[Editor's note: The following is a reprint of our 2008 interview with Temple Grandin, whose book Animals Make Us Human is newly out in paperback.]
Temple Grandin has had a remarkable life, and the more you read of her work, the more you realize what an incredible amount she's accomplished. Though autistic, she has a Ph.D. in animal science, teaches at Colorado State University, designs livestock equipment, and writes bestselling books. She may be more single-handedly responsible for humane treatment of animals, especially livestock, than any other individual in the last few decades. She's also given the world much greater insight into the way autistic minds work.
Grandin's work is both autobiographical (particularly her earlier books, including the bestselling Thinking in Pictures) and scientific. Her unique perspective on the connections between animal and human thinking opens windows into cognition that ordinary people overlook or misunderstand, and it is impossible to read her work without reevaluating one's own impulses, emotions, and behavior.
In a starred review, Publishers Weekly describes her new book, Animals Make Us Human, as "packed with fascinating insights, unexpected observations and a wealth of how-to tips." In this interview, Grandin discusses Animals Make Us Human, core emotional systems in animals, the differences between cats and dogs, the new HBO project based on her life, and more.
Jill Owens: How did Animals Make Us Human get started?
Temple Grandin: It's a sort of sequel to Animals in Translation. I wanted to approach things in a different way. In Animals in Translation, we approached things through how animals think, what they fear, emotion systems, different things in the brain. In this book, we broke it down by species.
I want to make sure I give my co-author, Catherine Johnson, credit. She came up with the brilliant idea of linking things like stereotypic behavior back to the core emotions that Jaak Panksepp figured out years ago, which are controlled by subcortical brain systems. When we started looking at the literature on the stereotypes, I said, "Wow! This really makes sense." That's what the first chapter's about.
Animal behaviorists tend to talk about motivation in a very abstract, vague way. So what exactly is this motivation? A light went on in everybody's head, and we realized it would be the core emotions. Those core emotional circuits have been mapped. They're subcortical, and they're the same in all mammals, including people. Birds have emotions, but their brains are set up differently, so let's just stick with mammals for now.
Jill: Can you describe those four core emotion systems for us?
Grandin: Certainly. They are fear; rage or anger; panic or separation anxiety; and seeking. Seeking is the motivation to get out and do things. If you didn't have a seeking emotion, you'd sit in the corner all day and not do anything.
The circuits in rage and fear have been totally mapped; they're very primitive. Fear is the emotion that motivates animals to stay away from predators.
Jill: Three of those four — rage, panic, and fear — seem more obvious, but seeking is not something people necessarily put into the same category.
Grandin: Seeking is not quite as simple as the other emotional systems. Dopamine is involved. One example of seeking gone crazy is gambling at the casino. You look at what's gone on with all these banks going crazy, and it was gambling, basically.
There is new research which looks carefully at the nucleus accumbens, which used to be called the pleasure center of the brain. There are circuits in it that link back down to fear. Let's say an animal is out there enjoying himself looking for food. If something dangerous comes along, he'd better be able to react to it. There has to be a way to turn that system off.
Years ago, when I studied psychology in the '60s, there was an experiment in which scientists put an electrode in a rat's pleasure center and he'd keep pressing a bar forever and ever to activate the electrode. That's the seeking area.
When you think about it, you could think of it like a Christmas-present emotion. The anticipation of what you're going to get — a new bike — for example, is sometimes better than actually getting it. It's the anticipation, the wanting of something.
Jill: In the first chapter of Animals Make Us Human, you say that research is showing that we should focus on the emotions that an animal is experiencing rather than the behavior that it's exhibiting. How does a pet owner, for example, tell the difference?
Grandin: What you have to do is think back. You've got a behavior. Let's say that you're away at work and your dog's chewing the door down. What emotion is that? That's separation anxiety.
In the example of the gerbil in the first chapter, the gerbil was digging and digging and digging, and his owners thought, "We should give him more stuff to dig in." But what the gerbil really wanted was cover, so he wouldn't feel exposed. When they gave him cover, he stopped the stereotypy of digging. What you need to do is look at what the animal is doing and think, "Which of those four systems could that be in?"
Jaak Panksepp also talks about some secondary systems, such as sex and play. It's possible that play could be involved with the seeking system, but that's not known. But you look at the animal and say, "What's driving this? Why is he doing it?"
