Winter 2013

A Thousand Words

How picture-based thinking makes for hamburger with a heart

By Genevieve Rajewski

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Temple Grandin, an advocate for food animals. Photo: Matt Slaby

Temple Grandin says she’s often asked if food animals are afraid when they go to slaughter. The answer, says the internationally  renowned animal scientist, is both yes and no.

“Some may say it’s anthropomorphic to say [that animals experience] fear,” Grandin, a professor at Colorado State University, told an audience at the Cummings School during a visit last summer. “But they do. The evidence that supports that is all over the neuroscience literature.”

Animals and people share the same neurotransmitters and emotional systems, she said, including dopamine, a chemical linked to play and learning, and oxytocin, the so-called love hormone associated with sex, empathy and nurturing. “The main difference between human and dog emotion is complexity,” said Grandin, who developed a less-stressful system for handling beef cattle at processing plants. “[People] filter emotions through a giant computer upstairs. A dog doesn’t have as big a computer. [An animal] lacks higher-order association.”

While cows, pigs and other meat animals do not understand what is about to happen to them at the slaughterhouse, Grandin said they often experience anxiety brought on by the unfamiliar surroundings at meat-processing facilities— a dark entryway, light reflecting on the floor, a hanging chain and other “things people tend not to notice.”

Since the 1970s, Grandin has made a career out of eliminating these stressors for animals bound for our plates, often by literally climbing into a chute to view the process from a four-legged perspective. The solutions are often simple, such as lighting an entryway to eliminate foreboding shadows or installing nonslip mats so the animals can walk without fear of falling.

This kind of attention to detail, she said, means the difference between a meat animal’s last moments being relatively peaceful or filled with dread.

“For those of us working in animal welfare, [Grandin] has been one of our heroes for a long time, said Emily McCobb, V00, M.S.02, assistant director of Tufts’ Center for Animals and Public Policy. “The work she does makes a difference for animals in the real world.”

Named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine in 2010 for her work in livestock behavior and autism advocacy, Grandin said she uses her experiences as an autistic person to “relate to the very specific way that an animal thinks.

“If you want to understand animals, you need to get away from verbal language,” she said. “Theirs is a world full of picture, sound, taste and touch memories. It’s detailed, sensory-based information.”

Research shows that the normal human mind tends to eliminate details, while autistic minds tend to retain detail, she said. In developing recommendations for more humane treatment of food animals, Grandin said she employs highly specific mental images of “good stockmanship” and “animal cruelty” that she has gathered during hundreds of visits to farms and slaughter plants.

She has designed better equipment and facilities for handling livestock and trained feedlot managers about behavioral principles for handling cattle. She convinced many in the agricultural industry to pursue calmer and gentler techniques by showing them that a humane approach has economic benefits: better animal weight gain, less bruised meat and fewer accidents.

“If you want to understand animals, you need to get away from verbal language. Theirs is a world full of picture, sound, taste and touch memories.” —Temple Grandin

Most recently, Grandin developed a scoring system for assessing how cattle and pigs are handled that is used by McDonald’s, Wendy’s and other large food corporations to improve animal welfare. Again, the system relies on pictures, or observable factors, such as counting the number of skinny or lame cows and tracking what percentage of animals vocalize (a sign of distress) or fall down.

“So many guidelines [for animal welfare] use ridiculous words like ‘properly,’ ‘adequate’ and  ‘sufficient,’ ” said Grandin. “What do [these terms] even mean?”

Although Grandin looks like she must have grown up a cowgirl—convincingly attired in a spangled shirt, a red bandana knotted jauntily at her throat—she is a native of Boston.

During lunch with Tufts students pursuing master’s degrees in animals and public policy, she noted the Cummings School campus played an unexpected role in shaping her destiny.

Grandin’s mother visited the campus in North Grafton, Mass., when it was the site of a state mental hospital. She saw a group of naked autistic children “stimming”— rocking, spinning, flapping their hands and engaging in other repetitive behaviors—and resolved that her daughter would never be institutionalized. She enrolled Grandin in a speech therapy school three days a week and hired a nanny, who played turn-taking games with Grandin so the withdrawn girl couldn’t tune out completely.

“That saved me,” she said. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here now.”

Genevieve Rajewski can be reached at genevieve.rajewski@tufts.edu.

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