Zoo-notable: Animals in Translation

Looking at those animals I realized that none of them would even exist if human beings hadn’t bred them into being. And ever since that moment I’ve believed that we brought these animals here, so we’re responsible for them. We owe them a decent life and decent death, and their lives should be as low-stress as possible.

Temple Grandin ~ Animals in Translation

Zoo-notable for Animal Keepers

If you are in the animal field, it is unlikely you haven’t heard of the name Temple Grandin. Dr. Grandin is a brilliant animal welfare specialist who revolutionized the way livestock are handled and improving the quality of life for animals around the globe. She is a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University and holds a Ph.D. in animal science from the University of Illinois.

Dr. Grandin also happens to be autistic. While she struggled to learn throughout life, she realized her struggles also make her uniquely adept in working with animals.

Animals in Translation is her first animal-focused book, published in 2005, and was followed by Animals Make Us Human (2009). I’ve read some of her amazing books and met her at a zookeeper conference where she absolutely dazzled me with her intuitive approach to dealing with animals.

Big Ideas for this Zoo-notable on Animals in Translation:

When I dove into Animals in Translation to read as a Zoo-notable, I figured I’d be sharing some great insights on animal welfare, and maybe a little on how these apply to our own lives (much like the wisdom I received from Karen Pryor’s book Lads Before the Wind). But little did I realize the incredible insight I’d receive on a much broader scale, some which had little to do with animal welfare (although there is some relation).

Let’s get started on this wonderful gem, Animals In Translation.

  1. Translating Animal Perception
  2. Everyone Is a Genius
  3. Are We Turning Into Rapist Roosters?
  4. Brains are for Moving- Lesson from a Sea Squirt
  5. Animals Make Us Human

Big Idea #1- Translating Animal Perception

“Psychologists often use the Clever Hans story to show that humans who believe animals are intelligent are deluding themselves. But that’s not the obvious conclusion as far as I’m concerned. No one has ever been able to train a horse to do what Hans did. Hans trained himself. Is the ability to read a member of a different species as well as Hans was reading human beings really a sign that he was just a “dumb animal” who’d been classically conditioned to stamp his hoof? I think there’s more to it than that.”

Temple Grandin ~ Animals in Translation

(Okay, first, if you aren’t familiar with the Clever Hans story- he was a horse who was (unintentionally) trained to stamp out the answer to math problems. But unbeknownst to his owner, Hans was actually watching the reaction of the person, and read when he reached the correct answer- I mean, yes, he was trained, but damn, that’s a smart horse!)        

We make a lot of assumptions about animals, and other people. Most of the time, these assumptions are wrong. We need to try to see what the other is seeing and experience what the other is experiencing. Yes, Dr. Grandin is talking about animals, and while I think it’s vitally important to consider animals’ quality of life and welfare, but this applies to everyone, people included.

I’m not talking about being anthropomorphic when we consider what they are seeing and experiencing, I’m simply talking about looking at things in a different light. We are a species that tends to not notice things. Just noticing our environment and surroundings, and beginning to see the world as someone else (human or non-human animals) will open our eyes to unfathomable knowledge and understanding.

Noticing What We Don’t Notice

Dr. Grandin talks about several research studies done where people fail to notice what seems to be obvious to the observer. In one experiment (appropriately called Gorillas in Our Midst), researchers show participants a videotape of a basketball game and ask them to count how many passes the team in white makes. After the test, researchers ask how many noticed the person in a gorilla suit walking on screen, facing the camera, and beating on their chest. Fifty percent of all people didn’t see the gorilla.

It’s far from the only test on this matter. Seventy-five percent of people don’t notice when a person with blond hair and a yellow shirt walks away from them and returns as a different person with brown hair and blue shirt returns.

NASA even tested airplane pilots on noticing by putting them in a flight simulator and asking them to do a bunch of routine landings. On some of the landing approaches, the experimenters added the image of a large commercial jet on the runway, something a pilot would (hopefully) never see in real life. Twenty-five percent of the pilots landed right on top of the airplane.