Take the example that I write about of the panda at the zoo. The zookeepers gave the panda a beautiful exhibit, with all kinds of stuff to chew, and a bamboo forest. A panda has to spend a lot of time eating, because he's eating food that's not very nutritious. When they took his girlfriend away, he started brushing his teeth with the bamboo in a very weird sort of way. He had separation anxiety.
So they had two systems there. The panda had the stuff he needed for seeking, but when they took his girlfriend away, he didn't have anyone to keep him company. Now, he loved his keeper. When we came around to the little door where his keeper would come in, he would come over. He liked to be fed treats, and do medical demonstrations, because that's an excuse for a lot of stroking and getting fed pear, which was his favorite treat from his keeper. So I told them that what you need to do with this panda is an hour a day of quality time with the keeper. If he can't have his girlfriend, then he's going to need to have his keeper. If you don't do this, he's going to keep doing this stereotypic behavior, and it's going to get worse. In that situation, they had satisfied one system, with the beautiful exhibit and the bamboo, but the other emotion was not satisfied.
The behavior he was doing was highly abnormal, and lots of people don't recognize abnormal behavior in animals. One of the things about these abnormal behaviors is that you need to do something about them as soon as the behavior appears, because they can get entrenched in the nervous system, and then they're really difficult to get rid of.
Jill: As you explain in the book, different animals respond to different kinds of reinforcements or punishments. What are some of the differences between training a dog and a cat?
Grandin: A dog is very social, and he will do stuff just to please you. He will do all sorts of stuff just for stroking and praise. You need to train a cat with food, and clicker training linked to food works extremely well. You can train a cat to do all kinds of things. There's a wonderful video called Clicker Magic. The last thing in the video they show is these cats doing all kinds of obstacle courses, and they were trained with clicker training. But the cat's motivation has to be food-motivated. He's not going to do it just for praise.
Jill: You write about how the difference between the way we treat our dogs now and the way we did a few decades ago causes more problems for dogs.
Grandin: I am very concerned about the restricted life that we give dogs. I recently had a person in England interviewing me, and in England, when you go to the regular park, not the dog park, you're allowed to have your dog off the leash as long as you're there with it. That's better for the dogs.
Our dogs are living such a controlled life that they're having more and more behavior problems, because they don't have a doggie social life. When I was a child, all the dogs ran loose. The bad side was that lots of dogs were killed by cars. But on the upside, these animals had a really great doggie social life, and therefore a great quality of life.
When a new dog came into the neighborhood that was young, the older dogs put him in his place and taught him social manners. We didn't have all these problems with dog bites. We had three simple rules we learned as kids: Do not bother a dog when he's eating. Don't poke him while he's sleeping — let sleeping dogs lie. You could call him to you, but don't go up and poke him. And don't pet strange dogs you don't know. We followed those rules, and we didn't have all these behavior problems.
The other problem we've got today is people deliberately breeding criminal animals. If they ban pit bulls, there will be some other kind of dog that they're going to totally ruin. It's just criminal, what some people are doing. They're deliberately breeding dogs for very aggressive traits. I heard one horror story from a shelter where there were a whole bunch of puppies that were eight weeks old, from a drug dealer's big-headed pit bull, and every single one of them was sent back for biting. That's genetics.
Jill: New research shows that wolves (and dogs are genetic wolves) live in families, not packs, in the wild. How does that research change the way we should look at advice from someone like Cesar Millan, who says the pet owner should be the alpha of the pack?
Grandin: I think Cesar Millan is right when you get into highly artificial situations, exactly like what he has down there in his dog psychology center, when you have a whole bunch of unrelated individuals living together. Then he's probably right.
There are some things he does very well. I do not like what Cesar does with fear-based behaviors. I've seen some really nasty episodes where he tried to force dogs to do stuff they were afraid of, and it did not work. Where he seems to work well is with the very confident breeds of dog — the Rottweilers, etc. He can be their leader in a situation where it's not a family, and it works. But I think we have created so many problems with animals.
Jill: In your new book, you explain that the kind of strong pressure that your squeeze chute provides can be very calming for other animals, too, like dogs and cats.
