Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals

by Dr. Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY, 2009
ISBN 978-0-15101489-7

(In United Kingdom, book title is "Making Animals Happy" and ISBN is: 978-0-7475-9714-8)

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An Excerpt from Chapter 8: Wildlife

Good fieldwork in Animal Behavior research is observational science: the importance of hands on learning for careers in design, ethology, engineering, and ecology.

I am worried about whether we will always have a Jane Goodall. Jane Goodall wasn’t a trained ethologist. She went to secretarial school and then saved up money to visit a friend in Kenya. While she was there, she met Dr. Louis Leakey, the famous anthropologist, who hired her to be a secretary in his museum and eventually set her up to study the chimpanzees at Lake Tanganyika. Dr. Leakey also sponsored Dian Fossey to study mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Dian Fossey’s degree wasn’t in ethology, either. She had a degree in occupational therapy.

Jane Goodall eventually did get a PhD in ethology, but not until after she made two major discoveries about chimpanzees: She discovered that they ate meat and used tools, at a time when scientists believed that the fundamental distinction between humans and animals was that humans used tools and animals didn’t. When Jane Goodall reported that she had seen chimpanzees using twigs to fish for termites in termite nests, Dr. Leakey sent her a cable that said, “Now we must redefine ‘tool,’ redefine ‘man,’ or accept chimpanzees as humans.” She also saw the chimps eating meat, another thing everyone knew chimpanzees never did.

Jane Goodall went in the back door to become an ethologist. That’s something I’ve thought about a lot, because people with autism usually have to go in the back door. We have a lot of trouble following the normal paths. We don’t do very well in interviews, which are a big problem for us, and a lot of autistic people also have extremely “uneven” academic skills. An autistic person can test at the bottom of the IQ range on one subscale and at the very top on another. For example, I had great difficulty with algebra because there’s no way to visualize it.

I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing if there weren’t any back doors. When I was working for Arizona Farmer-Ranchman magazine I almost lost my job after the magazine was sold and a new boss came in who thought I was weird. The nice graphics lady, Susan, saved me. Susan told me, “He’s going to fire you. We need to make a portfolio of your work.” We got all of my articles together and gave them to Jim, and instead of firing me he gave me a raise. That’s a case of going in the back door, not to get a job but to hold on to a job. I didn’t have the social skills to detect that my conversation had made a bad impression on Jim. Susan told me I had to sell myself to my new boss by showing him the high quality of my work.

My dissertation adviser at the University of Illinois, Stan Curtis, held open the back door for me, too. My problem was math. At Arizona State, where I got my master’s degree, I got through my stats course with a lot of help from my tutor, another graduate student named Raquel. Raquel’s mother owned a bar in downtown Phoenix on skid row, and Raquel said my payment would be for me to repair the rotted-out floor in the bar. The floor had decayed because the beer drain filled a fetid swamp underneath the floor. It was worth it, because I ended up with a C in the class and I got my master’s degree.

I wasn’t as lucky at the University of Illinois, where I went for my doctorate. The statistics class they required for the degree was terrible. I had a tutor there, too, who had to teach me everything from the bottom up. Instead of teaching me the formula for chi-square tests first and then giving examples, the way my professor did, she gave me examples of specific experiments that would use chi-square and then give me the chi-square formula. I made up a book with frilly worked-out examples of experiments I would be likely to do as an animal science researcher.

I still couldn’t pass the tests in class, even though I knew how to use statistics for individual experiments, so my tutor showed the department all my work. Dr. Curtis knew I had passed my course at Arizona State with a C, and he could see that I knew what tests to run in different kinds of experiments. Also, I was doing well in all my other classes. So he did not make me take statistics again, and I got my PhD.

There are probably a lot of people who can flub interviews and classroom tests but still be good fieldworkers. Some of the best fieldworkers I know have Asperger’s syndrome or they are dyslexic. But I think it’s getting harder to do things without going through the proper channels. How many people would even try to be Jane Goodall today? Jane Goodall was a superb fieldworker who lived with animals, observed them closely, and understood them. She did her work in the field, not behind a computer making mathematical models of chimpanzee populations.

