Animals in Translation

Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior

Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson



I’ve read and heard many reviews of this remarkable new book by Temple Grandin. Depending on the reviewer’s focus, Animals in Translation has been seen as a groundbreaking revelation of animal behavior and awareness and/or an inspiring revelation of the world seen from within autism. It is both these things, but in my opinion it is also something else – I experienced it as one deep and brilliant insight after another into human nature itself, not just autistic human nature, but all human nature.

Grandin’s insight into animals is so uncluttered and straightforward that she penetrates into the recesses of the human heart as well. The descriptions she gives of the sources of many animal behaviors apply unswervingly as well to the things hidden in the depths of the human soul that well up as surprising, irrational or inconsistent reactions.

If you work with children, this book has more to offer you than I can describe in the space of one review. I can, however, give you an example which I think goes to the heart of how this book can be used on behalf of other people, especially young people. On page 145, Temple begins a discussion of Fear-Driven Aggression. She has previously described Assertive Aggression and is now contrasting it with aggression resulting from fear:

Fear-driven aggression causes so much violence and destruction in the animal and human worlds that I’ve often asked myself, What is rage for?

Why do we have rage circuits at all?

When you look at animals living in the wild, the answer is simple. Rage is about survival, at the most basic brute level. Rage is the emotion that drives the lion being gored to death by the buffalo to fight back; rage drives a zebra being caught by a lion to make one last-ditch effort to escape. I once saw a videotape of a domestic beef cow kicking the living daylights out of an attacking lion. It was some of the hardest kicking I have ever seen. Rage is the ultimate defense all animals draw upon when their lives are in mortal danger.

When it comes to human safety in the presence of animals, fear cuts two ways. Fear can inhibit an animal or a person from attacking, and very often does. Among humans, the most vicious murderers are people who have abnormally low fear. Fear protects you when you’re under attack, and keeps you from becoming an attacker yourself.

But fear can also cause a terrified animal to attack, where a less-fearful animal wouldn’t. A cornered animal can be extremely aggressive; that’s where we get the saying about not getting someone’s “back up against the wall.” An animal with his back up against a wall is in fear for its life and will feel he has no choice but to attack.

On average, prey species animals like horses and cattle show more fear-based aggression than predatory animals such as dogs. That shouldn’t be a surprise, since prey animals spend a lot more time being scared.

I categorize maternal aggression differently from some researchers; I put it in the fear department. I think maternal aggression is fear-driven at heart because over the years I’ve observed that the high-strung nervous animals will always fight more vigorously to protect her young than will a laid-back, calm animal like a Holstein dairy cow. Many a rancher has told me that the most hotheaded, nervous cow in the herd is the one who is most protective of her calf.

Any mother, nervous or calm, will fight to protect her baby. That’s why on farms the human parents always warn their children to stay away from mama animals. But the fact that it’s always the most nervous, fearful mother who shows the most maternal aggression makes me think that maternal aggression is driven by fear, even when the animal is calm by nature. When mother animals think their babies are in danger, they feel fear, and their fear leads them to attack. That’s my conclusion.

This brings me to the fundamental question you have to ask yourself any time you’re trying to solve a problem with aggression: is the aggression coming from fear or dominance? That’s important, because punishment will make a fearful animal worse, whereas punishment may be necessary to curb assertive aggression.

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