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Temple Grandin doesn’t pull any punches

Temple Grandin would prefer to focus on livestock. “I’d rather talk about handling swine and cattle,” the Boston-born professor of animal science at Colorado State University told members of the Iowa Farm Bureau in Des Moines this week. These days, the autistic animal welfare consultant to slaughterhouses and fast-food companies spends hours in airports as she travels to book tours and speaking engagements. “We need to do a better job of communicating with the public,” she says.

At the age of 2, she was unable to speak. Her mother defied the advice of doctors, and provided her with intensive speech therapy and professional care. Life at school was hard, and she was teased. But her high school science teacher was an encouraging mentor. As a young teenager, Grandin also found her comfort zone spending time at her aunt’s Arizona cattle ranch.

Following college, she worked as a livestock editor in Arizona. In 1975 she received her Masters in animal science from Arizona State University; in 1989, she received her Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

Grandin is best-known for developing the center track conveyor restrainer system used at cattle slaughter houses. “I’m a visual thinker,” she says. “This helps me work with livestock. If a squeeze shoot is designed right, the cattle will just walk in.”

She eschews the euphemism of calling a slaughterhouse a harvesting facility. “That’s B.S.,” she says. “The problem with slaughter houses is that nobody knows any of the good things that are being done there today. When I do book tours, people only know about the horrible photos on YouTube. The most recent videos have been in dairy, with rough handling, kicking, and hitting. It’s ghastly.”

Grandin says that it’s hard to convince plant management to realize the value of communicating with the public. “There also are safety issues with tours,” she says.

That’s one reason why Grandin filmed a video for YouTube called, the Temple Grandin Video Beef Plant Tour. It was sponsored by the American Meat Institute. “I wasn’t paid to do the video,” she says. “I just explain how the process works, using a voice like you would hear in a training video. I think we need an open door.

“We’ve got to get rid of the mystery,” she says. “I think the laws making it a crime for people to take videos and photos in plants are stupid. Every phone is a video camera. These laws send a terrible message to the public.”

She adds, “In agriculture, we have to look at everything we do, and ask how it would play with our wedding guests from New York or Chicago. There are some very well-run slaughterhouses that would pass this test.

“I was raised in the East,” she adds. ”I go back and forth between both worlds. It gives me a different perspective. Ten years ago, at a Christmas dinner, my sister bought up the subject of sow gestation stalls. There was no way I was going to sell her on it. I can’t sell it to the public. Two-thirds of the public has a problem with a sow not being able to turn around. So gestation stalls have got to go. They will be phased out slowly. Survey show acceptance of raising pigs inside on slatted floors. It does require more building space.”

Grandin says she has seen many changes in the industry since she began work in the 1970s. “Animal handling in slaughter houses deteriorated after unions were busted in the late 1970s,” she says. ”It was very sloppy in the 1980s, and then in the early 1990s, it was bad becoming the norm. Then we had the Jack in Box deaths. In 1999, I was working with McDonalds and the AMI, and helping to develop a simple scoring system and training safety auditors at plants. Three years ago, the USDA started cracking down on plants. Overall handling has improved. Big plants are better than small plants now, according to a GAO audit of enforcement of The Humane Slaughter Act.”

Today Grandin says she has other concerns. “Animal handling is no longer my #1 concern,” she says. “It’s open mouth breathing in cattle. I am concerned about heat stress in cattle. I lived in Arizona 10 years, and I never saw open mouth breathing in cattle. Black Angus are great cattle, but they get hot. There’s a nice scoring system for heat stress.”

She advocates more cattle shades to address heat stress. “But you have to lay them out right, so the shadow moves, or you’ll have mud piles underneath,” she says.

Grandin says that she still sees lame cattle, and animals with lesions on their legs. She urges agricultural producers and companies to look for scientific ways to measure animal welfare.

“We’ve gotten better with humane handling, but now we’re getting animals that are harder to handle,” she says. “Some pigs are mean. We’ve bred pigs for leanness, but unfortunately it also has selected for aggression. Some of our lean girls are mean girls who like to fight. That has to be changed. I see lameness in cattle from product use, and bigger animals that are heat-stressed. When you breed animals to grow, grow, grow, they may lose disease resistance. Nature has trade-offs. We have to look at what’s optimal. But profit incentive gets in the way.”

Today Grandin says she has a staff person who works fulltime for her, helping to draft designs on a computer. “I had a plant call me recently with a problem with their electric stunning,” she says.

Grandin’s accomplishments and talents have enabled her to promote a better understanding of autism. The 2010 HBO move, Temple Grandin, directed by Mick Jackson director, told her story. Its executive producer, Emily Gersen Saines, has an autistic child.

“I received many positive letters school kids who saw the movie. They said I inspired them to succeed,” Grandin says. But I still see a lot of quirky kids like me who are not going anywhere. They need encouragement and help to develop their writing, graphic and math and science skills.”

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