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Temple Grandin: ‘I saw an opportunity to be a practical reformer’

‘I’m an extreme visual thinker. It seemed obvious to me to look at what the cattle were seeing.’


Story and photo by Rachel Kenley

LOGAN – When Temple Grandin first began working in the animal agriculture industry, she got down into loading chutes “to see what the cattle were seeing.”

People thought that was crazy, but four decades later, she is a best-selling author, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, designer of humane livestock handling facilities and one of the 100 most influential people in the world, according to Time magazine. Claire Danes played Grandin in the HBO movie about her life, titled simply Temple Grandin.

“She’s the Steve Jobs of animal science and livestock,” said Lyle McNeal, an animal science professor at USU, when he introduced her Wednesday night. Grandin spoke to a full house at Utah State University as part of an event sponsored by USU’s Disability Resource Center, Disability Law Center, Center for Persons With Disabilities, the College of Agriculture and the USU Charter Credit Union.

Throughout her career, Grandin used her high-functioning autism to help her understand animals. “I’m an extreme visual thinker,” Grandin said. “It seemed obvious to me to look at what the cattle were seeing.”

Because she was especially sensitive to sounds and distractions, Grandin could identify things in livestock handling facilities that would cause animals to be fearful. “Sometimes the most obvious is the least obvious,” Grandin said, using pictures to point out reflections, shadows, changes in flooring and dangling chains that could frighten and distress animals.

One of these most obvious things that needs to be eliminated is the attitude of animal handlers, she said. “I want to get rid of all the yelling and screaming!” she said emphatically. “The first thing we’ve got to do for low stress animal handling is get everyone to calm down.”

During her presentation, Grandin illustrated the improvements her innovations have made in livestock handling and harvesting procedures, including curved chutes, natural lighting, and avoiding the “flight zone.” She also spoke extensively about the work McDonald’s has done in auditing harvesting facilities. In 1996, Grandin said, only 30 percent of animal harvest facilities were stunning animals successfully the first time 95 percent of the time. McDonald’s began auditing facilities in 1999, and since then the facilities have improved to 94 percent compliance in 2002.

Grandin admits that the animal agriculture industry isn’t perfect. “People always ask me how I can still be in the industry when there are things going on that are wrong – especially back in the Seventies. But I stayed because there were a few people who did things right.” Grandin said she saw an opportunity in the agricultural industry to be a practical reformer.

She also stressed that agriculturists need to be better communicators. “One of the things we need to be doing is showing people what we do. The public is hungry to look at normal stuff. To us a loader scooping grain is boring, but to some 8-year-old kid, a grain scooper is pretty cool!”

In response to an audience question, Grandin gave counsel to attendees on how to effectively share agricultural’s key messages-including the use of the Internet, especially YouTube. Videos showing agricultural processes, Grandin said, can facilitate debate, but the industry shouldn’t be afraid of that. “I don’t take down dissent [in video comments], but discussion has to be civil. When you write back, never type directly on the web page. Type it somewhere else and transfer it the next day-you don’t want to respond in anger.”

Grandin demonstrated her level head in answering another question by an audience member: “How is animal agriculture different from slaughtering the cats and dogs we love so much?” She stated simply and calmly that she believes it is ethical to use animals for food. “But,” she said, “I feel very strongly that we’ve got to treat animals right. We have to give them a life worth living.”

NW