Monday, September 6, 2010

Animals Make Us Human

Last night I dreamed that I had given my parakeets and hermit crabs to someone who wasn't taking good care of them, and I had to rescue them and bring them back to the house I share with four cats--two of them good hunters--where it would be hard to keep the parakeets safe. In my dream, the birds were huddled on my shoulder for safety (which would not be a safe place in real life, as my youngest cat likes to nuzzle my chin with his head). Right now we have only the cats and a rabbit, as I gave away the only surviving hermit crab at the end of July to a family who got him a companion (despite the name, hermit crabs need company). I miss all the animals we used to have, but not the time it took to take care of them, especially the caged animals, who we thought needed some time out of the cage each day.

So when I was at the bookstore one day, even though I don't read a lot of non-fiction, I picked up Temple Grandin's Animals Make Us Human while waiting for the other members of my family to make their selections, or for it to be time to go to the next place...we use the bookstore in the city an hour away as an extended living room, going there when we're in between whatever other errands or delights we came for. Anyway, I thought I'd page through the book and get an idea of what the writing style was like (it's co-written by Catherine Johnson).

And the style wasn't too distracting. I found it a little choppy, in places, and sprinkled with invented words like "stereotypies" (repetitive behaviors), but nothing that really put me off. Then I got interested in the section on dogs, because it said that previous research I'd heard about on wolves, the whole "alpha wolf" idea, was wrong. Grandin says "the reason everyone thought wolves live in packs led by an alpha is that most research on the social life of wolves has been done on wolves living in captivity, and wolves living in captivity are almost never natural families." Both dogs and wolves need substitute parents, she says, to keep them in line. Throughout the book, Grandin makes a good case for the importance of field research--observing animals in the wild, like what Jane Goodall spent her life doing.

So I got hooked and had to actually buy this book, one I thought I'd just glance through and put back on the shelf. I read it section by section, after finishing the one about dogs in the store. The other part that surprised me in the dog section is that she thinks there's more dog-directed and possibly more human-directed aggression today than there was twenty years ago, and thinks it might be "an unintended consequence of leash laws." Although as the child of a mother who was absolutely terrified of dogs, I'm always glad to see that the dog barking at me is on a leash or behind a fence, I can see her point.

Since I've read a lot about cats (most recently, Stephen Budiansky's The Character of Cats), I didn't find anything that surprised me in that section, but the stories she calls "Lassie" stories about cats that rescued their owners were fun.

The part that I'll remember best from this book is about the animal welfare audits she does for various fast food chains. She says "today I teach auditor traning seminars and I also work with meat plant management to improve animal handling and design better facilities." She points out that people who want to help animals today are not cooperating, but instead arguing with each other:

"A good example is that the Humane Society in the 1970s used to send representatives to sit in on board meetings of the major livestock associations. That gave the Humane Society direct knowledge of how the livestock industry worked and what things they could change and still stay in business.
In the 1980s, the Humane Society of the United States, donated money to fund the development of my center-track restrainer system for meat plants. They would never do that today. Few animal welfare groups would fund something to help reform and improve the livestock industry. As people have become more abstractified they've become more radical, and today the relationship between animal advocacy groups and the livestock industry is totally adversarial."

This is something I've certainly seen, with last year's furor over the creation of an Ohio Livestock Animal Care Board (the local farmer who supplies our meat and eggs was against it).

This book also answers some questions Ron and I have always wondered about zoos. The last time we went, this summer, we told the kids that when we were younger, we didn't particularly like going to the zoo, because it was obvious to us that most of the animals were caged and unhappy. Now that zoo animals have bigger habitats, we said, they were happier. But we weren't really sure about the big cats, for instance, who often look bored. Grandin discusses this and says that they're some of the hardest animals to keep in captivity, because in nature they're nomads. She suggests enrichment activities which the zoo in the nearby city uses, so we're a bit reassured about all the times we've gone there for entertainment.

I'm still not sure about the title of this book, but have always believed that the way a person treats animals says something important about what kind of person he or she is. I had a houseguest once who kicked my cat. It was not a surprise when he turned out to be the kind of guy who would leave his pregnant wife and children for what he thought would be a less encumbered life. And when the mother of the child who wanted my hermit crab said she thought it would "teach him responsibility," I extracted a promise from her that she wouldn't let the crab go without food or water just because the child forgot.

