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.
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.’”
“... 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.”
“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.
Image credit: Micolo J via Flickr