Thursday, August 30, 2012
Temple Grandin: Stewardship or Dominion? by Su Zi
A number of years ago, when job loss hit an unprecedented spike, local animal shelters residencies also hit unprecedented numbers. At one municipal shelter, as recently as eighteen months ago, an intern said that dogs and cats who had been rounded up by the control truck “were getting the needle right off the truck”, meaning that these dogs and cats never even saw the zoo for potential adoptions. In many cases, people brought in their dogs and cats because they chose to no longer feed them. Horses, who, despite their livestock appellation, also exist in many circumstances as pets, have also been subject to starvation because their human caretakers have their welfare as a low priority. The internet has continual information about either overtly threatened wildlife- –because of resource appropriation of land for housing, commerce, oil drilling and pipelines, the melting north pole--or pictures of happy humans awash in blood and proudly holding the body of their murdered wolf or elk or stag or fish or whale, et cetera. We have failed, as a species, either directly or indirectly, to be stewards, to co-exist in peace on our planet. We act, to paraphrase a line from a popular science fiction movie, as if we humans are a cancer to our planet.
There are a few humans who have dedicated their lives to undo our collective criminality, and among them is Temple Grandin. In the 2009 edition of her book Animals Make Us Human (cowritten with Catherine Johnson), Grandin outlines how to make the animals in our lives live happier lives. First, Grandin posits the work of neuroscientist Dr Jaak Panksepp and deploys these core behaviors as crucial for all living beings, with notice given for specific needs of species. Grandin then tackles a number of species by devoting a chapter to each ( dogs, cats, horses, pigs, cows, chickens, wildlife) and how their specific needs as a species interact with Panksepp’s rubric. Specific examples are made through Grandin’s convivial use of scientific research, anecdote and a winsome writing style. In many cases, she refutes popular notions with care and logic, as if gently explaining something with truth and clarity to a naughty child—which she is, for we are the naughty children.
A disconcerting element of Grandin’s work are the chapters on species bound for slaughter. Grandin makes repeated mention of her work with slaughter facilities and minimizing horrific abuses to the creatures as they go in to be killed and butchered. Thoroughly horrifying is the revealing of the treatment of chickens: from the barbaric practices on the farm “without anesthetics or painkillers” ( 212), to how “Laying hens [that make the eggs we eat] have the poorest welfare of all the farm animals” (233), to how “some of the farms were just throwing the hens, when they were old ladies, into the dumpster alive. Others got rid of their spent hens by sucking them up in a vacuum truck that is used to clean sewers” (211). Grandin posits ways that chickens can be bred better, live better and be slaughtered in ways that are less shaming to us than the “famous video of workers throwing chickens and stomping on them at a Pilgrim’s Pride plant” (227). Grandin repeatedly mentions how abusive behavior becomes normalized, and how she strives to eliminate the normalization of these abuses. She says, in her Afterward, that witnessing some Hereford cattle who “had a wonderful life […] motivated me to work on improving the industry instead of working to convince people to stop eating meat “(296).
The specific chapters on species are a must-read for anyone who has any contact with dogs, cats et cetera; however, Grandin’s repeated references to Panksepp’s work is intensely illuminating, because it is true for all life forms and her repetition while discussing the application of this rubric essentially causes the reader to memorize these “blue-ribbon emotions”. As fascinating as it is to realize the correlation between cats and humans with obsessive compulsive behaviors, it is useful to be aware that cats are “more like wild animals than dogs [… and that] The only way to train a wild animal is to use positive reinforcement” ( 71-72). As we gain awareness of how different species experience curiosity (“seeking”), we then become even more aware of how each of us is a sentient creature with basic neuro-behavioral needs. Any internet search of animal pictures reveals all sorts of beings demonstrating what are obviously emotions. Grandin says that “some people may not want to believe that animals really do have emotions. I think their own emotions are getting in the way of logic. When I read all the scientific evidence about electrical stimulation of subcortial brain systems, the only logical conclusion was that the basic emotion systems are similar in humans and all other mammals” ( 301). If we are to modify our existence on our planet from that of barbaric, as a cancer, to that of stewardship, of co-existence, then Grandin’s teachings about how to respect the emotional needs of all life forms in a crucial place to start.