Oliver Sacks fans will remember Temple Grandin as the autistic slaughterhouse designer in An Anthropologist on Mars. She has a particular affinity with animals and has used her talent for understanding them to help her design corrals, feedlots and slaughterhouses which are less stressful for the animals.
The subtitle of Animals in Translation is ‘Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior’. Grandin uses her insights as an autistic person to help explain how animals behave and in the process explores the nature of autism itself. That means the book is operating at the intersection of a whole range of different subjects — evolution, selective breeding, autism, animal behaviour, slaughterhouse design, stock handling, animal training — which all shed interesting light on each other. I didn’t come out of it thinking “Ah, now my perception of animals has been transformed!” but I did find it was full of interesting insights. For example, she says that it’s difficult to tell how much pain or distress is being suffered by prey animals (cows, sheep, goats); they try to disguise it, since a sickly animal is likely to be a target for a passing wolf. Predator animals, on the other hand, have no such tendency and will, if anything, exaggerate their pain. As you’ll know if you’ve ever stepped on a cat’s paw.
It’s good. One of those books where you keep reading bits out to people. And if you haven’t read any Oliver Sacks you should read those too.