Like the Delmore Schwartz story title, I believe that "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities." So I got myself a plastic model of a hermit crab when we went to the zoo, and put it in my remaining crab climber to remind me of how much trouble the live ones were. Now I wonder where I can find an audio clip of some parakeets?

19 comments:

Ron Griggs said...

http://www.entertonement.com/collections/28322/parakeet

Jeanne said...

Thanks Ron--now can you get that for me on some kind of continuous 6-hour loop?

bermudaonion said...

This sounds like it has a lot of food for thought in it. A friend of mine started a battered women's shelter over 20 years ago. To prepare for it, she took a lot of seminars and the one thing I remember her telling me is that you should watch how a man treats animals to see if he has the potential to be abusive.

SFP said...

This summer I gave our ringneck to a co-worker who has parakeets and finches. He'd become cagebound since our other parrots had died--he didn't want to leave "the flock" in his mirror--and I really didn't want to buy him another flockmate when there was a possibility they might not get along anyway. Anyway, he's very happy now, spends most of his time with the 'keets outside the cage and has no cats to worry about at all. Sometimes giving a pet away does work out for the best.

Did Grandin touch upon the issue of horses now being sent to Mexico for meat slaughter because of the law that was passed a couple years back prohibiting it here? I wonder how she'd look at such a situation.

Jeanne said...

Kathy, oh yes. I didn't describe how irritating that particular cat was because it was beside the point.

SFP, in fact she did mention that specifically. "The Humane Society managed to get all the old horse slaughter plants shut down in America. Now the old Amish carriage horses and other unfortunate equines are getting transported down to Mexico, where they're worked and starved until they drop dead from lack of nutrition and overwork. If I were a retired Amish carriage horse, would I rather get hitched up to an old pickup truck and get sores and go hungry, or go to a U.S. slaughter plant? I got into a discussion with some of the people trying to shut down the plants once, and I said 'You want to make sure, if you do this, the horses don't have a worse fate.' My worst nightmares came true. Thousands of horses have traveled to Mexico, where they were killed by the barbaric process of stabbing them in the back of the neck. Yes, in an ideal world all retired and unridable horses would go to sanctuaries, but we don't live in an ideal world."

Jeanne said...

and Susan, thank you for making me feel better, once again, about the parakeets. I know it was the right thing; my missing them is just selfishness.

Gavin said...

Thanks for this review. I've been wondering whether I should read this one. I am now adding it to my TBR list.

Jenny said...

Hmm, sounds interesting. I should read some books about dogs myself, because my puppy acts like a crazy dog so often, and I would like to understand her better. And be reassured that I am not inadvertently doing something that's bad for her.

Jeanne said...

Jenny, email me with your address and I'll send you this book; it's the kind of book I like to pass on.

FreshHell said...

Interesting. I'll have to find that one. She's the same person who wrote the book about her autism (I think)?

Jeanne said...

Freshhell, yes she has written a book about her autism.

Jenny said...

Oh, Jeanne, you are so kind! But I'm trying to stop acquiring books at such an appallingly rapid pace. It sounds great but for my own sanity I'd better just get it from the library.

Jeanne said...

Well then, I'll send my copy of this book to the first person who asks and send me an address.

Jodie said...

That sounds really good and I'm so intrigued to learn that ideas about wolve packs may be totally off base. They're a fascinating animal and probably exert an extra pull on me coming for a country which has no wolves in the wild now (beavers are being reintroduced in the UK by the way and it's going to be really interesting to see if food chains adapt - wonder if there are many other cases of animals being reintroduced successfully). I want someone to write a werewolf novel that takes on board that research, because it would change the traditional fictional dynamic.

Jeanne said...

Jenny, good idea about the werewolf novel--although some could argue that the movie "Teen Wolf" already introduced the concept of wolves in families...

kittiesx3 said...

Send it to me! And I'll pass it along to another animal lover :-)

Jeanne said...

Elizabeth, my copy is on its way to you!

Lass said...

I've read several of Grandin's books but this one was a favorite. It's funny that you mentioned the leash law/aggression thing because that stuck out for me, too. It makes sense, but as someone who was terrified of dogs as a child...well...

Jeanne said...

Lass, do you know why you were terrified of dogs? My mother was bitten once when she was young. I remember holding her hand when I was little and feeling it tense up when we passed a dog, even one behind a fence.