Have you heard of Temple Grandin? I must have been living under a rock or something because I had no idea about her and her amazing achievements – including designing equipment used in more than half of all American slaughterhouses that contributed to great steps forward in animal welfare. She also got a doctorate, is associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University, published several books and her life was recently given tribute in a feature film – all that in spite of (and some of it even thanks to) having been born on the far end of the autism spectrum.
This trailer gives a great overview of her life – and what a life it is!
When Dr. Grandin was born in the 1940s, autism wasn’t even recognized as a separate condition yet and most children that exhibited symptoms would be institutionalized. Thanks to the strong support of her mother, Grandin – who didn’t speak until she was three years old – continued to be socialized bit by bit, though her childhood seems to have been rather painful. A first true break-through came when she spent a summer on her aunt’s farm and realized that it was far more easy for her to understand the reasons why cattle would act out than for the other ranchers. Pursuing this career path, and applying unconventional methods such as making her way through the chutes herself to really see what the cows were seeing on their way to slaughter, she managed to make significant advances in pre-slaughter animal welfare due to her unique ability of putting herself into the (metaphorical) shoes of the cattle and noticing minute details that would scare or upset the cows, which would be completely ignored by the rest of the staff.
As Grandin explains in an interview with the Burlington Free Press, many of these insights stemmed from the particular ways her mind worked differently:
I’m a total visual thinker. I think completely in pictures. Animals are sensory-based visual thinkers, too. They do not think in words. Being a photorealistic thinker makes me similar to animals in that way. When you ask me about something that I can’t see right now in front of me, I bring up pictures in my mind of it, things I’ve seen either in real life or in photographs. Since I think similarly to animals, it helps me develop empathy for what it would be like to be a 1,200-pound steer. I have physical empathy for how I would feel if I was being chased around or hit, for how it feels to go through a chute in a slaughterhouse.
Thus equipped to recognize the pre-slaughter stress of animals for what it really is – not necessarily the fear of impeding death, but rather the stress of being in a new situation full of sensory overload, noise, extreme lights or darkness etc. -, she worked together with large-scale slaughterhouses as well as processors such as McDonald’s (she was appointed their chief animal welfare adviser in 1997) and Burger King to revolutionize animal processing on a huge scale, according to the Press. She does this not necessarily from an ideological conviction, but from a deeply rooted pragmatism to improve the situation as it stands and to make it the most bearable possible for the animals.
A lot of people forget that nature’s harsh, nature’s not kind. In the wild, the wolves are much worse. They’ll rip an animal’s guts out while they’re still alive. A lot of the animals we eat wouldn’t have been born if we weren’t raising them for food. Personally, I can’t function on a vegetarian diet and I don’t think I’m alone. But we’ve got to be good stewards. I believe that animals used for food must have a decent life, a life worth living. You’ve got to do stuff right.
Some of these pragmatic steps she takes include, as of August 2012, that she is working with with the North American Meat Association (NAMA) to implement remote video auditing on farms that is supposed to “keep tabs on animal handlers and use the recordings to coach them in humane handling practices.” This is a great step in her mission to, in the words of Michael Pollan, make the walls of slaughterhouses transparent so that the treatment of animals in them is open to the public and subject to public criticism – as well as approval – as well.
Some of her design techniques are explained in the schematic above (borrowed from Farmer’s Weekly). Adding lots of natural light and flat unloading ramps to the lairage makes the animals perceive the environment as familiar and not part of the abattoir, and thus they will essentially unload themselves. Then, Grandin figured out that creating the so-called race (the narrow passage through which the animals are led to the stunner) with rounded corners instead of straights and dead-ends utilizes the natural tendency of cattle to follow their predecessors round the pen to improve flow through the race. Now, instead of having to herd the animals with sticks, goads or harsh noise, they proceed relaxed in a single file through the race toward the stunner. There, green light – which studies have shown cows are naturally attracted to – is used to bring the animals into position.
According to food industry specialists, these designs have made a world of difference:
“[The design of the race] is the bit that has made the biggest difference. Because animals can see a place to go and they can see other cattle in front of them, the animals move easily. The race is also long enough to take advantage of the animal’s natural following behaviour, so minimal human contact is needed.“
This improves animal welfare, but also meat quality, as lower levels of stress hormones before slaughter is translated into a lower pH level in the tissue of the cattle (where higher pH causes the meat to become dark and dry).
What great innovations based on the simple (but oh-so-hard) attempt to see the world through the eyes of an animal, right? I particularly like Dr. Grandin’s approach of working with the industry instead of against them and earning their respect (hard-won, both being a woman and using eccentric methods) by being both intensively thorough and extremely understanding of producers’ concerns, including cost-efficiency. Sometimes, she’ll fix a simple light that caused cows to freak out because it cast spooky shadows, saving the plant an expensive grand design. Finally, as a rather value-driven idealist myself I do respect the pragmatism with which she approaches her efforts – I think it finally requires both to truly change a system. And, if as she says, in the ideal scenario
[The animals] just walk up there in a quiet line, and they walk up the conveyor and they’re shot, and it’s over before they know what’s happened. It’s almost hard for me to believe it works.
that would already be an amazing step forward in our meat supply.
Have you watched the movie or did you know about Dr. Grandin before? What do you think about her methods?