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Temple Grandin is Our Hero

We don’t have a lot of A-list celebrities in the livestock industry. But we do have Temple Grandin.

The Colorado State University animal science professor has fundamentally changed the field of animal handling over the course of her 40-year career as an educator and consultant. Her animal-friendly, gentler handling designs put emphasis on such things as curved chutes (cattle want to return to where they came from) and solid corral fences (no side distractions).

Even staunch animal rights advocates like Grandin. PETA gave her an award!

But what really puts her on the A-list is the fact that she is such an accomplished animal scientist while also dealing with her own autism. She didn’t talk until she was almost 4 years old. She has spent a lifetime overcoming social awkwardness.

Her unique communication skills let her write and talk about autism and her visual way of thinking (like the animals). In her work with autism understanding and education, she gives hope to millions of special-needs kids and their parents. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a parent of an autistic child say, “Of course we know about Temple Grandin. She’s our hero.”

HBO made her amazing story into a movie, calledTemple Grandin, that you need to see if you haven’t already. Her website, templegrandin.com, will expose you to the dozens of books she’s written on both animal behavior and autism and the combination of the two. Her views will absolutely change the way you think about our education system.

I recently asked her a few questions about her incredible life.

SF: How did you get into the field of animal behavior and handling?

TG: One of the people responsible was Stan Curtis, an agricultural engineer at the University of Illinois. It was about 1980, and the field of animal behavior was brand new. He took me on as a graduate student. I was interested in what kinds of distractions made animals balk. As a visual person, I wondered why other people didn’t see it the way I did. 

SF: Is it true that in some of your research you lived with the pigs and cows?

TG: My thesis was on pigs in small pens and their behaviors. I spent a fair amount of time in a pig pen, studying their response to various stimuli such as straw and others. But I have to tell you, half of my papers didn’t even get published because Stan Curtis didn’t think they were worthy.

I studied cattle in dip tanks and what it was like to go through one. I designed a tank that worked and kept the tank from tipping over. That practice stopped when Ivomec came along.

SF: What is the best thing you’ve ever done for animal welfare?

TG: In 1999, I devised a very simple scoring system to measure meatpacking plants on animal welfare, particularly to prevent animals from falling down. I think it forced the plants to manage their stock in much better ways, rather than just shove them through. They came up with a center track system in which they restrain the animals before stunning.

Then I also helped design a lot of cattle-handling facilities for meat plants. And for a lot of farmers, too.

I’m really proud of a book I wrote a couple of years ago called Temple Grandin’s Guide to Working with Farm AnimalsIt’s for kids and small farms.

SF: And on the autism side?

TG: I do a lot of talks with kids on autism. I talk about different kinds of minds and different ways that people think. I see too many kids that don’t fit a certain norm, and they get shunted off to nowhere. Those kids can do really well on farms and certain skilled trades. They can see things differently, and some of them invent all kinds of useful equipment. But these skills are not taught the way they used to be.

Now, we seem to favor mathematical thinkers and not visual thinkers like myself. That is a mistake. You know, Einstein had autism. So did Edison, and probably Steve Jobs, too. I spend a lot of time talking to parents and educators about how they can better serve these special kids.

SF: What are your best animal-handling tips for farmers and ranchers?

TG: I tend to think of the simple things. For instance, when you’re working cattle, look for the things that make them balk like a coat hung on the fence or a pickup parked in the wrong spot. Work them in smaller groups at a time. Calm down. When you’re calm, they’re calm.

And realize that good handling matters. It pays you back in better cattle performance.

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