Grandin: Deep pressure is calming. Stroke your animal, but don't do pats. Animals interpret pats as hitting. A tickling touch activates the animal to be alert and scared.
One thing to work on is training your animal when it's young that a trip to the vet doesn't have to be bad. It's very important that first experiences be good experiences.
The first problem that you've got at the vet is that you put the animal up on a table, and the animal is slipping around and getting scared. You need to give it something non-slip to stand on, like maybe a bath mat with a rubber backing. You could bring it in from home and take it back home so the vet doesn't have to clean it. Then your animal has something familiar and non-slip to stand on.
When you're holding the animal, you want to hold it not too tight, but not too loose, with no sudden jerky motions. You want steady motion. Animals tend to get scared of sudden jerky motion. When you pick up a cat or some other animal, fully support the body. Animals get panicky when they feel like they're going to fall.
I teach these techniques in my veterinary behavior classes. I had a student come up and tell me that he was interning at one of the local veterinarian's offices, and they were calling him the "kitty whisperer" because he could use these things to handle scared cats that were difficult to handle.
Jill: Dog whisperers, cattle whisperers, horse whisperers — they are people who seem to intuitively understand animal emotions or behavior, but you say others can also learn to do it?
Grandin: They can learn to do it. People who are intuitively very good at handling animals notice a lot of very small visual and auditory details that other people tend to miss. People ask me, "How does autism help you work with animals?" One of the places where it's helped is noticing visual detail. When I first started my work with cattle, I was one of the first people to say, "Let's get down in the chutes and see what they're actually seeing." If you've got a little chain hanging down, and that chain is moving, for example, that will scare the animals.
Jill: The list of visual and auditory details to check for that you provide in Animals in Translation is amazing. I would never have seen, or even thought of, most of those things.
Grandin: I found that making a list helps people look for those items and then check them off. But I'm still finding that people don't notice them. I was down at a feed yard the other day and there was a chain hanging down. They're just not seeing it.
I took another person out to this feed yard. I went to show them, to pretend we were feed cattle going up the chute, and just as we did that, the feed truck drove by. I said, "If you bring the cattle up at the same time that the feed truck goes by, they're going to turn back on you."
That's being aware. I've found that a lot of people who are very good with animals, like the cattle and horse whisperers, often don't know how to explain what they're doing. These whisperer people can do stuff I can't do. But I think I'm good at figuring out how to explain what's going on, so that ordinary people will be able to understand. Ordinary people won't be able to do all of it, but they'll be able to do the most important parts of it.
Jill: You've done so much for animal welfare, and particularly livestock welfare, in this country. How many animals do your systems affect?
Grandin: Half of all cattle in North America go to the meat plants on a center-track system that I designed.
Jill: And do you now audit all of McDonald's food suppliers?
Grandin: I can't personally audit all of them. When we started 10 years ago, I trained the McDonald's food safety team how to do the audits, and I trained a third-party auditing company how to do the audits. I was just looking through my list of plants I've visited this year, and I probably had about seven or eight plants that I actually went out and looked at myself.
Video auditing is getting to be more and more important now. You can tune into a plant over a secure internet link and audit what's going on. Right now, there are about five plants that are on that system, and I really encourage that. Most of my work right now is consulting with different meat buyers on how to set up auditing systems that will work.
Jill: It's interesting that you have to manage the emotional systems of the people involved as much as the animals; just using the technology doesn't seem to cut it.
Grandin: When I first started out, I made the mistake of thinking that I could fix everything with engineering if I just built the right system. You can really only fix about half of the problems with engineering.
I've also found that some people should not be working with animals. They like to be mean to them, and they should not be working with them. You've also got to make sure you don't overwork people so that they get so tired, they don't care. For any species you're working with, that can be a problem. You can't be understaffed. There's been a lot of controversy about high-speed plants. High-speed plants can work really well, but what's bad is overloaded equipment and not enough staff. I've seen overloaded, understaffed small plants, too, and that's just as bad.
Jill: Your descriptions of how a company has to manage all the pieces together as a system reminds me of what Michael Pollan says about food — you can't look at just its individual nutrients separately to predict what they will do. You can't take away that holistic context.
Grandin: That's absolutely right. I've read his books, and I really liked The Omnivore's Dilemma.
Jill: What are some solutions that zoos have come up with for preventing stereotypies in their animals?