When you Assume…you make an, well, you know the saying

The point in these studies is we tend to overlook a lot of things. And how we overlook animals is just the tip of the assuming iceberg. We make all sorts of disruptive assumptions, and judgements based on appearances, first impressions, and snapshot glances in others’ lives. But if we were to see what others are seeing—how animals perceive their world, for instance, how would we respond?

Dr. Grandin shares how we tend to think we know everything about the situation, but really we are falling short.  Her example is a perfect demonstration of how we misinterpret others’ actions and words all the time by assuming. A friend of hers, a dog trainer, became convinced his dog was feeling guilt over going through the garbage can. Whenever John came home and there was garbage on the floor, the dog would take off and hide. John assumed the dog felt shame over his actions.

But then an outsider asked John to rummage through the garbage and spread it all over the kitchen floor. When the dog saw the mess, he reacted the same way as if he rummaged through the garbage. He wasn’t acting guilty or ashamed. The dog was running because whenever John noticed the garbage spread all over, he would get angry. The dog was hiding in fear, not shame.

We can never know for sure about any situation unless we areexperiencing it through the others’ eyes. Do animals do behaviors out of joy? Just because? Why do humans do the things we do? How can a scientist know for a fact that dolphins don’t use recursive language and sentences? For that matter, how can you know what is going on in another person’s mind…unless you ask (and they tell you).

Temple argues we should give animals (and I add everyone) the benefit of the doubt. Assume positive intent. The result may amaze you and help you realize the genius which is behind every person (and animal).

Big Idea #2- Everyone is a Genius

Dr. Pepperberg didn’t use the normal operant conditioning model to teach Alex (African grey parrot) to correctly identify colors. She used a different branch of behaviorism called social modeling theory, developed by Dr. Bandura, a scientist at Stanford University in the 1970s. This theory stated that most animals learned by observing, not trial and error. Instead of teaching Alex one-on-one she taught him two-on-one. And instead of teaching Alex directly, she taught the other person, while Alex sat on his perch and watched.

She also used items highly desirable to a parrot—crunchy pieces of bark—for her learning materials. Animals and people both pay more attention to things that are important to them, like food, and you have to pay attention to learn. A parrot in the wild doesn’t care about blue triangles, so why should a parrot care about blue triangles in a lab?

If Dr. Pepperberg wanted Alex to learn the color blue, she took a piece of tempting bark and painted it blue. Then she’d sit down with Alex and her research assistant and ask the assistant, “What color?”

If the assistant got the answer right, he got to play with the bark. If the assistant got the answer wrong, he didn’t get to play with the bark. All Alex had to do was watch.

Using the modeling theory was the breakthrough. Alex learned so much that he started asking questions on his own. One day he looked at his reflection in the mirror and asked Dr. Pepperberg, “What color?”

Alex was never taught to ask questions; he just did so on his own, spontaneously.”

Temple Grandin ~ Animals in Translation

Translating Animal Intelligence

If you have never read the amazing breakthrough research done by Dr. Pepperberg and Alex, I highly recommend her book Alex and Me, where she goes into the beautiful details of teaching Alex through social-modeling, and how Alex turned the behavior research world on its end by his innovative and, well, genius mind.

Before Dr. Pepperberg switched things up (and seeing the world as perhaps a parrot sees it), behaviorists argued the only way to teach an animal was with operant conditioning/stimulus response. Which is basically trial and error. Press the lever, get a treat. Press the lever at the wrong time, get nothing. It’s a guessing game until the animal figures out the rules.

But honestly, that’s not how animals learn in the wild. In the real world, trial and error learning would get a lot of animals killed.

“If the only way a baby antelope learned to run away from a lion was by finding out what happens if you don’t run away from a lion, there wouldn’t be any baby antelope left.”

Temple Grandin ~ Animals in Translation

Animals and people do a huge amount of observational learning. A baby antelope learns to run away from lions by watching other antelope run away from lions and then doing the same thing.

