Two new books illuminate animals' astonishing abilities as well as their needs
Dogs are so tuned in to us that they are the only animals who can follow our gaze to find food. Black cats are friendlier than other cats (studies have shown a correlation between fur color and behavior). Riding a horse may be 20 times more dangerous than riding a motorcycle. Yelling at cows scares them in a way that equally loud noises don't. And freaking pigs out at the slaughterhouse affects the quality of the meat - a practical incentive to treat them better.
"Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals," by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, is full of small fascinating facts like those, but the epiphanies and insights come in much larger sizes too.
For instance, so much of the common wisdom among lots of dog trainers has been based on a flawed notion of wolf dominance. "Our whole image of wolf packs and alphas is completely wrong," Grandin points out. "Instead, wolves live the way people do: In families made up of a mom, a dad, and their children." What she is saying feels pretty revolutionary. Unless you have a group of dogs in your care, you don't need to be "pack leader" for your golden retriever or poodle, just a sensible and in-control parent.
Grandin goes on to discuss measurable metabolic differences between aggressive and nonaggressive dogs, and which breeds exhibit the most wolf-like behaviors. (She says putting different purebreds in the same household could be playing with fire, since some breeds might simply not know how to read a threat like raised hackles from another dog, and might not be able to communicate submissive intent.) She tells us why making your dog wait at the front door is important - it's good for a dog to show "impulse control and emotional restraint," which helps him to learn to keep conflicts from escalating into rage. Grandin also introduces us to some incredible things: "anxiety wraps" and "full-body restraint" in the form of oat-filled boxes - innovative devices being used to help problems like anxiety and even aggression. Grandin says no one is really sure why these things work.
And dogs make up just one chapter.
The book, a sort of instructional manual on the core emotions that make animals - cats, cows, pigs, chickens, tigers even - tick, and how we can keep them happier and mentally healthier, provides an illuminated tour, using the latest research available.
Grandin and Johnson also collaborated on the blockbuster "Animals in Translation." That book, like this one, is written in the first person and from Grandin's point of view, a particularly effective choice. In it, Grandin explains why she, as an autistic person who "thinks in pictures," can see the world as we believe many animals do. Her unique perspective is like one of those fairy tales that reveal a magical kingdom lurking in a cranny of your kitchen. Except that the portal isn't your cupboard, it's your cat or dog.
And she makes you see because she's as straightforward as she is pragmatic. At one point she reports that some people don't realize that if you hold down a wild animal, "you stress the crap out of it."
Grandin merrily and politely takes on dog trainers, animal-welfare organizations, and ranchers by name, but without pretending to know what she doesn't. Sometimes she'll confess, "I don't know this and I don't think anyone else does, either" - a frankness that makes you trust her even more.
My bet is that most animal lovers will come away from this book making some practical adjustment in the daily life of the animal closest to them. And yet, ultimately, this book is much more than a simple primer. Species by species, insight by insight, it builds into something kind of momentous: the realization or confirmation (depending on your perspective) that animals possess very complex minds and that science is just beginning to provide tiny glimpses of this uncharted territory.
Meg Daley Olmert's "Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond," which focuses more narrowly on the "animals making us human" theme, is a nice companion volume to Grandin's.
Olmert weaves together the evolution of the bond between people and animals with the latest science on the biochemistry of the connection - "the hormonal basis of biophilia," our genetic leaning toward animals and nature, as the book says. It turns out to have a lot to do with that the amazing hormone oxytocin, which famously binds mothers and newborn babies. Oxytocin, which influences bonding and trust, is released by the bucket when we interact with animals (and it's mutual).
How do you fill a whole book with that? Well, from the fact that the majority of images the cave painters chose to depict are animals, to science that shows that patting an animal at 40 strokes a minute brings out the optimal antistress effect (and happens to be the natural rate that most of us pat our pets at), Olmert has a lot to talk about.
Vicki Constantine Croke is the author of "The Lady and the Panda." Her weekly TV show, "The Secret Life of Animals," airs Sunday nights on NECN.