Finished this book: Animals Make Us Human (by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson)

Cover of Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin

Cover of Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin

Last month, I browsing the sale shelf at McNally Robinson Grant Park, and I was excited to find Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals. Years ago, I read Animals in Translation by the same authors which—as far as I remember—was somewhat dryer than this book. But I enjoyed that first book very much and was surprised and pleased to see how much work Dr. Grandin has done to improve the lives of factory-farm animals. The example that stuck in my mind the most from Animals in Translation is the system she devised for loading cattle into slaughterhouses in a calm, orderly, and low-stress fashion, to reduce their fear and panic. It was such an eye-opener for me to know this work was being done, and that Dr. Grandin could use her own experience of living with autism to attend to the details and perceptions that would make this system work.

Animals Make Us Human discusses the ways we can improve the lives of animals, whether domestic pets or animals destined for human use / consumption, such as dogs, cats, cows, pigs, and chickens. Dr. Grandin bases her discussion on Dr. Jaak Panskepp’s research on core emotions. The four core emotions Grandin uses from Panskepp’s work are SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, and PANIC. (I’m not sure why they’re all in caps, but apparently that is Panskepp’s convention.)

Very briefly (and roughly), these four core emotions break down like this:

SEEKING is about novelty, curiosity, alleviation of boredom, anticipation, looking forward to what’s coming next, and enjoying something new.

RAGE is about being restrained (the theory being that it arises from being caught / restrained by a predator). Frustration is a mild form of RAGE, and the concept of “restraint” in RAGE is not just physical, but can apply to being restrained from a goal. Grandin uses the examples of not being able to get the lid off a jar, or of not being able to solve a math problem.

FEAR is self-explanatory.

PANIC has to do with social connection, and the distress we feel when deprived of appropriate social contact.

Dr. Grandin opens by asking what animals need to have a good life. Not physically, as there has been a vast amount of research done on the physical needs of animals. What she wants to know is what animals want. Her thesis is that in order to answer this question and provide animals with a good life, we should not be looking at the behaviour of animals, but we should be looking at neuroscience—that is, their brains—and specifically, at the four core emotions of SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, and PANIC.

While there has been a lot of emphasis on enriched environments and allowing animals to express their natural behaviours, Dr. Grandin argues that some behaviours are not intrinsically satisfying to animals, but are only expressed as an attempt to meet one of the core emotional needs. For example, she says, gerbils in captivity can spend up to thirty percent of their time digging in their cages, so people see this as a natural activity and provide the gerbils with  a substrate they can dig. But the digging isn’t the need; the actual need is for tunnels and burrows in which to hide. Gerbils without tunnels have their FEAR system activated because they have no place to hide from predators. Gerbils who are provided with artificial tunnels and burrows do little to no digging, because their core emotional need to avoid activating the FEAR system has been met.

I was immediately on board with Grandin’s thesis that meeting the core emotional needs should be the starting point for figuring out how to provide a good life for animals. It’s something I have seen over and over in my own life and in the lives of people (whether two-legged or four-legged) around me. It’s there in addictions to substances or gambling, in self-harm and suicidality, in habitual lying or tail-chasing, in the drama-seekers and the fear-biters and the experts of passive-aggressive Facebook statuses. We animals need freedom from FEAR. We need safety. We need appropriate social connection (to prevent the activation of PANIC). We need freedom from boredom in the form of mental and physical stimulation and something to think about and figure out and do (SEEKING). We need agency and the freedom to make some choices in our lives (to prevent RAGE). The behaviours we use to try to meet those needs may be adaptive or maladpative, but the expression of the behaviours isn’t the need: the need is to activate the positive core emotions and avoid the negative core emotions.

Some things about the book did bother me. While the tone was less dry than Animals in Translation, I felt it lacked a more research-grounded approach. The book is meticulously footnoted, but the style of writing, while more personal and informal, seemed to undercut the fact that the arguments are based on some pretty fascinating research in neuroscience. I would have liked to read more about that and rather less about the many different situations in which Grandin offered her ideas / applied her expertise / pointed out errors and then the zoo / individual / factory farm agreed that it was amazing, and then they relapsed / went back to their old ways / got lazy.

Also, the title seemed odd. Animals Make Us Human is not a theme that was touched on anywhere, let alone developed.

Also, while I appreciate very much that Grandin has done so much to make the lives of factory-farmed animals more bearable, it is quite shocking to me that after becoming so familiar with the abuses of the industry, she still does not question the industry itself. It is as if the meat industry is some kind of inevitability that we can only reform, not transform or eliminate. While I understand that not everyone shares my aversion to the large-scale abuse of animals for profit and dining, it seems odd that someone who so strongly advocates for the quality of the physical and emotional lives of animals isn’t actively opposed to this system. But I’m torn, of course, because as long as that system exists, I am so glad that there’s someone like Dr. Grandin actively working to improve the lives of the animals suffering in it.

There are lots of books arguing and / or assuming that animals have rich emotional lives. Grandin’s book is not unique in that regard. What is special about this one is that she grounds her assumptions in science, and then shows us ways to use this knowledge to actively improve the lives of the animals in our care. This is not a fuzzy “omg little piglets are so adorable” kind of book. It is a book that says “look, this is a practice that activates negative emotions and makes animals miserable, and here’s how to stop doing that, and here’s what to put in place instead.” It’s a brief survey in a lot of ways, because addressing the emotional needs of such different animals (living in such different circumstances) can’t all be done at once. I’d like to have seen more science, more concreteness, and less self-congratulatory anecdotes. But overall, I very much enjoyed reading this book and I feel I learned a lot from it.

Also, on a completely related note, I think I’ve just moved one step closer to vegan.

Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals, by Dr. Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson.


6 thoughts on “Finished this book: Animals Make Us Human (by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson)

  1. Woman walking Max

    I’m with you on the wrongness of using and abusing animals for human profit. Think animal welfare standards are so important, so good to hear about anything that promotes standards. All I do is sign on-lines petitions ! Not enough I know.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. nissetje Post author

      I really liked that Grandin was addressing emotional welfare, something that seems to get very little notice. For me, it seems equivalent to the stigma and silence surrounding mental health / mental illness, but it’s even worse for animals because there are still people who don’t believe animals have actual emotions. Weird, right? Because anyone who has lived with animals and paid any attention to them whatsoever knows there’s a lot going on in their hearts and minds!


  2. La Quemada

    I’ve read this book too. I really like and respect Temple Grandin and have read her other books too. Have you read any of her other books? She gives me a lot of insight into my son and autism, as well as into animals.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. nissetje Post author

      No, I’ve only read these two about animals. Is there one of the others you would particularly recommend? I would certainly be interested in reading more by and about her!



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