But good fieldworkers sometimes come through more conventional academic channels. Jill Pruetz, the researcher who discovered that chimpanzees use weapons to hunt prey, is a professor of anthropology at Iowa State University. She didn’t go to secretarial school. Dr. Pruetz has spent seven years living in a twenty-three-square-mile area in Senegal so she can study the savanna chimpanzees that live there. She spends thirteen to fifteen hours in the field, six days a week. The chimps’ range is so big that she has to get to the chimps before they wake up and then follow them all day long until they go to sleep at night. Otherwise, she might not be able to find them again. At night she stays in a Fongoli village with thirty villagers and one latrine. She’s been ill with malaria seven times. She spent four years just habituating the chimpanzees to her presence before she could study them. Then she spent three summers observing their lives. She discovered that some of the chimpanzees make spears out of tree branches and use them to spear bush babies inside hollow trees. Bush babies are small furry animals. The chimpanzee breaks a branch off the tree, strips off the leaves, and sharpens one end to a point with its teeth. Then it stabs the spear violently inside the hollowed trunk to kill any bush baby that might be inside. This discovery is so revolutionary that it has caused a big controversy in the field of primate research, because it is the first documentation of an animal using a tool as a weapon for hunting.

Too Much Abstraction in Animal Behavior and Environmental Research

Dr. Pruetz is one of the few young professors doing intensive fieldwork in animal behavior. Animal research is getting more and more what I call “abstractified.” Instead of people studying the real animals in their natural habitats, researchers use fancy statistical software to construct statistical models, and then they study the models. One of the reasons this has occurred is the development of new mathematical tools. Many academic scientists think that unless you use sophisticated mathematics, your study lacks scientific rigor. If you look at one of the main textbooks on wildlife management, Wildlife Ecology, Conservation and Management, second edition, by Anthony R. E. Sinclair, John M. Fryxell, and Graeme Caughley, practically every page is about mathematical modeling: geometric population growth, exponential models, response curves of predators at different prey densities, the Picker logistic model, the theta-logistic model, and so on. You can’t even read the formulas in the book unless you know calculus.

It’s the same in the food industry. Mathematical models and statistics are good things, but you have to know their limitations. I can remember sitting through tons and tons of presentations on mathematical models at agricultural engineering conferences in the l980s, and never once did anyone give a paper where they had taken all their mathematical formulas and actually verified them in the field. I’d raise my hand and go, “Does it work? Did you ever try this out in the feedlot?” No, they hadn’t.

I remember one time some university researchers constructed a scale model made out of plywood to test a water-jet system they had designed to blast the muck out of the alleyways between the dairy cattle pens. They put real cow dung inside the model and tried to flush it out. The problem was that cow poop has pieces of straw in it, and when you put cow poop inside a small plywood model, those little pieces of straw are proportionately the size of fireplace logs in a real alleyway. The researchers didn’t think about the fact that the water is going to flow differently in a little six- inch alley with straw inside from the way it does in the real world. The model didn’t scale up; it didn’t behave the same way in reality as it did in the model. That’s abstractification.

Without fieldwork, no one would have discovered that chimpanzees use weapons because no chimpanzee in captivity is going to need to make a weapon in order to kill live prey and eat it. I doubt anyone would have seen chimpanzees using any kind of tool.

Thanks to fieldworkers we also know much more about dolphins and whales than we did years ago. Researchers have learned that dolphins live in large, complex social groups in which individual dolphins form and switch alliances with other dolphins. Fieldworkers have even observed “alliances of alliances,’ where one group of allies forms an alliance with another group of allies. These social groupings may be similar to the cliques people form. Dolphins and whales are multicultural, too. Different groups have different dialects and feeding and play behaviors.

Dolphin play is an especially interesting area where good observational research is being done. There have been a lot of reports that dolphins intentionally blow bubble rings, which are large circles of water similar to smoke rings, to create their own toys. People assumed that dolphins blow bubble rings on purpose partly because their breathing is under full voluntary control. Dolphins and whales are the only mammals like this; breathing is automatic in all land mammals. From what people could see of the bubble rings, it looked like it probably takes practice to blow a good one, the same way it takes practice to blow a good smoke ring.