Grandin: Most zoos are really working hard to give animals things to do. In Animals Make Us Human, I write about Gus, the polar bear who used to spend all his time pacing. What does an animal like a polar bear do in the wild? They don't have to worry about predators, because they're the top predators. Nothing's going to eat them. So what do polar bears do all day? They walk for miles. They're a nomad animal that walks for miles. It's a seeking behavior. They also have to roam for miles because a big animal like that has to eat a lot in order to stay alive.
What they gave to Gus were plastic barrels filled with water at different buoyancies. Some of the barrels float really high in the water, while other barrels are almost sinking. There are also different-sized barrels. Gus likes to jump on top of those barrels and push them down, and every time he does it, the barrels move into a different position, so he can't do the same thing every time. This helped reduce the stereotypies.
Zoos really are trying to work on these things. When zoos first started trying to make better environments, they thought, "We'll make it without bars and throw in some fake rocks." That still ends up being just as barren. We've got to start looking at animals and thinking, "Which system of the core emotions is motivating this animal?" With the polar bear, it's going to be seeking. A lot of birds, like parrots for example, need to have cover. They get scared if they don't have things they can get under.
Jill: At the beginning of the wildlife chapter, you say that you're afraid we may not always have someone like Jane Goodall. Why is that?
Grandin: The biggest problem is that more and more students are coming out of urban environments, and they haven't done hands-on work. Right now, a lot of people who are interested in improving life for animals are becoming lawyers. So you can sue for everything, but it's easy that way to end up making a bigger mess. You have to have people who can apply policy. We're having a big problem in this country, not just on animal issues but on every issue, with policy makers getting further and further removed from what's happening on the ground.
I think that's a really big problem, and I think that's one of the reasons that there are less people around to become the next Jane Goodall, because people don't want to do hands-on stuff. I have a student, Lily, who's from a city background, and she'd done some work with primates. She came out to Colorado State and she discovered she really liked cattle. She got out into the feed yard and was helping weigh cattle in different feed experiments, and she thought that was really cool.
But for the most part, kids today are not getting exposed to doing practical stuff. There's a certain practical problem-solving that they're not learning. When I was a little kid, we tried to put up an old army tent. Our parents didn't help; they just let us spend three days trying to put it up. In the end, it was saggy and not put up quite right, but we still had our sleep-out. That's a kind of practical problem-solving.
I'm getting very concerned that we're not going to have enough people to implement things, people who can put things into practice that are actually going to work. I don't normally talk about politics, but there's one thing that Obama said that I really agree with. He doesn't want to give up his Blackberry and all his computer access to the real world. I think that's extremely, extremely important. I've been reading about some of the other presidents — they called it digging down. You want to find out what's going on with the Army? You need to talk to some of the staff sergeants. You've got to get down to people on the ground, otherwise you're in an insulated bubble. You've got to find out what's actually happening in the field. Then you can make some policy that might actually work.
In that wildlife chapter, I talk a lot about these kinds of problems. I call it "abstractification," and I think it's getting worse and worse.
Jill: You talk about people not being hands-on enough in this country as time goes on. Do you think that's changing, as more people are trying to grow their own food, knit and build things, and become more self-sufficient in this economy? There's long been a DIY movement in Portland, and I think there is beginning to be one across the country now.
Grandin: I think that's a very good thing. I think that's wonderful, and some people are starting to feel that we've got to get back and get connected with where things come from. Right now, I'm wearing a beautiful Alpaca vest that a lady made and gave to me at a convention, and then I bought a second one from her because this one is so nice and warm.
Jill: "Every situation has to be considered afresh." That sentence that you quote from Dr. Dorner's experience sums up a larger philosophy in your books.
Grandin: I would agree with that. You've got to not keep getting in the same rut. In my work, I've tried to communicate with a lot of different kinds of people. I've noticed a lot of my clients just stay in their own little universe, and they don't get outside of it. You've got to work against that. In my life, I live most of the time in Colorado, where I'm immersed in agricultural things, but then I do my autism talks, so I get a lot of contact outside agriculture there. I also go back home for Christmas, and everyone is in the city, so I get that viewpoint as well.
