February 24, 2010

Autistic Professor Gives Animal Communication Talk

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Prof. Temple Grandin is the subject of an HBO film, an accomplished scientist, a renowned animal welfare advocate and a prominent autistic professor. But last night, in her last lecture as Cornell’s Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of ’56 Professor, she focused on the causes and solutions to animal behavioral problems.

“A calm animal is easier to handle, and when they get uncalm, it’s usually because they’re getting scared,” she said. “If you get an animal scared, it’s going to take half an hour to get it to calm down.”

To keep an animal calm, one must understand the causes behind animal fears and the way animals perceive the world. Grandin emphasized that animals have a highly sensory-based experience of their surroundings. They remember things based on sights, sounds, smells, and touch.

“[If] you want to understand an animal, you’ve got to get away from language,” Grandin said.

In explaining the way animals perceive the world, Grandin drew upon her own experiences as an autistic person and a “visual thinker.” Grandin thinks in pictures, not with language, she said. This different type of thinking — which, she said, is “literally movies in your head” — enabled her to pick up on details critical to understanding animal behavior that are often overlooked by other researchers.

“The normal human mind ignores the details where the autistic mind gets all the details,” Grandin said. “Animals notice details.”

Often, these details influence animal behaviors and fears. Animal fears are very specific, Grandin said.

“An animal will often make an association with a sound or something right when the bad thing happened,” she said.

Objects with a shape or color similar to the object that caused the fear will trigger fear memory. These fear memories, though they can be closed, are never fully erased, Grandin said. Therefore, it is especially important that animals have good experiences with new things. Grandin suggested habituating animals slowly to new things.

It is important to acknowledge that animals have emotions, Grandin said. The fear emotion enabled animals to survive in the wild. The flip-side of the fear emotion is “seeking behavior,” which encourages animals to approach new situations. As Grandin explained, seeking behavior also played a role in survival.

“[Without the seeking behavior], the animal would sit under a bush and starve to death and not do anything,” Grandin said.

While the sudden introduction of new things may trigger the fear emotion, animals are generally attracted to novelty when allowed to approach and explore on their own, Grandin said.

Another core animal emotion underlying much animal misbehavior is panic. As Grandin explained, this emotion often manifests itself as separation anxiety. Separation anxety can often explain misbehavior in animals, Grandin said.

“The reason why [your dog] eats up the remote or your shoe or your favorite CD is because that’s the one you touched,” Grandin said. “It’s got a whole lot of your scent on it.”

Grandin emphasized that much animal anxiety and fear — and, consequently, much animal misbehavior — can be alleviated with social interaction. Animals reared alone, for example, are often more violent and aggressive because they do not know how to interact with others.

“I’m really concerend that animals aren’t getting enough socialization with humans or other animals,” Grandin said.

In addition to socialization, animal anxiety and fear can be alleviated through careful maintenance of facilities and equipment and through good animal handling practices. As Grandin explained, the ultimate goal for her work is the more ethical treatment of animals.

“I want you to use behavior, not force,” she said.

Original Author: Emily Greenberg