Researchers studied dolphins that made six different kinds of bubble rings and had at least three different ways of playing with them. One thing the dolphins liked to do was smash the bubble rings. Other times they would produce a vortex around the ring that flipped it 90 or 180 degrees, or they would aim a second bubble ring at the first ring, which sometimes caused a third ring to form. The researchers also reported that a baby dolphin living separately from the four juveniles in the study watched them when they made bubble rings, and then practiced making its own bubble rings.

I think all researchers should do fieldwork, or else work closely with a collaborator who does. Even though I’m not good at math in the abstract, I am good at troubleshooting statistics when something doesn’t come out right in a study because I have lots of experience with the real animals. I’ve had graduate students who get nothing out of their statistics, so I look at the data and say, “Let’s put this variable against that variable and see what happens.’ I do creative sorting. I see things in the numbers that other people don’t because I’m not looking at numbers. I’m looking at animals and visualizing them when I sort variables on a spreadsheet. I never get away from the animals.

Good fieldwork is observational science. Some people think if you don’t have a control group it’s not science. But there’s a lot of research where there’s no way to create a control group. I used to argue with my adviser about this at the University of Illinois. What is astronomy? It is observation. You look at things. For a lot of research you have to start with observation before you can create a lab experiment or do a statistical analysis. A good example: Epidemiology always starts with observation. People notice that smokers seem to get more lung cancer than nonsmokers, and then an epidemiologist uses scientific data collection and statistical tests to find out if there is a connection between smoking and lung cancer. Research on animal behavior should start with observation as often as possible. The Japanese researcher Tetsuro Matsuzawa is the only primatologist I know of who does both fieldwork and lab research. He has been in the news a lot for his studies of chimpanzees beating humans in a memory task. In the experiment the chimpanzees and humans have to remember the position of a sequence of nine numbers on a computer screen. The chimpanzees always beat the humans. This is another revolutionary finding.

Scientists have been doing laboratory studies on chimpanzees for years, but those studies took it for granted that chimpanzees had “worse” cognitive capacities than humans. I don’t know of anyone who has done an experiment to find out whether chimpanzees might have cognitive capacities that are better than humans’ cognitive capacities. I think a big part of the reason no one ever asked that question is that the researchers were all lab researchers. They didn’t study chimpanzees living in their native habitat where they might look smarter than they do living in a pen.7’ Since Dr. Matsuzawa was studying chimpanzees in the field, he noticed that chimpanzees can do a lot of impressive things. One was that they can tell the difference between two hundred different kinds of plants in the jungle. Dr. Matsuzawa says chimpanzees have a botanist’s memory for plants. They remember everything: the individual plants, the time of year they grow, their locations, and their uses. No one working with chimpanzees in a lab setting is going to notice that. Fieldwork helps animal scientists ask the right questions.

Another researcher, Nicola Clayton, who studies birds, also combines lab research with observation of bird behavior outside the lab. She is a biologist who started out researching the hippocampus in Eurasian jays and other birds that hide their food. Dr. Clayton found that the more food the birds hid, the bigger their hippocampus became. Traditionally, that’s where lab research would stop, with the researcher just looking at an isolated part of the animal’s brain or body. But Dr. Clayton paid attention to what birds did in the wild, too. When she moved to the University of California—Davis, she noticed that western scrub jays were stealing pieces of people’s food, hiding them, and then coming back later, not to eat the food but to move it to a new hiding place. Why would they do this? She wanted to know.

That was the jumping-off point for her lab research. She set up an experiment where she put scrub jays in a kind of “suite” with three miniature rooms, like a hotel suite. The birds slept in the center room. Then the next day the researchers moved them to one of the adjoining rooms. One room had lots of food; the room on the other side had nothing to eat. After a few days, the birds could choose which room they wanted to go into, and Dr. Clayton put food in the center room. When the birds found the food in the center room, they took it into the no-food room and hid it in an ice cube tray filled with sand that Dr. Clayton had put there. Dr. Clayton says this is evidence that the birds were planning ahead for the next time the experimenters put them inside the no-food room.

That is a major discovery. The only animal that we know for sure plans ahead is humans. There’ve been a few studies saying that some primates can do it, but all of those animals were given lots of chances to learn to plan ahead, so they might be showing the effects of training, not of their own planning.

