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Friday, June 23, 2006

Animals in Translation

Last night I finished reading Animals in Translation by autistic animal researcher Temple Grandin. I always like Grandin's books, because she makes animal behavior so accessible to the average reader. In this book, she goes farther than she has before to explain just why animals do what they do. In doing so, she draws upon research in many academic fields, as well as her own experience designing humane slaughterhouses for domestic animals.

While most of Grandin's examples of animal behavior are based on studies of mammals, especially domestic livestock and companion animals, she does address birds at several points--including the remarkable case of the Grey Parrot Alex, which Dr. Irene Pepperberg has taught to speak rudimentary English, and which taught himself to spell simple words.

This is a great book for anyone that wants an introduction to what it is like to be an animal, including how much of our emotional and mental life humans share with animals. Humans and animals share much of the same brain chemistry, and Grandin does a good job of explaining what that means while exploring human and animal brain similarities and differences. Grandin is at her best when explaining the behavior of mammals--especially the livestock that she deals with. When she deals with bird migration, she seems to indicate that all birds must learn their migratory pathways--something that is only true for some birds. Most songbirds have their migratory pathways--at least the direction and distances--automatically programmed genetically.

Grandin may be in a unique position to explore the minds of animals, as her autism seems to make her process some information in ways similar to some animals. This allows her (with co-author Catherine Johnson, who is the mother of autistic children) to "translate" animal behavior in ways that the average person can easily understand and appreciate.

I really enjoyed this book, and would especially recommend it to my friends who think that humans occupy a priveledged position in the world based on their linguistic abilities. It was fun to think about music--including birdsong--as being an additional form of language, processed as such by the same area of the brain that handles human language, and to read about Dr. Con Slobodchikoff's findings that prairie dogs use nouns, verbs, and adjectives in their verbal communication, as well as speculation by some researchers that early human interactions with wolfs domesticated both humans and dogs--teaching dogs to be able read human body language as well as teaching humans to work cooperatively and defend territories.

Birding this morning, after reading this book, really had me thinking about the animals I was watching--and who I could see watching me. If you've ever wondered what it is like to be a dog, cat, bird or other animal, this book is an accessible place to start learning how to better translate animal behavior.

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