Grandin seeks happier animals — and people
August 3, 2015
CARBONDALE — Before autistic advocate and animal behavior specialist Temple Grandin spoke to two sold-out audiences Tuesday evening, she spent the day with the organizations that helped bring her to town in the first place.
Her packed itinerary began with a visit to Sustainable Settings, a nonprofit farm that emphasizes public education. There, she provided advice on how best to tweak facilities and practices to keep cattle and other animals happy — and make things easier on humans as well.
"I do put human safety first," said Grandin, a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University.
In most cases, human and nonhuman interests don't have to be at odds. Both Grandin and Sustainable Settings cofounder Brook LeVan agreed that a stressful or painful slaughter makes for lower quality food.
"Stress gets in the meat," said LeVan.
Always a proponent of raising livestock for a good life and one, final bad day, LeVan says he hopes to get the bad time down to as short a moment as possible.
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"As my wife says, life is sacred but you've gotta eat it," he said. "We want to keep 'em happy and healthy all the way."
For such a small operation, Grandin mainly advocated building associations in the tradition of Pavlov's dog. If a herd of cows mobs the truck bringing feed, throw out food only when they give you a bit of space. If you have to do a painful procedure, don't do it somewhere you want them to be comfortable later on. She even discussed building in rewards with variable reinforcement — which she compared to the random settings on slot machines — to keep cows hoping for a treat without having to provide one every time.
Training is particular effective, she said, with dairy cows that go through more or less the same routine every day. Surveying a trio of cud-chewing heifers as they were brought in to be milked without any need for restraint or much coaxing at all, she seemed to think Sustainable Settings was already on the right track.
"They're all nice and calm," she observed. "You're dealing with completely trained animals."
With non-dairy cows, she cautioned against trying to make them too tame. She encouraged ranch operators to cull the real troublemakers but leave those with enough spark to fend for themselves.
"If you over-select for one trait, you're going to get in trouble," she said. "We don't want to turn beef cattle into a bunch of Holsteins."
Sustainable Settings hasn't reached that point yet, but the tameness of the cattle was no challenge for Grandin. She didn't treat the difference as a bad thing.
"I have a feeling Big Ag's gonna have some things to learn from Little Ag," she said.
After a tour of the facilities, she had a chance to look over plans for a new dairy barn put together by Greenline Architects that drew inspiration from her work. Many aspects, she said, weren't necessary with such cooperative animals. She emphasized nonslip surfaces and investing money where it really matters, like on the squeeze chute.
Greenline was also instrumental in arranging Grandin's visit. The firm, which caters to nonprofits, also did work for Ascendigo, a local organization that arranges outdoor activities and other programming for people on the autistic spectrum. They provided a link with Sustainable Settings that brought Ascendigo clients out for raw milk and produce, and later forged a partnership to provide hands-on experience.
Perhaps it was that connection that inspired LeVan to think about asking Grandin out to consult.
"I've been aware of her work for years," he said. "Her name just comes up when you start looking into animal welfare."
The partnership is the perfect fusion of Grandin's passions. Although she didn't speak until she was 4 and psychiatrists recommended institutionalization, Grandin's parents resisted. When she was 15, her mother had her spend a week working on her aunt's farm, and encouraged her to stay the whole summer if she liked it.
The result was the sort of purposeful work that she says many high-functioning people on the autistic spectrum don't get.
"They've made the spectrum so broad that people can't seem to get it out of their heads that someone highly verbal needs higher expectations," said Grandin, who was the subject of an Emmy Award-winning HBO movie. "You expand their world, otherwise their world shrinks."
She encouraged parents to find simple, nearby opportunities to put their autistic children's interests to work in their community, and bemoaned the decline of hands-on classes and trade training in public schools.
"I think it hurts autistic kids more than it hurts other kids," she said.
Moreover, it deprives the world of the sort of eccentric geniuses who have pushed it forward in the past.
"If we didn't have Asperger's traits, we wouldn't have as many NASA scientists," she said. "These are people who are less interested in socializing than doing cool stuff like going to the moon."
Instead, she said, many people on the autistic spectrum are allowed to retreat into themselves, spending all their time online or playing video games. In an effort to prevent undue stress, their loved ones never push them to thrive.
"You get an honor student who never goes shopping," she said. "That's ridiculous."
That's not Ascendigo's mode of operation. In the afternoon, Grandin had a chance to tour the program's equine therapy program, the result of a partnership with Equine Connections of Colorado. She also stopped by a private home in Carbondale that will house three autistic residents in a Greenline-designed environment.
Grandin seemed impressed with everything she saw, and the team of organizations involved in inviting her out seemed happy with the outcome.
"A twofer is great; a threefer is the best," said Ascendigo president Sallie Bernard. "The fact that she was able to help Sustainable Settings and us, plus the public piece, is perfect."