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Book Review: Animals in Translation

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9/10 stars

While the book isn't horse specific, it does focus a lot on general animal behavior, emotions and their welfare. From cows and pigs to horses to birds, cats, dogs, whales and monkeys, many species are covered, so it gives the reader a well-rounded perspective of animal behavior. There are plenty of anecdotes from zoos, farms, science labs and animal owners. While the book does spend time comparing autism to animal behavior, I don't feel this detracts from the subject and readers will still find the comparison interesting.

What I really liked is that the book makes it clear that good welfare isn't just about having enough food, water and healthcare, but also extends to emotional wellbeing and even proper breeding. An animal that is unable to act naturally or lives in distress due to its environment or physical/mental disabilities is not good husbandry. These animals still suffer even if they have access to the basics. Ending their lives should also not expose them to emotional distress either. Grandin proves that poor end of life husbandry costs more money than if it was just done ethically in the first place. This is a great message for those people who only concern themselves with the bottom dollar and could care less about ethical animal care.

It was interesting to learn that Grandin does a lot of auditing for slaughter houses and consultations for private owners. To her, it doesn't matter that an animal might be going to slaughter or kept as a breeding animal or home pet. All animals have a right to play, socialize and behave in natural ways. Breeders also have a responsibility to ensure animals aren't bred in a way that causes them pain and suffering during their life time. Too often these things are overlooked for the sake of money, efficiency or human status symbols.

She does talk a lot about breeding, which makes this a very appropriate book for those who raise and sell animals. There is a lot of discussion on how poor breeding, especially when aiming for single traits, can impact temperament and health. We always breed them to be faster, hairier, taller, smaller, certain colors, you name it. Yet, Grandin provides direct scientific and anecdotal evidence on various breeds of animals where this has come to create health and emotional problems within that breed. The rapist roosters will be a wake-up chapter for many people. These were roosters bred to be "big" breasted for more meat. They ended up losing appropriate courtship behaviors and this caused animal suffering and human financial problems. The main take away from breeding was that aiming for single traits is directly linked to problems, from fear to aggression to general health issues.

Other interesting points: she also mentioned that albino colored animals (pink skinned whites) tend to have more behavioral and fear problems than (black skinned light colors). With the rise in popularity of double cream-colored horses, I think this is something for people to think about and watch for.

There are a couple of things I think could have been done better in the book.

Primary emotional systems: In her other book, Animals make us human, she discussed more about Panskepp's emotional systems. I liked this because his research is well known and peer reviewed, and for the layperson, not difficult to understand. Panskepp’s emotions are even mapped to areas of the brain, so there is no arguing their existence. But in Animals in Translation, Grandin used a whole other set of emotional systems from other researchers. There were no references to these researchers or books, so I couldn’t find out more about their data. These emotions were simply introduced as researcher identified Primal and Social emotions. If you can understand Panksepp, you can kind of line them up, but I would have liked to have been able to study them. Or just stick to Panksepp.

Dominance: The second part I wasn't keen on was the constant references to dominance. There is a lot of debate around dominance: check out the 4-piece article I wrote that discussed why dominance theory could cause problems in training. My article was backed up by many references to scientific study. While Grandin strongly advocated positive reinforcement, she still felt that dominance played a role in training certain species like dogs and pigs. Dominance is generally incompatible with positive reinforcement training. So, it was a bit confusing that she advocated both. As an experienced trainer I could wade through what she was saying, but to the lay person, this might just result in people continuing to use overly aggressive traditional and ineffective techniques; readers might only see what they want to see..."use dominance" rather than her stance on positive reinforcement.

Ultimately, I only dropped one star for those two issues as they were minor. I do think that Animals in Translation was an informative read and that Temple's stories were fascinating. Anyone who is interested in animal training will still enjoy the material and get good value from it. This is a book for your library!

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