After the Academy Award winning HBO biographical feature about her life, Temple Grandin’s name and work has surely become better known across the United States. We here in Colorado, and especially in Fort Collins, are particularly proud of her, since she’s been teaching for over 20 years just a few miles down the road from me at Colorado State University.
I don’t know Dr. Grandin personally, but I did have the pleasure of hearing her speak at Virginia Tech when I was a veterinary student there and have followed her work ever since. The message that I took away from her talk (and I’m paraphrasing here — this was 15 years ago or so, after all) was, "It’s the results that count. When evaluating a procedure or practice, don’t get so bogged down in the minutiae that you lose sight of the big picture."
One example that she gave was the problem of cattle slipping and falling in handling facilities. You could examine the issue in so many ways — traction of the materials placed underfoot, how chutes were arranged, lighting, the use of cattle prods, etc.— all of which can be quantified and statistically analyzed. What really counts, however, is if a change is made, did fewer bovine butts hit the floor? If it works, it really doesn’t matter why.
For those of you unfamiliar with Dr. Grandin’s work, she is responsible for significantly improving the treatment and welfare of livestock. Some of her most influential work has been in the design of humane handling facilities for animals headed to slaughter. Her goal has been to create facilities that keep the animals calm and relaxed throughout the process, and she has been very successful.
Temple Grandin is autistic, something she describes as a gift in her line of work because it allows her to think visually, like animals do, and to be more in touch with the physical world. I remember her mentioning how she was called out to one slaughter facility where cattle refused to pass through a chute and panicked when they were forced to do so. The facility managers simply could not figure out what was wrong. She said that as soon as she started to walk through the chute herself (crouching down to bring her eyes level to where the cattle’s would be) she immediately noticed a startling light that was reflecting off of a highly polished piece of metal and an aggravating noise originating from a loose bit of chain. The managers fixed these two issues, and from then on the animals remained calm during their trips through the chute.
Of course, Dr. Grandin’s autism also presented many challenges throughout her career and life. This is another reason why she is so inspiring, and why, in addition to her good work, the new Dr. Temple Grandin Scholarship in Animal Behavior and Welfare at Colorado State University is so well-deserved.
Congratulations, Dr. Grandin.
Dr. Jennifer Coates
Image: Temple Grandin / via The Pursuit of Harpyness