Review: Animals Make Us Human

Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

I’m fond of dogs. (There’s a Westie in my closet as I’m writing this; Charlemagne is nesting in my boots, the little adorable freak.) I’m forever fascinated by the relationship humans and dogs have. Dogs, for instance, instinctively know that when a human points to something, she wants you to look at it—but they have little to no pointing behaviors and, of course, no hands. I’m forever looking for a good book that explores our unique connection. After seeing many positive reviews for Animals Make Us Human, I confidently added it to to the reading list hoping to find some insight into how a dog thinks. While I did get that, as well as a interesting perspective into humane slaughter practices, it was poorly executed.

Animals Make Us Human, as written by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, explores the emotions of animals and how to create the best life for them. According to Grandin, animals experience emotions that can be categorized into seven main emotions—SEEKING, RAGE, PANIC, FEAR, LUST, and PLAY. In order to create the best life for all animals, Grandin advises minimizing experiences and environments that activate RAGE, PANIC, or FEAR, and enriching animals’ lives with SEEKING and PLAY. Grandin also discusses the humane slaughter practices that she advocates for.

There’s a lot of good information in Animals Make Us Human; Grandin rejects the idea of packs as a natural wolf social hierarchy and instead talks about wolves functioning mainly as family units, like humans. (Hence, of course, why dogs and humans get along.) While I don’t completely agree with the idea of dogs as stunted wolf cubs, Grandin backs up her arguments well. Grandin only lingers briefly on domesticated pets and, as soon as she can, leaps to her chosen topic of livestock. Grandin describes a moment where, watching cattle walk to their death in a system she designed, she began to cry—until she realized that almost all of these cattle wouldn’t exist with human interference or, for the most part, even survive in the wild. She treats human consumption of other animals as a forgone conclusion and instead focuses on ways to enrich their lives and, briefly, make their slaughter as painless as possible. Grandin has clearly done her research; there’s twenty pages of citations in the back, and the book also draws on Grandin’s experiences as a consultant to several livestock companies. (She’s also worked with fast food companies to target livestock suppliers with poor practices; she says Wendy’s is one of the best when it comes to fast food companies’ indirect relationship with livestock.)

But the structure and writing are both laughably poor. While each chapter takes a specific topic—dogs or zoo animals, for instance—it bounces around from point to point without any real organization within each chapter. It feels like a collection of disjointed notes loosely connected by the seven animal emotions. I really wish Grandin had used the introduction or taken an extra chapter to discuss her thoughts on why people with autism (like herself) or Asperger’s are able to more easily connect with animals; the idea that such people can’t pick up on facial expressions in the same way that, say, a horse or a cat can’t is quite interesting. But these thoughts are sort of scattered throughout—it’s not even structured like a proper argument or academic paper. In fact, it’s not even written academically. It takes a lot of it for me to notice, but much of Animals Make Us Human is written in passive voice and could be tightened up to place more focus on the information (since they’re not even trying with the structure). The language is also childish instead of academic—Grandin and Johnson render the word “shit” as “s***”, call urinating and defecating “peeing” and “pooping”, and, at one point, call some laborers’ particular skill in one of Grandin’s designs “real super-good”. Between two writers and an editor, I’m downright shocked at the writing quality, as well as the structure.

Bottom line: While Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson’s Animals Make Us Human is full of interesting information on enriching animals’ lives by minimizing negative emotions and maximizing positive emotions (a deceptively simple concept, as animals can’t explicitly tell us what they fear or like), the disjointed and vague structure as well as the laughably poor writing really cripple it. A miss.

I rented this book from the public brary.

4 thoughts on “Review: Animals Make Us Human

  1. Aw, it’s too bad about the writing and structure. I’ve become interested in Grandin’s ideas and work after reading about them in one of Oliver Sacks’ books, so I was hoping you’d tell us this was good.

  2. I am so embarrassed that I’d never heard of Temple Grandin until the Golden Globes. I am such a dummy! I had heard of the hug machine but not Temple Grandin’s name. Is it terrible that I’m going to see the Claire Danes film but not read this book? :p

  3. Glad to know this one maybe isn’t worth picking up. I don’t read enough nonfiction to put up with such irritating aspects as poor organization and iffy writing. I had thought this book sounded interesting, but…sounds like maybe it’s not for me.

  4. I’ve often said that my writing standards on audio are much lower than in print, and this makes me glad I listened to this instead of reading it because the writing didn’t bother me! I thought the information itself was interesting and understandable enough, which is all I look for in audio nonfiction. I don’t remember thinking it was particularly well written, but on audio I didn’t really notice the problems that you point out. I did notice the peeing and pooping thing, which struck me as silly but not annoying.

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