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Renee Farris headshot

7 Ways To Improve Animal Welfare


Temple Grandin, an animal scientist at Colorado State University, says that being autistic helps her do better work to improve animal welfare in slaughterhouses. There’s a stereotype that people with autism are cold and unfeeling. However, Grandin is empathetic toward animals.

Grandin shared her thought process over at Grist, “To design a good restrainer system, you have to really care about the animals it will hold. You have to imagine what it would be like if you were the animal entering the restrainer. It is a sobering experience to be a caring person, yet to design a device to kill large numbers of animals. When I complete a project I am left with a feeling of great satisfaction, but I usually cry all the way to the airport.” That has got to be one of the hardest jobs in the world.

She also understands how animals think: “It was easy for me to figure out how animals think and how animals would react because I think visually. Animals don’t think in language. They think in pictures. It’s very easy for me to imagine what would it be like to go through a system if you really were a cow, not a person in a cow costume but really were a cow, and autistic senses and emotions are more like the senses of an animal.”

Thinking visually isn’t the only thing that helps her understand animals. Grandin explains: “My nervous system was hyper-vigilant. Any little thing out of place, like a water stain on the ceiling, would set off a panic reaction, and cattle are scared of the same thing. They’re scared of things like high-pitched noise, sudden clanging and banging, sudden movement, maybe even a little chain that hangs down in the chute and jiggles because it looks out of place, and things that are out of place can mean danger out in the wild.”

Her compassion for animals and strong understanding of the way they think makes Grandin a strong advocate for animal welfare. She says that animals deserve a life worth living. “First of all, you gotta make sure your air quality is good, they aren’t lame, they don’t have sores on them, they are clean, and they get to act out their behavioral needs.”

Here’s her strategy for making these improvements.

1. Design yards for cows

Keeping pens dry and cattle clean is the most important aspect of a feed yard. Take some big machines in and slope the land so that it drains well. If cows stand in mud, they are likely to go lame. Too much dust makes it hard for them to breathe. They also need shade to stay cool (particularly black cows). These are common problems.

2. Feedlot cows: Grain versus grass

“Feeding cattle grain is sorta like a diet of cake and cookies. And cattle love to eat sweet yummy cake and cookies.” This diet is unhealthy but “for a steer in a feedlot … you slaughter them before it hurts them. They love to eat it. They come running when the feed truck comes.”

3. Realistic improvements for chickens

There are two types of chickens: the ones you eat and the ones that lay eggs that you eat. For the egg-layers, conditions in battery cages are terrible. The cage ceiling is so low the momma chicken can’t even fully stand up. However, there are some new “furnished cages” that provide “enriched housing.” There are no bird recliners or TVs, but the birds can stand up all the way and there’s even a little nest box where they can scratch around and lay their eggs in a little hidden area. This is a good alternative for commercial operations. If the birds aren’t in cages they create a lot of dust, which makes breathing harder.

4. Are all animals entitled to sunlight and grass?

There’s a trade-off between the treatment of animals and the ability of people with low incomes to afford healthy food. Twenty-five percent of people work minimum wage jobs and need to buy cheap eggs. Grandin says beef is a luxury, but eggs are a necessity.

How much do hens care about enjoying sunlight and grass? Just like you have your favorite recliner, hens have living preferences too. A hen’s desires can be scientifically measured so you can see what’s most important. “There are objective ways to measure her motivation to get something she wants — like a private nest box. How long is she willing to not eat to get it, or how heavy a door will she push to get it? How many times will she push a switch to get it?”

A hen’s gut instinct tells her to hide eggs from foxes, so she needs a piece of plastic to hide behind. Hens don’t have as strong of a motivation to go outside. “The motivation is pretty weak compared to something like the nest box, which is hard wired. Take dust bathing — for a hen dust bathing is nice to do, but it’s kind of like, ‘Yes, it’s nice to have a fancy hotel room, but the EconoLodge will do too.’”

5. Breeding strategies focused on more than optimizing food production

“When you push that animal too hard — either genetically or whatever — you start to have problems with its biology. When you breed an animal just to be productive, productive, productive, there’s always a price. Nothing is free in this world. They were breeding some of the hardiness out. It takes energy to fight off disease … ”

“... Pigs still have bad structural issues that started back in the late ’80s. If you’re just breeding for production traits, you don’t bother to look at the leg structure to make sure it won’t get lame.”

6. The worst animal rights abuses

“One of the problems that the dairy industry got into was breeding these gigantic big cows that would last just two years milking. Some of the really progressive dairies now are starting to go to smaller cows that last three or four years milking, a much better cow. I visited a couple this spring.”

“There are about a third of the dairies here in Colorado that are really, really progressive and really, really good. And there’s another percentage that are not, that will milk cows until they are half dead and then market them. There’s a certain segment of the dairy industry that’s just horrible. About 25 percent of all dairy cattle are lame, and lame cattle are in pain — that’s just not acceptable.” The cows are lame because of genetic breeding and standing on concrete so much, Grandin said.

7. Warning for activist companies

“You have to pick out some specific thing to work on. I worked on improving slaughter plants — that’s a specific thing. You gotta pick out something specific if you want to make constructive change on the ground, not destructive change. We have this abstractification, with activists attacking things they don’t even know anything about. And ag has responded poorly. Ag gag laws: dumbest thing they could have ever done. That just makes you look guilty. Why are they passing laws to make it a crime to videotape something?”

Image credit: Micolo J via Flickr

Renee Farris headshotRenee Farris

Renee is a social impact strategist who works with companies to help them focus on key social and environmental opportunities. She loves connecting with people so feel free to contact her at renee.a.farris@gmail.com.

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