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Killing with kindness

In this corner, the animal rights activists, so virtuous their rescued dogs are on vegan diets. • In that corner, the unrepentant carnivores, whetting their knives and muttering, "Dude, it's just a stupid cow." • "Nobody's in the mucky middle, where reality usually is," Temple Grandin says. • Grandin, who has staked many claims in uncharted territory in her remarkable life, is firmly in that mucky middle when it comes to animal welfare. She loves animals, yet she designs slaughterhouses. And sees no conflict. • She will tell you, and does in her latest book, Animals Make Us Human, that feedlot cattle — creatures whose fate has become symbolic of the American way of mistreating the animals we eat — just might be better off than a lot of pet dogs. • She also writes in that book about why she thinks celebrity dog trainer Cesar Millan is wrong about the wolf pack thing, why leash laws may lead to canine bad behavior, why pigs like to play video games and why joggers and cyclists are more likely to be victims of a mountain lion attack than hikers are. • She also writes, as she has throughout her career, about how her autism gives her a unique perspective on animal behavior and welfare. Her understanding of animal thinking has helped her design humane slaughterhouses so that cattle can meet a quick and panic-free end.

Grandin, 61, was diagnosed as autistic in 1950, at a time when many such children were institutionalized. But she attended school, supported by her family and a series of mentors, and eventually earned master's and doctoral degrees in animal science.

She combines her career as a designer of livestock handling facilities and associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, with advocacy for autistic people and animal welfare.

Grandin contends that people on the autism spectrum tend to think not in words but in images — just as animals do. She says that understanding how animals' emotions, such as seeking, rage and fear, motivate their behavior can lead to happier animals — and people.

Not that Grandin confuses the two; she is fiercely rational in her approach to animal welfare and avoids anthropomorphizing the cows, pigs and chickens whose slaughter she is concerned with. Unlike us, those creatures cannot foresee their deaths, a key point in ensuring that they are killed humanely.

Grandin's interest in animal science grew in part from her experience as a teen watching cattle being placed into a squeeze chute to calm them for inoculations.

Because of her autism, she was often overwhelmed by sensations like loud sounds, and she designed her own "squeeze box" to treat that anxiety. The device has since been used by occupational therapists and psychologists to treat autistic and hyperactive children; she offers plans for building it on her Web site,

Grandin has applied her insight into animal behavior to design such devices as curving chutes that keep cattle calmer as they are herded into slaughterhouses. She has developed guidelines to best handling practices, such as reducing the use of electrical prods, and humane slaughter methods, such as captive bolt stunning guns, and seen them adopted by many of the largest slaughterhouses in North America — at the behest of the huge fast food companies.

Talking by phone recently from a hotel during one of her frequent trips as a consultant and speaker, Grandin talked about animal welfare and how she reconciles her activism with her work for the meat industry.

"We created these animals, through breeding, so we could eat them," she says. "They exist because of us, so we owe them respect. If we're going to kill them, we have to do it as humanely as we can."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at or (727) 893-8435.

Q&A | with Temple Grandin

In Animals Make Us Human, you write about recent improvements in welfare for food animals in farms, feedlots and slaughterhouses. But you say that over the last couple of decades, the welfare of some companion animals like dogs may have declined. How?

There's a lot of variation, of course. But if a dog spends hours alone because his owner is working 10 hours a day, that dog does not have good quality of life.

What are some of the unintended consequences of leash laws designed to protect dogs?

A lot of dogs aren't socialized. To get a dog socialized these days, you really have to work at it. The problem is that cities have these Draconian leash laws, so unless you're at the dog park your dog can't be off leash. They don't learn how to behave with other dogs, so you have more aggression.

The livestock industry has had a pretty negative image among people interested in animal welfare. How do beef cattle have it better than a lonely dog?

They live outside together on ranches, whether it's an organic operation or a regular one. The moms and pops, the cows and bulls, are never in a feed yard. The offspring (that are slaughtered for meat) spend about half their life in a feed yard. They're eating the cattle equivalent of cake and ice cream. It's not a healthy diet, but they eat it up.

One thing that has influenced many people's low opinion of feedlots is Michael Pollan's description in The Omnivore's Dilemma of visiting a cow he had purchased in a feedlot that was a sea of mud and waste. Can such a place really be humane?

I've been to that place in Kansas. Three months out of the year it's muddy, it's bad; the rest of the year it's dry.

Feed yards should definitely be in dry parts of the country. They used to all be in Texas and Arizona. They were dry, they had shade, the cows were fine. In the 1970s, instead, companies moved the feed yards closer to where the grain is grown. Well, it's rainy there. Before you make these decisions, you've got to find out what's happening on the ground.

What are some of the continuing concerns for the welfare of these animals before they get to the slaughterhouse?

Some of the things we do to them — branding, removing their horns — these things hurt. They should only be done to young animals, and some things, like the horns, should require an anesthetic.

