Gained in translation

 Animals in Translation
In giving animals their due, we wouldn't make out too badly ourselves

AMONG the many distressing images brought to us by Hurricane Katrina were those of starved, frightened dogs, cats and other pets, tens of thousands of them, abandoned to the rising waters while their human companions fled for safety. Some people refused to leave their beloved animals behind, but most had no choice. Fumbling officials simply refused to scoop anything with more than two legs into their helicopters, boats and buses.

This seemed particularly cruel and arbitrary when it came to the helping animals of the disabled âe" though it did mean there were lots of heartwarming reunions for news networks to record, once compassionate rescuers got on board and began pulling the terrified animals out of their ruined homes and the fetid, corpse-strewn flood waters.

Much has been written about the ugly truths that came to light in the hurricane, made so much worse by appallingly disorganized, or absent, rescue efforts in the early days. “I never thought I'd see Americans dead on the side of the highway, like roadkill,” said one sober media commentator.

Those who think it's rather unfortunate that roadkill ends up as roadkill had yet another layer of ugly truths to ponder. As much as the disaster revealed about the complete lack of a social safety net for vast numbers of American citizens (not a wow moment for many), it also revealed the prevalence of some rather brutal views about animals and what are considered acceptable ways to treat them.

Of course, given that precious little forethought went into protecting people in the event of such a catastrophe, it is not surprising that animals got even shorter shrift. The question is, at a time when the pet industry is booming (there are 60 million dogs in the U.S.; in Canada, more than five million dogs and more than seven million cats) and our knowledge of the true breadth of animalsâe(TM) capabilities is rapidly expanding, why do we persist in imagining them to be less sentient, ergo less valuable, than we are, and that inflicting pain and suffering on them is of little or no consequence?

Reading Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, you find a glimmer of hope that the treatment and understanding of animals, be they cattle or cats, will only improve with the greater knowledge that researchers are now routinely bringing to light. Monogamous lizards, maternal snakes, singing lions, loyal-buddy giraffes, tool-wielding gorillas, cancer-sniffing dogs, parrots who invent words and pigs with individual sexual preferences âe" the world is full of creatures whose complex behaviour and talents are discernible through careful human study that has begun only in the last few decades.

Jane Goodall got the ball rolling with her patient, long-term field observations of chimpanzees, though when she began publishing her research in the early 1960s, other scientists were inclined to pat her lovely blonde head and dismiss her findings as anthropomorphic nonsense. Goodall has been more than vindicated, as further research has shown that chimps and great apes are indeed highly social (by turns violent and loving, like humans), and not mechanical, unfeeling blobs of non-human matter, to be experimented upon for human good, with no worries about their feelings of pain, because they have none, or if they do, it doesn't matter. She should receive a Nobel Prize for the work she has done and continues to do on behalf of endangered primates, in the wild and in test laboratories.

Grandin, too, deserves kudos. She is the famous autistic genius who has made the lives, and deaths, of cows and pigs more bearable with her innovations in stockyard and slaughterhouse design. Members of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) may scoff at anything less than an immediate global conversion to veganism, but in the meantime, Grandin's efforts are likely having a greater positive effect on the lives of animals than any Pamela Anderson campaign.

I believe Grandin when she says that cows are her favourite animals (she loves to lie still in fields and let the curious ones sniff and lick her), that her autism gives her special insight into animal behaviour, and that she has grappled with the ethical ambiguities of loving animals and serving an industry that kills them for consumption. The central-track restraining system she invented spares cows upsetting distraction (details are intensified in cow perception, as they are for autistic people) and holds them in a way that calms them. Staring into a cattleyard corral, she had a moment of severe doubt, and revelation.

“Looking at those animals, I realized that none of them would even exist if human beings hadn't bred them into being,” she writes in Animals in Translation. “And ever since that moment I've believed that ...we are responsible for them. We owe them a decent life and a decent death, and their lives should be as low-stress as possible. That's my job.”

This book does a great service in bringing together the latest research findings about a wide variety of animals, forming an increasingly clear picture of fascinating complexity. It's a knowledge base that can only grow with time and continued human attention. That's good news for animals' quality of life, and Grandin would argue, ours too.

We co-evolved with these animals, after all. Abilities we may have once possessed in a more heightened form âe" such as the sense of smell âe" dulled over time, because we had, and continue to have, animals to do it for us. We benefit immensely from such animal talents, and so do the animals themselves. A dog with a job it was born and bred to do, be it a border collie herding sheep or a beagle sniffing baggage, is a happy animal. Grandin suggests that the more we learn about what extraordinary things animals can do, the more we will all benefit.

“[P]eople who can talk to animals are happier than people who can't,” Grandin concludes. Thanks to her insights, and those of others she presents here, we stand a chance of losing less in the translation. âe"Moira Farr

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