Temple Grandin, a hero to many in the animal welfare world, spoke to a sold-out audience of students, alumni, and guests on October 6, 2016, as part of Lake Forest (Illinois) College’s Oppenheimer lecture series. “Improving Animal Welfare: A Practical Approach,” was a fascinating look into Grandin’s world.
Temple Grandin’s life has been an inspiration to many because of her incredible accomplishments as an autistic person. She has revolutionized how animal welfare is practiced in the business of meat production and animal handling. She has written hundreds of research papers on animals and animal welfare and changed the way animals are treated from veterinary offices to slaughterhouses.
Grandin’s presentation included slides of calm animals, and she talked about how animals feel emotions. She explained that the science behind this fact has been around since the 1960s and is based on the physical systems in our bodies that are responsible for fear, stress, nurturing, rage, and other emotions. Labrador retrievers, for example, have strong “seeking” behavior which results in their being willing to retrieve objects over and over and over.
Grandin spoke about how animal welfare has changed over the past several decades, and she says, ironically, that many of the changes are because of demands by huge retailers like McDonald’s Corporation. And while much of her presentation was about farm animals, much of what she explained about fear in animals can be universally applied to all animals.
To change reactions in animals, it’s important, she explained, to use behavior and not force. “Calm down,” she told the audience, “Animals understand the intent of your voice.” She found that having a handler walk in the opposite direction of a line of cattle encourages them to continue to walk forward and in a much calmer manner than shouting, waving flags, or using an electric prod. And it’s much more humane.
Because of her autism, Grandin explained, she notices details that most people miss. “A swinging chain, a coat on a fence, reflections on the ground,” she listed, “Especially things that move — will all scare animals.” Dark entrances are scary for animals, and simply installing bright lights inside a facility makes the entrance more inviting.
Two of her slides are instructive to anyone who lives with animals. She says that “First experiences with new people, places, or equipment must be good,” and “Acclimating animals to handling reduces stress.” She also shared that when animals are exposed to new things and allowed to voluntarily explore them, they are not frightened. But when introduced to the same thing suddenly, animals will be frightened.
That’s why those who raise puppies to be service dogs expose them to all kinds of stimuli, including loud noises, slides, different surfaces, and many animals and environments. The puppies learn that new things are not scary and become more confident.
She mentioned a picture that she shows veterinary students of a dog with its legs splayed out on a slick veterinary table. Most of them don’t notice the detail that Grandin immediately points out — that the dog is having trouble standing on the table. That serves to frighten dogs. One of her slides clearly states that “non slip flooring — prevents fear of falling” is important to keep animals feeling safe.
Grandin’s credo that she repeated more than once is that we “must give animals a life worth living.” She used the example of chickens and said that they need sunlight to have their behavioral needs met, and “give her a place to hide when she lays her eggs.”
She also mentioned the terrible mistake of breeding animals for specific traits, and talked about the bulldog. “It’s a dog that can’t walk, breathe or give birth naturally.”
In an evening of talking about a wide range of topics including the need for students to be learning more concrete math skills (like how to find the area of a circle) and have more hands-on experiences like art and sewing, she also mentioned social media and her serious concerns about the fact that issues like animal welfare can’t be discussed in a rational manner. “Things get too hot (on social media),” she said, explaining that it seems that rational thinking gets abandoned in the heat of emotion about the topics.
Take-away from the evening?
Every animal deserves a life worth living — be it in a feed lot or in a shelter or a zoo. Animals have emotions and fear may be the strongest of them. And finally, people need to calm down. Animals respond poorly to shouting and yelling — they understand the intent of our voices.
Temple Grandin has authored many books including “Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals,” “Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism,” “Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior,” and the children’s book, “Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World.”