In some of her other research, Dr. Clayton found that jays steal each other’s food, and that they remember where they’ve hidden food that decays quickly, such as worms, versus where they’ve hidden seeds and nuts. Dr. Clayton interprets this to mean that birds have episodic memory, which is memory for particular events or episodes in the past. That is another huge finding that wouldn’t have come about if the researcher hadn’t observed the way jays acted in the wild.

Recently, Dr. Clayton has been working with a learning theorist at Cambridge named Anthony Dickinson. Dr. Dickinson says that when he first heard Dr. Clayton say birds had episodic memory, “it was an outrageous statement.” I do not think the statement that birds have episodic memory is outrageous. I think it is right. In Animals in Translation, I wrote about animals having autistic savant skills. Several scientists have challenged us and do not believe it. They say that it can’t be true because people with autism are damaged and animals are normal.

This is irrelevant. The memory feats of food-caching animals that can remember the location of hundreds of food stores are highly similar to the ability of some people with autism to memorize every street in a city. My theory is that savant-type skills occur when memories are sensory-based instead of language- based. Language leads to abstractification and loss of detail. Animals naturally lack language and autistic people have language problems because of a disorder, but in autistic people and animals the cause of sensory-based memory is the same: thinking and remembering in pictures instead of words. It is definitely possible to have episodic memory in pictures instead of words. I have many visual memories of specific events. Need for Hands-on Learning in Engineering, Animal Behavior, and Research

Why do we have a serious shortage of people going into fieldwork? I think it might go back to childhood, with children staying indoors and playing virtual basketball instead of going outside to shoot hoops. Richard Louv, who wrote the book Last Child in the Woods, says kids have “nature-deficit disorder.’ He talks about one boy who said he preferred to play inside because that’s where the electrical outlets are. Today many children have little time for unstructured play outdoors where they can explore and get interested in the natural world. Childhood interests in animals or plants are often the reason a person goes into a career that involves fieldwork. Unstructured outdoor play also teaches valuable problem-solving skills.

I see all kinds of problems with college students who have never had an art class or built anything themselves. This lack of hands-on experience really hurts their understanding of how different things relate to each other in the physical world. My design students, especially the ones who never learned to use a compass or draw by hand, can’t make proper drawings. I have been teaching my livestock-handling-facility design class for eighteen years. Since around 2000, the percentage of students having difficulty with the drawings has increased. I think this is due to lack of hands-on experience with drawing in grade school. Last semester I told my students to buy a compass to draw circles with. One girl came up to me after class and said, “Dr. Grandin, I bought a compass and I’m having trouble with my homework.” She couldn’t figure out how to draw different sizes of circles. When I looked at what she was doing, I found out she had bought a Boy Scout compass and was tracing a circle around its circumference. It’s not just students, either. I review drawings from plants around the world and I find the same errors in plans done by draftsmen. Older draftsmen who learned to draw by hand and then switched to the computer do fine. But younger ones who learned to make scale drawings on the computer make basic mistakes like not knowing where the center of a circle is.

The problem is that younger draftsmen have never used a compass to draw a circle and have never built anything with their hands. They do not see their mistakes on a computer- drawn circle because they have never felt where the center of the circle is by sticking the point of a compass in the center. Touch helps the eye to perceive accurately. Oliver Sacks describes a person who was blind and regained vision as an adult. To understand the meaning of things he saw with his eyes, he had to touch the objects he was looking at. I believe that there is something fundamental about the nervous system that prevents the computer mouse from being connected to the brain the same way touch is. Touching and feeling objects are essential for accurate perception.

The field of engineering is becoming overly abstract, too. Colleges and universities are teaching more engineering science and less engineering design. It used to be that anyone graduating with a degree in engineering knew how to design a combustion engine. Today the majority of engineering students can’t do it. An article that ran in Technology Review over twenty years ago said that students “may have studied the strengths and properties of various materials or the way gases flow and react in turbines, but they have not necessarily learned how the parts of an engine are designed, manufactured, and assembled — or even how the components workT.” Fortunately there are some innovative engineering programs where first-year students have the opportunity to design and test a prototype of a new product. Students who participate in these hands-on activities are less likely to drop out of the program.

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