I'm realizing that a lot of my agriculture friends never get out of their niche, and my city friends never get out of their niche. I've sat on planes and told people about McDonald's auditing their plants, and people say, "McDonald's does that? That's wonderful!" But they've had no idea.
Jill: I think it's something you have to constantly work at, getting out of your own direct environmental bubble.
Grandin: I completely agree. I think people need to be working at doing that.
Jill: You have said that "language is your second language." How do you translate thinking visually into writing?
Grandin: When I'm working with new material, something totally new, writing narrates the slideshow that comes up in my mind. My mind kind of works like Google images. You put a keyword in and I start to see some images. Somebody mentioned the word "bunny" to me the other day. When I thought of "bunny," I started seeing all these cute little Easter bunnies, but the word "rabbit" brought up a different set of images, the first one being that rabbit corkscrew that's been advertised in every magazine.
Rabbits and bunnies are the same animal, but the images are different. It's the same with "dog" and "chien"; if you say the French word for dog, I get a different set of images than if you just say "dog."
Jill: So language is narrating this slideshow.
Grandin: It narrates the images, and it labels visual files. Name something not in an office, not something common like "house" or "car," and I'll tell you how my mind associatively accesses it.
Jill: Ice cream.
Grandin: I'm seeing the ice cream store at the Denver airport. Now I've immediately gotten out of the ice cream file and am in the Denver airport file. I'm seeing the shoeshine stand that I go to, the newsstand I go to, the little bookshop they've got there. I'm seeing this weird blue horse sculpture that's out at the front gate of the airport, a big blue huge rearing horse with red eyes. He's so hideous, he's cool. [Laughter] From there, I get into the horse file. I see some pictures of Mark's horses. I'm seeing horses I saw on the treadmill yesterday over at the vet school.
So you see how I got from ice cream to airport to horses? There's an associative logic to it. That's exactly how a search engine works. One of the things that amazed me when search engines started, especially when they got good, is how they work like my own mind.
Jill: How do you think your writing has changed over the years?
Grandin: When you have more knowledge in your head, you get better. I think my speaking has changed a lot over the years. I used to be a lot more autistic-like in my speech. In fact, HBO's doing a movie about me, about when my career started in the '60s and '70s, with Claire Danes playing a very, very autistic me.
It's almost like, as I learn more and more, I get less and less autistic, because my thinking is bottom-up. I take the new experiences and relate them back to a whole lot of information that I have in memory.
Jill: How involved are you in that HBO project?
Grandin: I read the scripts, and I was very involved in the cattle scenes. They recreated one of my cattle dipping vats, and I went down there and helped them make sure that that was all correct, and that all the cattle stuff was right.
You know what was interesting, from a cattle perception standpoint? You have to be very careful not to spook the cattle. They had these big white reflector boards, and I can tell you, cattle do not like those things. But then they had this really cool camera on a crane that they called fluid motion. This thing would just float; it moved with a very steady motion. You could move that around in front of cattle, and it was like it didn't exist. It was really weird. It was because the motion was so smooth. You could see it move; it moved at about the same speed as backing a car slowly out of a parking space. But it moved with such extremely fluid motion that it didn't scare them.
Jill: What is your next book project?
Grandin: I'm working right now on a textbook on practical applications in animal welfare. It answers the question "How do you set up animal welfare auditing systems?" I'm taking all the scientific stuff, taking some things from Europe, but it would be something for students and people who want to actually make a program, not just think about it or talk about it. How do you, out in the field, put together animal welfare programs? I have some guest authors in it. I'm doing about six chapters, but in the rest of the book, I've got guest authors, and I've got some very good scientists — I just got a fantastic chapter on why stockmanship is important. I'm waiting for some other chapters right now. One is about why animal behavior is important. I've had business people ask me, "Do pigs really have emotions?" I want to have a chapter explaining that, yes, they do, and their behavior is important.
Jill: What have you been reading lately?
Grandin: I just read part of The Year of Living Biblically, which was interesting. I also just finished My Stroke of Insight. That's a really interesting book, because some of the deficits that she has are very similar to autism.
Jill: You've said that you wouldn't choose to not be autistic, given the choice.
Grandin: I like my logical way of thinking. Sometimes I see just how irrational people can be, and I don't want to be that irrational.
I spoke with Temple Grandin by phone from her home in Colorado on December 31, 2008.
Books mentioned in this post