Temple Grandin, living with autism, has revolutionized livestock handling by using her ability to see the world in a different way to develop a deeper understanding of animal behavior.
The New Idea
Temple has changed the way livestock are handled and slaughtered across the world so that the process is as humane as possible and animals go to their deaths calmly and without fear. Since the mid 1990s she has designed handling systems that reduce animal suffering as well as improve workplace safety and even meat quality. Temple has also developed a slaughterhouse auditing system that was adopted by the American Meat Institute and that identifies critical control points for humane treatment. Her work has touched every segment of beef production, from the farm to the feedlot to the processing facility. Today, more than half of the cattle handled in the U.S. and Canada are handled in facilities designed by Temple, and her designs are being adopted across the world, from Brazil to Tanzania. Temple works with industry leaders such as Cargill and McDonald’s to tie the purchasing of meat to her standards, and to push for broad adoption.
With guidance and mentoring from her mother, Temple (who did not speak until she was nearly four-years-old) learned to use her vivid visual thinking to fuel her work as a problem-solver. She observed that animals are often afraid of visual details such as shiny reflections that most people do not notice. Autism undoubtedly shaped many of her innovations that use behavioral principles rather than excess force to control animals. Her success comes in part from calling attention to suffering in the world of creatures, but also from translating her insights and empathy for animals into simple, actionable steps through which a massive industry can help reduce that suffering.
Today, Temple continues her work with livestock, and is also advancing a new phase of work to contextualize the ways that different minds contribute in teams and encourage a more flexible educational approach that values different ways of thinking and acting and practical, hands-on problem solving from an early age. Some people are photo-realistic visual thinkers, and others are mathematical or word thinkers.
Many livestock handling facilities built in the U.S. and Canada in the 1960s and 1970s were designed with little understanding of animal behavior and little compassion for animal suffering. As a result of either poor design or rough treatment by people, cattle, pigs, sheep, and other livestock were routinely spooked and experienced unnecessary anxiety, fear, and pain on ranches and in slaughterhouses—whether being transported, fed, vaccinated, or slaughtered. When spooked, animals typically begin to vocalize and kick and thrash—an expression of their fear and a danger to other animals and to handlers. To make matters worse, such behavior was traditionally met with force and additional pain by workers and handlers attempting to maintain order. The meat industry has also recently discovered that spooked animals have an unfavorable pH balance and high levels of adrenaline prior to slaughter resulting in lower quality, less tender meat.
These problems are not entirely surprising given that agriculture engineers were neither trained in animal behavior nor particularly sensitive to their reactions to the built environment. But according to Temple—and increasingly confirmed by animal scientists and veterinarians—these designs contributed to significant animal stress and suffering, often in the last minutes of their lives. The more Temple investigated, the more she uncovered other problems as well, including malfunctioning and improperly maintained facilities, and poorly trained handling staff. For example, she noticed that many facilities had broken stun guns that took more than one shot to render the cattle insensible, resulting in significant pain and suffering.
As Temple saw it, the situation was not only inhumane, but unnecessary. Simple changes in design, such as more thoughtful procedures and the incentives to help handlers adopt them, and better training could eliminate untold animal suffering and help those working in the slaughterhouses feel (and be) less violent. Such changes would also lead to a safer and more efficient work environment for livestock handlers, and could improve the quality of meat for consumers. The challenge then became surfacing the right information on the state of affairs without being punitive, and getting the attention of major players in the industry that could quickly push reforms deeply through the animal processing system.
Temple’s strategy has been multifaceted but involves a somewhat chronological sequence of research, design and invention; building public support and generating industry buy-in, and then expanding. The two most fundamental components of her work are first to build awareness that a problem exists and that needless animal suffering is wrong; second, to design solutions that the livestock and meat industries might be receptive to.
Temple has been a leading advocate for the humane treatment of animals in this country and around the world. From early on, she has claimed that her autism created a special relationship between her and animals—one based on a deep understanding at the sensory level. This comes in part from her keen ability to see the world in vivid images, and from her heightened sense of fear (an emotion that for people with autism is hypersensitive) and intense “fight or flight” instinct that causes intense panic. Throughout her career, Temple has thought of herself as a kind of spokesperson for animals, using this understanding to speak out on their behalf and advance livestock handling reforms with their perspective and their fears in mind.
