Review: Animals Make Us Human

Animals Make Us Human, by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

I LOVED this book. I was excited to see it on the shelf at my local library and tore through it. I’d heard of Temple Grandin before and some of her pioneering work with livestock, but I had never read any of her work. I found Animals Make Us Human to be a delightful and educational introduction to Dr. Grandin’s mission: Creating the best life for animals.

Although dogs are my primary obsession, I’m enchanted by all animals. As Isabella Rosselini’s film says, “Animals distract me.” I love interacting with animals. I have to point out every living thing I see whenever I’m walking or driving around, much to the chagrin of my patient husband. We don’t have cable, but if we did, Animal Planet is the only channel I’d watch (preferring shows about dogs, wolves, and dolphins).

Grandin’s book spoke to every fiber of my animal-loving soul. The premise of the book is that animals have a series of instinctual drives–seeking, play, fear, rage, to name a few–but that animals also experience emotions in a way that we have not previously thought. The mental health of an animal is often highly dependent on its environment. That’s why we, as humans, have a responsibility to create the best possible environments for animals.

The book spends a chapter on each primary group of animals that humans have domesticated or brought into close human contact. Grandin devotes her time to dogs, cats, horses, pigs, cows, poultry, wildlife, and animals who live in zoos. I especially learned a lot about horses and livestock and was fascinated to hear Grandin’s intimate accounts of her interactions with and research about these animals that I previously assumed to be dumb or insensitive. Far from it.

Naturally, the most interesting chapter to me was her chapter on dogs. Grandin has a pack of golden retrievers herself and writes with feeling and affection about the canine life. What surprised and disturbed me, though, was Grandin’s implication throughout that 21st-century dogs are more mentally unstable than previous generations of dogs. She attributes this to the fact that dogs today spend almost all of their lives indoors in crates, separated from their humans. Grandin is not surprised by the rising numbers of reported dog bites and dogs with behavioral and psychological issues. In several instances, she almost claims that dogs would be better off being allowed to roam around the neighborhood by themselves, like they did up until about 1980.

My perspective on this is that it is unwise to treat dogs like they’re living in another generation. Like it or not, it’s 2011 and the way we think about dogs in society has changed. Dog owners have to obey leash laws and pick up poop from the sidewalk; dogs have to be vaccinated and spayed and neutered if they are going to live in modern America. And yet, the sad fact of the seemingly eternal work week does mean that many people should not get dogs. If you work 12 hours a day, Grandin will give you a sober reality check of how truly inhumane it would be to adopt a dog. Animals Make Us Human did make me seriously evaluate my priorities and my schedule. It would be wrong to try to care for a dog if I did not think I could devote enough time to him or her.

The main message I received from this book is that we ought to treat all animals with respect, no matter how “dumb” or “unfeeling” we think they may be. People treat chickens like they can’t feel anything at all, like they wouldn’t be mentally and physically affected by living in pitch-black warehouses. Grandin’s compelling research shows otherwise. Cows actually get upset when people yell at them. Horses need to be physically and visually reassured that they are safe. Dogs watch our every move and are incredibly attuned to our emotional registers. So, Grandin implores, treat animals with respect; they depend on us for everything.

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