It’s easy to say Alex was a special case. Even Dr. Pepperberg agreed he was a special bird. However, that doesn’t diminish the genius behind the bird.

Translating Everyone’s Intelligence

In Animals in Translation, Temple argues how all animals are smart in their own right. They often have “superhuman” skills we can only dream of (echolocation anyone?). As Temple puts it “Animals have animal genius. Birds are navigation geniuses, dogs are smell geniuses, eagles are visual geniuses…” And, honestly, the same can be said for people.

I attended a coaching session with Susan Peirce Thompson, the founder and creator of Bright Lines Eating. She told us that she was not a trained nutritionist. She doesn’t feel it’s her scope of practice to tell others how to eat healthy. Susan is instead a neuroscientist (which I feel gives her even more credentials, but I’m probably biased). I mean that’s literally a brain scientist saying she doesn’t have the credentials to talk about nutrition, that she doesn’t have diet genius, basically. Instead of dieting tips, Susan focuses on what eating does to the brain. And man, does she own this particular niche. She is a genius in this area.

What is Your Genius?

I am a behavior specialist. I struggle with fitness coaching, and often feel inadequate. Yes, I have several certifications telling others I am qualified to lead group classes, but it’s not my strength. My strengths instead lie in helping others develop healthy habits and motivate them to change their lives by changing their mindsets and behavior. I am a behavior-change genius.

This reminds me of quote attributed to Albert Einstein “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”

Where are you a genius? If you haven’t thought about it, or you think you don’t have genius, stop and consider it. Are you going at a problem the same way everyone else has done it? Try something completely different, something more true to yourself, and find the genius mind hiding within. Then let your genius shine out.

Big Idea #3: Are We Turning into Rapist Roosters?

Okay, so just hear me out. Let me explain the rapist roosters… As Dr. Grandin puts it in her book:

When (I) was just starting my work with chickens a few years ago, I visited a chicken farm. Inside the barn where all the chickens lived I found a dead hen lying there on the floor. She was all cut up, and her body was fresh.

I went back to the farmer and asked him “What was that?”

He told me the rooster did it: the rooster killed the hen. He acted like that was a perfectly normal thing for a rooster to do.

I knew that couldn’t be right. If roosters killed hens in nature, there wouldn’t be any chickens. The chicken farmer told me that half of his roosters were rapist-murderers. I was stunned. There is no species alive in nature where half the males kill reproductive-age females. There had to be something seriously wrong with those birds.

And speaking to colleagues and friends, I discovered the source.
Ian Duncan from the University of Guelph in Canada had studied roosters and found that the rooster courtship program had gotten accidentally deleted in about half of the birds, as a result of single-trait, or selective breeding. A normal rooster does a little courtship dance before trying to mate with a hen. The dance is hard-wired into the rooster’s brain; it is instinctual.

The dance triggers a fixed action pattern in the hen’s brain, and she crouches down into a sexually receptive position so the rooster can mount her. She doesn’t crouch unless she sees the dance.

But half the roosters had stopped doing the dance, which meant that the hens had stopped crouching down for them. So the roosters became rapists. They jumped on the hens and tried to mate them by force, and when the hen tried to get away, the rooster would attack her with his spurs or his toes and slash her to death.

Temple Grandin ~ Animals in Translation

What are We Doing to Ourselves?

My first gut reaction was to talk about how we are messing with the food chain in horrific ways. But whatever we are doing to chickens’ genes is actually beside the point. It’s this next part that Temple mentions which waved red flags at me.

“The really bad thing was that this change happened slowly enough that the farmers and breeder colonies didn’t realize they were creating a monster. Nobody noticed what was happening. As the roosters got more and more aggressive, the humans unconsciously adjusted their perceptions of how a normal rooster should act. It was a case of the bad becoming normal.

This reminds me of the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, who said “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Our society has become accustomed to new technology, new food products, blue lights, sleep deprivation, plastic-packaging, and breaking away from nature. Only, these “advances” have other side effects.

