Thursday, December 9, 2010

how to understand a crazy cat

My cat is crazy. She has a very strong penchant for being on things (backpacks, blankets, bathmats), so much so that one of her many nicknames is "On-Things," as in "Good morning, On-Things!" She loves nothing more than to stare at the wall for hours on end, mesmerized. And sometimes, out of nowhere, she will caper around and climb up an unsuspecting leg -- "Ha-HA!" and then pretend like nothing happened at all.

My cat is crazy. At least, that's what I thought until I read Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation.

You might recognize Temple Grandin's name from the TV-movie named after her that won an Emmy this past year. She is a woman with autism who, due to her unusual affinity and connection with animals, has designed humane slaughterhouses and factory farms, and has written several books about the relationships that humans develop with animals.

In Animals in Translation, Grandin uses her understanding of neurology, autism, and animal behavior to describe exactly why animals behave as they do. Balking at a yellow raincoat hanging on a fence? Extreme contrast in an animal's environment can be upsetting. Somehow knowing that you're coming home and waiting at the door when you walk in? Maybe your pet heard you breathing as you pulled up into the driveway. Breaking out of an invisible fence even while knowing he'll get a shock? Maybe your dog values freedom enough to deal with a quick sting of pain.

Grandin dedicates chapters to aggression, perception, feelings, pain, and "how animals think." Throughout, she uses neurological research and her own understanding of autism to explain how the experiences of autistic people and animals are interrelated. Her eventual conclusion is that autistic people can act as a bridge between animals and people without autism, simply because their experiences have aspects in common with both being human and being animal. High degrees of perception and fascination with repetition are only two of the way that Grandin points out can link autistic people with animals.

I really don't feel as if I can do the book justice just by writing about it. It's a completely fascinating read, and Grandin's unique, straightforward writing style is just great. Read it. Read it now. Buy it as a gift for anyone who 1) loves animals 2) loves ethics 3) loves neurology/brain research 4) is interested in autism 5) just needs a holiday gift. We've got copies of Animals in Translation, and we're also stocked up on Grandin's other books -- just ask us at the front desk, at InfoSmith, or around the store.

(And by the way, my cat's not crazy. When she stares for hours at the wall, she's probably perceiving tiny changes in lighting that I can't see. When she earns the nickname "On-Things," she's probably just enjoying the unique feelings of new materials on her fur and skin. And when she pounces and pretends like she didn't, she could be experiencing conflict between her desire for alpha status and her knowledge that, in reality, I am the alpha.)

(Also, the very best line in the entire book -- the one that made me laugh out loud on the T -- is "Assistant was carrying cat down hall when cat exploded." If you want to know what THAT'S about...I suppose you'll just have to read the book, won't you?)

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