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Honoring Temple Grandin

Jennifer QuinnIn my post on butchering, I wrote about my reasons for becoming a meat-eater again after years on a vegetarian diet. I commented that if we didn’t keep farm animals for meat and other products, they’d only exist in zoos and preserves.

I just watched the HBO movie Temple Grandin, where the renowned animal scientist is beautifully portrayed by the actress Claire Danes. Though Dr. Grandin has practically devoted her life to promoting more humane treatment of animals, she has drawn criticism from animal rights groups for working in the meat industry. But in the movie, while talking about cows, she makes this observation: “If we didn’t eat them, they’d just be funny-looking animals in zoos ... We keep them for us, and we owe them respect.” These are her actual words, which we hear in her own voice in the accompanying feature on the DVD.

Along with Joel Salatin, Grandin is one of the people who have inspired me most in working with animals and thinking about them. I first read about her in a New York Times article in the mid-nineties and was fascinated. The article explored how Grandin’s autism enabled her to understand the behavior of cows and to design more humane systems for moving them, which are now used in over half the cattle-processing facilities in the US.

About ten years later, I was in Barnes & Noble and saw the cover of her new book, Animals in Translation, which I bought immediately. (You will never look at animals the same way after reading this book.) Shortly after, I was offered a temp job working in — of all things — a beef-packing plant. I had previously turned down this offer, thinking this was an industry I wouldn’t want to be involved in. But, after reading about the improvements that had been brought about through Grandin’s innovations, I decided to give it a try. This gave me an opportunity to witness her influence firsthand.

As it turned out, the facility used her system for moving the cattle and had used her training videos. I learned that, due to pressure from animal rights groups, fast food chains like Wendy’s and McDonalds — who were among the company’s biggest customers — required audits to encourage humane practices. I’m not saying the audits were foolproof; they used benchmarks that required fewer than a certain percentage of animals to be prodded or to be found limping, for example. But it was reassuring to know that there were standards that had to be maintained and that minimizing stress on the animals was the goal. While I have my objections to the beef industry on other grounds, I can still appreciate the progress this represents.

Grandin’s achievements in improving livestock-handling practices would be impressive enough, but they are even more so given the challenges she had to overcome as an autistic woman in the 1960s and 70s. She had to learn to function in mainstream society while at the same time dealing with the sexist attitudes of a male-dominated meat industry. The HBO film explores this very effectively, and also touches on her contribution to the understanding of autism. In the 50s, when her condition first manifested, autism was poorly understood, and children with autism were frequently institutionalized. Grandin is widely credited as the first autistic person to speak and write publicly about living with the condition and about the advantages of her highly-developed visual thinking. This latter aspect is illuminated in her book, Thinking in Pictures.

In addition to her teaching at Colorado State University and her work with the meat industry, Grandin now lectures extensively on autism and has written several books on the subject. And the hug box she designed, based on squeeze chutes used in the cattle industry, is now used as a calming device for autistic children. Hats off to Temple Grandin, and to HBO for their excellent movie!

Beef cattle feeding
Photo by Fotolia/ellisia