Yes, technology allows us to continue working from home, or connect with friends and family across the country, or even around the world. But just as roosters weren’t being bred to attack hens, it was a side-effect to the changes in their DNA. What are some of the changes in our lives as a result of so many stimuli?

Dealing with Stimuli

As Alberto Villoldo wrote in his book One Spirit Medicine: From television and internet alone, we are exposed to more stimuli in a week than our Paleolithic ancestors were exposed to in a lifetime.”

That is insane. Our brains aren’t meant to deal with so many inputs all at once. Like a gazelle on the Serengeti, our brains are meant to deal with one lion roaring at a time. But with today’s culture, we are instead dealing with the entire jungle attacking us.

We forget that our bodies and especially our brain were built to move in ways we don’t move anymore. We ignore the cycles in nature because we stay indoors, on computers, unable to sleep because of the blue lights permeating our eyes and nerves, keeping us awake, but dulling our senses, and creating—as Dr. Grandin might put it—monsters.

Bad Becoming Normal

And we don’t notice these changes because no one is looking for it. It’s the gorilla jumping out during the basketball game that no one notices. No one expects these new advances to have dire consequences. How could they when they improve our lives so much?

So we keep adapting to the new gadget, the new trend, the new food-like substance, never realizing that the bad is becoming normal.

If you put a frog in boiling water, it will hop out because it’s hot. But if you gradually turn the heat up on the water with the frog in it, the frog will stay in, because it’s so gradual, it becomes the new norm, even within moments.

What is our new normal? Is it supposed to be normal to just be completely overwhelmed with all the stimuli coming at us? Or to get by on just five or six hours of sleep every night? This isn’t “just the way it is”. This is the bad becoming normal, and the end result could be as devastating as roosters turning into rapists.

Big Idea #4- Our Brains are for Moving (Lesson from a Sea Squirt)

The idea of us changing our ways not even noticing how bad things are getting is really disconcerting. This new trend (more like life-style) of being addicted to technology, our phones, and constant stimulation is very damaging to our brains. And our bodies. Because we basically have a brain so we can move.

The brain evolved in creatures to help them move around without knocking into things. For example, look at the sea squirt. Neuroscientist Dr. Rodolfo Llinas explains. “This primitive organism starts out in life looking something like a tadpole, with about 300 brain cells. It ends up more like a turnip. The first day of its life, the sea squirt swims around until it finds its permanent home. Once it finds its spot, it doesn’t move again for the rest of its life.

Here’s the interesting part: while it is swimming it has a primitive nervous system, but once it becomes attached to an object, it eats up its own brain. It also eats its own tail and tail muscles. Basically the sea squirt begins life as a kind of tadpole, with a tadpole-like brain, and then turns into an oyster-class creature. Since the sea squirt isn’t going to move ever again, it doesn’t need a brain.”

An animal that EATS ITS BRAIN? You know what else eats brains?

Right. Zombies.

Zombie Society

And being stuck in our phones, scrolling through social media, disconnecting from nature and our loved ones—we’re setting ourselves up to be a Zombie, or more accurately, a sea squirt society. We might as well absorb and eat our own brains.

The moral of the sea squirt story is: we have brains so we can move. If we didn’t move, we wouldn’t need brains and we wouldn’t have them.

Physical movement seems to be the basis for not just physical intelligence. Children learn by physically manipulating objects and seeing how they work. This movement and style of learning is the also the basis for academic, social, and emotional intelligence as well. But we are slowly changing the standards of society. We aren’t getting as much locomotor play, time in nature, and discovering the natural cycles of life.

Now, most of the people I interact with (zookeepers, animal care staff, and fitness professionals) don’t necessarily have this issue in a literal sense. But just because movement isn’t an issue for you at work doesn’t mean we are in the clear.

Never Exonerated from Improving

Metaphorically speaking, we should always be moving forward—for your goals, your dreams, improving your skills, improving animal welfare, making the world a better place.

