Excerpt: 'Animals in Translation'

That's when I noticed that simple things, like shadows or chains hanging down, made the animals balk.

The people at the feed yards thought my whole project was ridiculous. They couldn't imagine why I'd get in there and try to see what the cattle were seeing. Now I realize that in my own way I was being just as anthropomorphic as those people who gave the lion the pillow. Since I was a visual thinker I assumed cows were, too. The difference was I happened to be right.

When you're trying to understand how the environment is affecting an animal's behavior, you have to look at what the animal is seeing. I remember one time I went to a plant where they had a yellow metal ladder on a wall inside a building. The cattle had to go by it when they walked through a narrow alley. Those cattle just would not walk by that ladder. They'd plant their feet on the ground and refuse to move. Finally one of the yard people figured out the problem. He painted the ladder gray, and everything was fine. I work with management and with the employees down on the floor or in the yard, and I've found that a lot of times the guys in the yard are better at understanding animals than management.

If a cow sees a yellow raincoat flapping on a fence, she's in a panic. But if you aren't a visual thinker, it can be hard to even notice that yellow raincoat flapping on the fence. It doesn't jump out at normal people the way it does at me or at a cow.

Since I didn't realize other people thought in words instead of pictures, for a long time I could never figure out why so many animal handlers made such obvious, elementary mistakes. Not all of them do; I've met lots of good animal handlers in the meatpacking industry. But I was always surprised when I found an animal professional doing something that was just plain dumb. Why couldn't they see what they were doing wrong?

I remember one situation in particular, where the owner of a cattle-handling facility hired me as a last resort before they tore the whole place down and built it back up from the ground. He called me because his cattle wouldn't walk inside the narrow passage leading to the squeeze chute.

The problem wasn't that the cattle were afraid of getting their shots. Most cattle don't even know they're going to be getting shots inside the chute. Besides, a lot of animals barely feel their shots anyway. New dog owners are always surprised by this. They'll watch their dog cower and cringe as the vet examines him, then not blink an eye when he sticks him with a needle. Some vets say that's the difference between a dog, who isn't anticipating pain, and a person, who is. Thinking about a shot makes it worse.

The problem at the cattle-handling facility had to be something they were doing wrong, since those cattle were perfectly fine before they got there. But the owner couldn't figure it out. He needed to fix the situation fast, too, because skipping vaccinations isn't an option. Cattle aren't like children, who get vaccinated against a lot of diseases like polio or whooping cough that are pretty hard to catch nowadays. Cattle are extremely susceptible to bovine viral diarrhea and to respiratory diseases like pneumonia. If they don't get their shots, infectious disease will sweep through the herd and kill 10 percent of the animals. So you have to vaccinate, and in order to vaccinate you have to have your cattle walk into the squeeze chute. These cattle wouldn't do it, and the owner was starting to panic.

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