Temple Grandin on Autism, Animals & Advocacy

RW Photo Temple with Cow

Fellow cattle yard workers shook their heads when Temple Grandin crawled through slaughterhouses to get a sense of what cattle were experiencing, but her insights provided an expanded understanding of animal behavior and influenced a more humane handling of livestock. Her success didn’t come without fights on different fronts. Grandin, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2, describes herself as visual thinker, similar to how Google Images works. She entered the cowboy world in the 1970s, when sexism in the workplace was at its peak. Grandin earned her Ph.D. in animal science in 1989 and is an author, consultant and in-demand designer of livestock equipment. An autism advocate, her openness about living with autism increased awareness and inspired new medical research.

I started working in the Arizona feedlots in the 1970s. I was a woman in a man’s world. One feedlot kicked me out because the cowboys’ wives did not want me there. Eventually a few cattle yards allowed me to come in and watch the handling of cattle during vaccinations. I saw no gentleness. Men yelled and screamed and shocked each animal multiple times with an electric prod. The cattle were scared and would run at a gallop and injure themselves. But even during these bad times, I observed a few people who handled cattle quietly, and that showed me considerate handling of cattle was possible.

The first 10 years of my career were very frustrating. I worked on designing and installing better handling cattle chutes. After I trained the employees to use some simple methods to move cattle through the chutes, many managers would un-train the employee and make them hurry and be rough. Only about 20 percent of the places implemented the practices. By the mid-1980s, I learned that training the manager was more important than training the employees. If I convinced the manager that quieter handling was beneficial, he would make his employees stop rough practices. Cattle handling at feedlots and meat plants has really improved. Now, instead of using electric prods, the best stock people move 95 percent of the cattle with either body position movement or a little flag.

Achieving positive change and changing the mindset of the men who worked with the cattle required long, hard and sustained efforts. There were four main factors that helped improve how cattle were treated: better chutes and handling systems; customers inspecting cattle handling practices before they purchased meat from providers; showing the feed yard managers that treating cattle gently improves weight gain; and video cameras in every cellphone. Nobody wants their place featured on YouTube with people abusing animals. Cellphone videos and other small cameras recently have been used by some activist groups to show animal abuse on farms, but many of them are mild compared to the bad old days of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

The biggest factor that drove great improvements in cattle handling was key customers inspecting meat plants to insure that handling was done correctly. I was hired in 1999 to train McDonald’s Corporation and Wendy’s International food safety auditors on how to evaluate cattle handling practices at the large meat plants. When higher up executives witnessed abusive handling, they became motivated to stop it. It was like the show Undercover Boss. I developed a simple objective scoring system to evaluate animal treatment. If a plant failed an audit, they were kicked off the approved supplier list. This is an example of how large corporations can use their great purchasing power to bring about positive change. Amazingly, between 1999 and 2000, I witnessed more improvement than I had seen in the previous 25 years.

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