McDonald's shapes up

Many people might be surprised to read about how McDonald's became a positive force for animal welfare. What was your experience working with that corporation and other fast food companies as a consultant?

It was a positive force. It happened because animal rights activists leaned on them. Their first reaction was suing, which was useless. You can Google "McLibel" (the title of a documentary film about McDonald's legal battle with animal rights activists).

My job was to take the executives on their first trips to feed yards and slaughterhouses. It had been an abstraction for them.

It was very interesting to watch. When they saw a half-dead dairy cow going into their product, they said, "Hmm, we've got to do something about this."

Were most of the problems occurring in the large slaughterhouses that serviced the fast food companies?

By 1999 a lot of the big slaughterhouses were better. Sometimes the little Joe Blow slaughterhouse was horrible. And these were where some of the organic farmers were taking their cattle.

Whole Foods started auditing them and found some bad stuff. They de-listed three slaughterhouses.

It's strange to think that a big corporate plant could be better than a little local plant down the road, but it got to be that way.

Have those reforms achieved what you hoped for?

I'm not going to say that everything is perfect. The big thing I'm working on now is video auditing. We have it in five plants already in the United States and Canada. I'm very, very happy about that. You can keep an eye on how the animals are handled all the time, not just when inspectors show up.

Unintended consequences

Do new problems crop up as old ones are solved?

Oh, yes. Now they're giving something new to pigs, these beta agonists. It's not a hormone, not an antibiotic, it's a new class of drug. What it does is make them grow faster, with more lean muscle.

But because of it they're getting sore-footed pigs, and cows, that are too weak to walk to the truck. It causes lameness, also overexcitable animals. It's another case of pushing the biology of the animal too hard.

Speaking of unintended consequences, a campaign by animal rights activists led to the closing of all horse slaughterhouses in the United States in the last few years. What were some of the unintended consequences of that?

When activists worked to close all the horse slaughter plants, they didn't realize the alternatives are worse.

Those old horses have to go somewhere. All these old riding horses, Amish carriage horses, who's going to take them? Horse rescue operations are overwhelmed, they're all full.

With old riding horses, the biggest welfare problem is owner neglect. A dog is a pet right up until the end, but with a horse, you have 10 years or so of retirement where you can't ride him anymore but it's very expensive to keep him. So we see horses that are starving, neglected, abandoned.

Now that we don't have horse slaughterhouses, we ship the old horses outside the United States, to Mexico, to these absolutely hideous places. They stab them to death, stab them in the neck. My worst nightmare came true.

Thinking in pictures

Is it true that your life is the subject of a new movie?

HBO is making a movie based on my book Thinking in Pictures. It will be out in 2010. Claire Danes plays me. I got to visit the set, and I can tell you Claire's not going to look anything like Claire.

She plays me in the '60s and '70s, when I was in high school and when my career was getting started. It was like going into a weird time machine, seeing my old dorm room recreated.

They built a cattle handling facility from my plans in Texas. I helped them handle the cattle.

What other things would you like to see happen in the field of animal welfare?

I do a lot of speaking engagements at colleges and veterinary schools. I'm trying so hard to get people in the field. A lot of people are interested in animal rights, but they all go and become lawyers. It's all ideology instead of trying to fix something from a practical level.

There are so many radicals on both sides, blabbing on the Internet. Nobody's in the mucky middle where reality probably is. You've got to get on the ground.

What animals do you own?

I travel 85 to 90 percent of the time, so I can't have any.

Animals Make

Us Human:

Creating the

Best Life

for Animals

By Temple Grandin

and Catherine Johnson

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

342 pages, $26

An excerpt from 'Animals Make Us Human'

How to Improve

Chicken Welfare

The first thing you have to do is raise consciousness. The manager at the egg farm with the almost-bald old lady hens didn't see any problems, and he was upset when I pointed out problems. He responded, "There's nothing wrong with my birds; they've got good health. I take good care of my birds." He'd gotten so used to seeing those ragged mops that he thought it was normal. This is another situation of bad becoming normal. When a welfare situation deteriorates too slowly for workers and management to notice, the new bad situation seems normal. Sometimes it takes an outsider coming in to make people realize that 5 or 6 percent broken wings on broilers or half-bald laying hens are definitely not normal.

After we looked at the chickens we went to the farm conference room, and I said to the company's vice president, "What do you think people from the Chicago airport would say if they could see this?" He'd never thought about it before, so I told him about my ten-people-from-the-airport rule. If I brought ten random people I met at the airport out to this chicken farm, what would they think? Would they say the hens are being housed in decent conditions where they don't experience mental or physical anguish? Or would they say this is cruel and inhumane treatment of innocent animals?

A well-run beef slaughter plant passes the test.

Jam-packed hen cages filled with raggedy, half-bald birds do not pass the test.

Throwing live hens in the garbage does not pass the test.

The vice president of the company called me the next day and said, "You made me do some thinking."

Killing with kindness 04/11/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 11, 2009 4:30am]
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