Scientist gets in close to her animal work

Autism helped her to develop more humane slaughter techniques.
Thursday, November 13, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:09 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Temple Grandin has been known to get down on hands and knees to see why pigs and cattle balk at going up a ramp before they’re slaughtered. To understand what the animals are thinking, she puts herself in their place. “For a pig’s-eye view, you’ve got to get down really low,” she said.

One-third of all cattle slaughter plants in the United States use equipment designed by Grandin, an animal science professor at Colorado State University who has made a career out of making slaughter plants more humane. The United States processes 100,000 cattle every day.

Grandin understands the panic cows feel when confronted by strange shadows and loud noises because she grew up with autism. “The same things that scare autistic kids scare animals,” she said, and autism allowed her to understand how animals feel. Autism also allowed her to develop an ability to visualize in great detail. Before designing the facilities, she imagined the plans and how everything would work. As a result, she could determine flaws that might cause animals to balk or feel frightened.

“My nervous system is more like an animal’s,” said Grandin, who spoke Wednesday at MU about autism and its relationship to her work.

“She has an amazing ability to get inside the mind of an animal,” said Mike Smith, an MU animal science professor.

As a teenager, Grandin’s autism caused extreme anxiety. But while visiting an aunt’s farm, she noticed that cattle relaxed while held in a chute that gently squeezed them during vaccinations and medical work. Grandin, whose autism kept her from tolerating human hugs, talked her aunt into letting her try the chute, and the pressure calmed her nerves.

The experience, she said, had a lot to do with why she changed her major from psychology to animal science. By knowing how the pressure from the chute relaxed her, Grandin said, she used her empathy with animals to design facilities that keep animals calm until the instant before they’re killed.

In addition to being more humane, keeping the animals relaxed reduces stress, resulting in animals that are easier to handle and a higher quality of meat, she said.

Cattle and hogs are stunned before slaughter using one of three methods. For hogs, carbon dioxide gassing or electric shocks through the brain are used to render the animals unconscious before slaughter.

A method used on larger animals like cattle and horses drives a bolt through the animal’s skull, effectively killing it before its throat is cut.

Meat production companies hire Grandin to ensure animals are treated humanely. Companies will not buy meat from facilities that fail to meet her minimum standards, Grandin said.

According to those standards, no more than three in every 100 animals, for example, can make distressful noises from arrival at a facility to slaughter, and it is only permissible for one animal in every 100 to fall down. For herding, electric prods can be used on no more than 25 percent of cattle and pigs.

“Temple Grandin is internationally known,” said Eric Berg, another MU animal science professor. “In the United States she is definitely the founder of the animal behavior movement.”

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