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Temple Grandin Turned a Disability Into an Asset for Animals

  • Brian Larson

"There's no way I would not want to be autistic," Temple Grandin asserts. "That's who I am." When she talks about her autism, a common mental development disorder, she likens it to the number of Internet connections in a large office building. Some departments have extra cables running to the brain, she says, while others do not. She concludes, "I got hooked up sort of in the logic department and visual thinking department and I like the way I think. I like my very clear, logical, visual kinds of thinking."

Little is known about autism today, and there was even less known when Grandin was born in 1947. Unable to speak until the age of four, she credits a supportive family for helping develop her strengths. "I was good at art, horrible at algebra," she recalls. "My parents really encouraged art. And then later on, my mentor science teacher, he was crucial in motivating me to study."

She describes her struggles to fit in at school and her teenage years as "horrible," but she went on to earn a Bachelor's degree in psychology from Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire, a Master's in animal science from Arizona State University, and a PhD from the University of Illinois in 1989.

Thinking visually in a language-oriented society has been a challenge for Grandin. She says when she was younger, she didn't know that other people didn't think in pictures like her. "I used to get into arguments with engineers, because I'd think, 'Couldn't they see it? Couldn't they see it when they looked at the drawing that it just wasn't going to work?'"

Her heightened visual ability also gives Grandin a unique insight into the minds of cattle. Like some humans with autism, Grandin says they are also afraid of light, loud sounds, and objects that move suddenly. "And then it became obvious to me, when I learned that my thinking was different, that it has to be more like how animals think. Because animals obviously DO think. But some philosophers think it's impossible to have thinking unless you have language. And I'm going (saying), 'Well that's just nonsense!'"

Temple Grandin began working with animals and designing more humane ways of handling cattle in the early 1970s. But her ideas, and career, were slow to find a following. "People thought I was really weird," she admits, "so I had to sell my work, not my personality."

She labored at more than 30 cattle feed yards throughout Arizona, analyzing what worked and what didn't before putting all the pieces together to create totally new and innovative designs. "Most people out there are treating cattle really badly," she observes. "But then you'd find a few people -- I'd call them the believers -- that believed in what I was doing. And I would work with those people. And the thing is you have to have perseverance, you have to just keep working on things."

More than one-third of all livestock facilities in the United States now incorporate her practices, including Swift and Company, one of the world's biggest meatpackers, based in Greeley, Colorado. Sheri Jenkins, the company's director of Food Safety, Technology and Validation, is a former student of Temple Grandin. "She'll want to walk the pens as the animal would," Jenkins says, "aware of everything, and to get the same feeling that they have, so that she can see from their point of view what might be causing them to balk or to not want to move past that point or to get really nervous or anything of that nature."

Walking down the chute and getting that cow's eye view is important, Grandin says, "[because] little details that we do not tend to notice, the animals notice." She says most of the plants that follow her recommendations only needed to make minor adjustments: installing non-slip flooring, putting up solid sides where they were needed and either adding a light or moving lights.

In addition to consulting with the meat packing industry, Temple Grandin spends most of her time today teaching animal behavior courses at Colorado State University, writing books and, especially, helping others with autism. "For me, the most important meaning of life is that you actually do things that improve things out there in the world," she insists, adding "Too many people get into a whole lot of ideology, but they're not doing things on the ground [with practical results]."

Many people have asked Grandin how she can care so much about animals while being involved in the slaughter industry. Her answer is as clear and logical as her thinking. Everything dies eventually, she says, but we humans owe the animals we eat a good life while they're here.

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