Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ 

Animals Make Us Human, by Temple Grandin.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2009), 352 pages.

Temple Grandin believes her autism gives her a unique perspective on the ways animals perceive and experience the world.  With her book  Animals Make Us Human (as well as her previous book  Animals in Translation) she makes a very good case for this claim.  The book is filled with specific examples about animal behavior in zoos, slaughterhouses, and factory farms, as well as the ways in which the caretakers (or killers) of these animals can make life less stressful for them.  She is so methodical and precise in her descriptions that she has me convinced she is right.  Making the changes she suggests would spare the animals a great deal of pain and fear.

It is difficult, however, to get past the fact that all of her work on behalf of the animals she says she loves is to help kill them more efficiently.  She says her work is helping them die a less painful, traumatic death… But isn’t that sort of like an SS officer saying he has found a less painful way to kill concentration camp prisoners?  If her book succeeds in convincing people of her point, and all the animal prisons and death houses are made a bit less terrible as a result, what happens?  We get to go to the zoo with a clear conscience and eat our hot dogs without guilt, secure in the knowledge that we are not complicit in any suffering—that the animals we eat and the animals locked up to entertain us are happy and well.  But this, of course, is a lie.

Grandin has many interesting and insightful things to say and I wish I could review her book based solely on the writing, but I can’t.  The dissonance between what she is saying (she is trying to help animals) and the actual effect of her actions (animals get killed ever more efficiently) is too disorienting and illogical, and makes the book feel a bit schizophrenic.  I have to recommend that nobody read it.  Pick up a copy of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s excellent book on farm animals, The Pig Who Sang to the Moon, instead.

In 1990 I developed a conveyorized handling system for cattle in slaughter plants called the center-track restrainer that is much more humane for the cows than the old system.  Everyplace I was hired to install it, I also trained the workers in how to handle the cattle gently.  One of the biggest frustrations in my career has been that I’d do an installation at a plant and train the workers and get the handling real super-good, then I’d come back a year later and find they’d reverted to using the electric prod and screaming at the cattle.  This is true everywhere—ranches, feedlots, slaughterhouses.  People don’t maintain the improvements they make.  Often they do not realize that they have gradually reverted to their old bad ways.

Reviewed by Cindy Blackett