selection has the consequence that dysgenic effects are prevented among wild animals. This is not so in humanity, since natural selection doesn't work that way anymore. In fact, people with inferior capacities tend to get more children than successful people. Homo sapiens is clearly the most disharmonious species. Compare with domestic cats, for instance. In my experience, they are not the least autistic or narcissistic. They are characterized by relatedness and sympathy with the environment. I like them much more than humans, although I am not a misanthrope.

Autism and nn-humans

Personally I have always felt that regarding Temple Grandin, the "lady doth protest too much".

I do not know what mental problems, if any, Ms Grandin but it seems me that she is most unlike any person with Asperger's syndrome that I have ever met. (And I have a family rife with Asperger's members -- and have worked at the CSIRO :-)

Asperger's people are very bad at reading non-verbal communication in any form. They tend to understand spoken language absolutely literally (like so many Hymies -- in Get Smart). They are absolutely awful with non-human animals -- they have no empathy at all, but seem to think that all animals should, like humans, be able to respond to verbal monotones.

Dr Berkoff, If you want to

Dr Berkoff,

If you want to see a full spectrum of animal emotion, intuitive reaction, depression, heroism, selflessness, selfishness, infanticide, observational skills, pride and sacrifice. I suggest you look no further than a lambing shed.

Id invite you to ours, to observe human interaction, protection and care to a species which has been living with humans for 10,000 years. Second only to dogs.

But I fear, you would decline, given that while, yes, it would give you ample opportunity to observe all that is beautiful and miraculous in life side by side with all that is unfair, tragic and heartbreaking.

Which theory do you want to prove more? That animals are sentinent, intelligent or emotive beings who deserve our respect? Or that "food" animals, as you so basely call them, cannot find comfort and peace amongst us?

?.. I forgot to check, the

?.. I forgot to check, the "Notify me..." box at the bottom of my comment. Oopsie.

Invitation stands Doc. We're in Utah, just a hop over the hill....

I think you're bright and interesting, and probably only two to three times as misguided as I am. :D And am seeking a good starting point with opening up intelligent discussion with the animal rights extremists of the world....

Hell, bring Dr Grandin along we'll have a good ole time. And maybe, just maybe, she'll see the intuitive intelligence of our beautiful animals as well.

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Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.


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