Excerpt: 'Animals in Translation'

In a plant, the environment means the physical environment, and it also means the way the employees handle the animals. If the animal handling is bad, no amount of top-notch, well-maintained equipment is going to work.

The center-track restraining system I designed, which has been installed in half of all the plants in North America, works only when you have good animal handling. My restraining system is a conveyor belt that goes under the animal's chest and belly. The animals straddle it lengthwise the same way they would straddle a sawhorse.

The reason plants have adopted my design is that animals are much more willing to walk onto it than they are the old V-shaped restraining systems, so it's a lot more efficient. That was the only thing wrong with the old restraining systems: the animals didn't like walking onto them. The V-restrainers work fine, and they don't hurt the animals, but they squeeze the animal's feet together, and animals don't like to walk into a space where they feel like there isn't enough space for their feet. My design innovation wasn't technological, it was behavioral. It works better because it respects the animal's behavior.

But the plants don't seem to realize that, so naturally they also don't realize that if they have poor handling of their animals my equipment won't work. They focus on the equipment.

The other thing I like about behaviorists is that a lot of the time they're natural-born optimists. In the beginning, behaviorists thought the laws of learning were simple and universal, and all creatures followed them. That's why B. F. Skinner thought laboratory rats were the only animals anybody needed to look at, because all animals and people learned the same way.

Dr. Skinner's whole concept of learning was associationist, which meant that positive associations (or rewards) increased behavior, and negative associations (or punishment) decreased behavior. If you wanted to teach a really complex behavior, all you had to do was break it down into its component parts and teach each little, tiny step separately, giving rewards along the way. That was called task analysis, and it was a huge help not only for animal training (though animal trainers had always done this to some extent), but also for anybody trying to teach children or adults with disabilities. I've seen behavioral books for parents that take all the different things a child or adult has to do during the day, like get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, and so on, and break each activity down into its component parts. A supposedly simple thing like getting your clothes on in the morning might involve twenty or thirty different steps or more, and a task analysis lists each one, and you teach each one separately.

Doing a task analysis isn't as easy as it sounds, because nonhandicapped people aren't really aware of the very small, separate movements that go into an action like tying your shoe or buttoning your shirt. Typical kids pick these things up pretty easily, so parents don't have to be especially skilled to teach them how to put their clothes on or tie their shoes. If you've ever tried to teach shirt buttoning to a person who has absolutely no clue how to do it, you soon realize that you don't really know how to do it, either -- not in the sense of knowing the sequence of tiny, separate motions that go into successfully buttoning a button. You just do it.

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