The close connection Temple feels with animals was central to her research and design. Temple would evaluate each handling facility by visualizing it from the animal’s standpoint—including sometimes crawling through gates and chutes to identify what sounds, sights or smells might cause them to be fearful and balk. She would then incorporate this perspective into a series of new designs that were more humane as well as more efficient and safer. For example, she designed curving, serpentine walkways that both prevent cows from seeing the slaughter up ahead and panicking, and that give the animals the sensation that they are coming back around the same way they came in. She also designed a piece of equipment, the center track conveyor restrainer system, for holding cattle at the slaughter plant. In addition, Temple highlighted and removed objects and design features that could easily spook animals—including something simple like a dark overhang or a dangling chain. Her work began with minor retrofits to existing facilities and then evolved into grand designs of high-volume animal processing facilities, and the broader approach that would create wide adoption.
Temple says that early in her life, she thought that just inventing things would cause change, but she learned otherwise, turning her attention to grasping the incentives at play in the industry and seeking out allies who could help make changes. First, she recognized that bringing the problem into the light and exposing it was key and she did this—she found people in the slaughter facilities who trusted her and helped her articulate the problem by contributing data on behaviors of animals and so on. They did this under the condition that Temple would not publish the data with their company’s name, but would instead aggregate and anonymize the data. This is a very different approach from being moralistic and punitive; instead, Temple’s approach toward this work is to help the industry change its practices.
Temple also created the world’s first comprehensive auditing system to measure humane animal treatment. The audits are built around a variety of criteria, including levels of animal vocalization, success rates of captive bolt stunning of cattle, and correct placement of electrodes to effectively stun pigs and sheep. Each criterion translates into a specific grade (for example, 99 to 100 percent of cattle rendered insensible with one shot is considered “excellent” whereas, less than 90 percent is considered a “serious problem” that requires immediate action). These weekly or sometimes daily audits are accompanied by training of both management and floor staff to make them aware not just of the scores but of the meaning of the numbers in terms of animal suffering.
Much like her facility designs, Temple’s audits were significant in that they translated something abstract—empathy and humane treatment—into specific, measurable guidelines and reforms that an industry would adopt as standard operating procedure. Indeed, as Temple began speaking more and more about her work, and as word of her designs and audits spread, the meat processing industry took note. The American Meat Institute—a national trade association representing packers and processors of meat and poultry—contacted Temple and expressed interest in using her audits. Today, Temple’s standards have been adopted as the recommended animal handling guidelines distributed nationally. McDonald’s also approached Temple in 1997 and she has helped them to develop their audit program and overseen their auditor training to ensure that McDonald’s suppliers keep up with improvements in animal handling practices. More recently, Temple consulted for Cargill, one of the world’s largest producers and marketers of food, and with her steering, they have changed all their North American facilities. The sheer size of these corporations and associations has helped her work penetrate widely and deeply, and increasingly internationally.
Temple is committed to furthering her work on animal rights—both by continuing to raise awareness among the public through her role as author and spokesperson, and by continuing to design and invent facilities and procedures that will reduce animal suffering and help shift the overall mindset. Temple is also a strong and active advocate of early intervention to address autism and has begun working with educators to direct the fixations of children with autism in productive directions that ultimately route them into careers that use their unique skill set.
Temple was born in 1947 in Boston, Massachusetts, at a time when autism was not well understood and when children displaying its symptoms were frequently institutionalized. Temple credits her mother, Eustacia, with resisting doctors’ recommendations and giving her the kind of attention and training that was essential for her development and success. As a young teenager, Temple spent time at a relative’s ranch where she developed a closeness with the cattle whose calm nature she found soothing. It was then that she first recognized the similarities between herself and animals, and when she first witnessed the frightful environment of many animal-handling facilities. It was also then that she first crawled through narrow animal chutes and noticed that mild pressure had a relaxing effect on her nerves. She went on to invent the “squeeze machine,” versions of which are widely used to calm hypersensitive persons, including autistic people who often do not enjoy direct contact with other people, but find the sensation of being held comforting.
Temple’s autism allows her to “think in pictures” and see the world in vivid images. She has often said that words are her second language, and that much like animals she is hypersensitive to sensory input and sudden sensory changes. Her insight into the minds of cattle has taught her to value the changes in details to which animals are particularly sensitive, and to use her visualization skills to design thoughtful and humane animal-handling equipment. Like many people suffering from autism, Temple also has an enlarged amygdale—the part of the brain that is responsible for anxiety and fear. Again, she believes this gives her a unique understanding of animal’s “fight or flight” survival instincts.
Temple studied animal science as a graduate student and then became increasingly involved in her work as an advocate and designer of livestock handling facilities. Today, she is Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University where she teaches courses on livestock behavior and facility design. She consults regularly with the livestock industry on animal welfare, ensuring that her engagements yield the highest possible social benefit. Temple is the author of several books, including Animals Make us Human, and has been featured in The New York Times and People Magazine. In 2010 Time Magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people. Temple’s life story was recently made into an HBO movie that traces her life as a teenager and her early career.