As Brian Johnson from Optimize program states so frequently (from his coach Phil Stutz) “we are never going to be exonerated.” We are always going to have something to work towards. We’re never going to be “The Best”, because standards will always shift, and ways will improve. And according to George Leonard in his book Mastery, we can be relieved and excited about that idea. As he puts it:” For a master, the rewards gained along the way are fine, but they are not the main reason for the journey. Ultimately the master and the master’s path are one. And if the traveler is fortunate – that is, if the path is complex and profound enough – the destination is two miles farther away for every mile he or she travels.”

Just Keep Swimming

So, yes, Dory was right. We must keep moving forward. Physically, literally, and progressing toward our goals, our dreams, and keep striving to be the best versions of ourselves.

So let’s put away are digital devices and social media for one evening and work on ourselves. Connect to the earth and our loved ones in a healthy and positive way. Use the brain for its true purpose. To keep moving. Today. Tomorrow, and forever.

Big Idea #5—Animals Make Us Human

“Aborigines have a saying: “Dogs make us human.” Now we know that’s probably literally true. People wouldn’t have become who we are today if we hadn’t co-evolved with dogs.
I think it’s also true that all animals make us human. That’s why I hope we’ll start to think more respectfully about animal intelligence and talent. That would be good for people, because there are a lot of things we can’t do that animals can. We could use their help.”

Temple Grandin ~ Animals in Translation

Dr. Grandin shared some really interesting information about how our very early ancestors became the modern human, basically because of their co-existence with wolves.

Wolves Domesticated Men?

Before partnering with wolves, anthropologists believe humans behaved much more like other primates. Humans were not nearly as social as we are today—they stayed in family groups, but never had non-kin friendships. They were solitary hunters, normally going after smaller animals to feed just themselves or their family. And before wolves, humans were nomadic, not very territorial. However, these are characteristics of wolves.

Anthropologists believe that these early years of partnering with wolves A) wasn’t a dominant species domesticating a subordinate species. They were actually considered to be on equal grounds. Basically, two different species with complementary skills teamed up together, something that had never happened before and has really never happened since. And B) early humans began taking on more wolf-like behaviors—hunting in groups, staying in a general region and establishing territory, and forming friendships outside their immediate family.

So, it’s not just that we turned wolves into dogs. Wolves actually had a hand in domesticating people. Humans co-evolved with wolves; we changed them, and they changed us.

How Animals Benefit Us

Animals continue to change us, maybe not on such a grand level as turning us into the modern humans we are today, but they are still important in our lives.

I’m excited to be working on a new presentation for American Association of Zookeepers and National Zookeeper Week about the life-changing lessons we can learn from the animal kingdom. This talk is more light-hearted stories than it is a lecture, but it shows how animals help us become the best versions of ourselves.

Whether it’s the lesson from an oyster to turn obstacles into opportunities, how I learned to meditate by watching a station-training session with meerkats, or some of my heart-warming stories working with animals—earning the love of an elephant who notoriously hated women or creating an unbreakable friendship with a dolphin.

We are just scraping the surface of what animals are capable of doing, both for their own sake, and to benefit our lives. To this extent, we are responsible for caring for them and the planet. Because they are an integral part of our lives—from the food we eat, to even how we came to be the humans we are today. Without animals, there would be no people. And even if there were people, what kind of people would we be?

We owe animals a decent life (and a decent death), as happy and healthy as we want our own lives to be.

I love how Dr. Grandin relates to working with horses. “Real riding is a lot like ballroom dancing, or figure skating in pairs. It’s a relationship.”

Let’s foster that relationship with animals, and each other with love, respect, and compassion.

Last Thoughts on Animals in Translation

That’s all I’ve got from Temple Grandin’s book, Animals In Translation. If these ideas resonate with you, I highly recommend this book and her other book Animals Make Us Human. You can learn more about Dr. Grandin at templegrandin.com. As a prominent author and speaker on both autism and animal behavior, she has been featured in many nationally recognized programs. There is also an Emmy Award-winning movie about her life.

Thanks for joining me for another Zoo-notable. What Big Idea resonated the most with you? What ideas will you start working on to improve your life? Take care of yourself so we can be a better service to our animals, our community, and the planet.

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