A man on a horse and a man on foot are two different things
The snow was predicted to start falling at midnight. Temple Grandin, one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World, was scheduled to speak with UW students the morning of March 23 at 11:30. The snow arrived, Grandin did not.
A foot of the wet, spring variety and a monochrome of swirling white closed all roads between Laramie and Fort Collins, Colorado, where Grandin is a professor of livestock behavior and welfare at Colorado State University.
Grandin is known as autism’s most famous spokesperson and the woman who revolutionized humane livestock handling. For members of the UW Range Club, Grandin’s road to Laramie traced back to Sacramento, California, and the Society for Range Management annual meeting in February 2015.
The UW Range Club is the student chapter of the Wyoming Section of the Society of Range Management and helps students prepare for range management professions.
“Grandin was the plenary speaker,” explains BJ Bender, a rangeland ecology and watershed management major. “But all the student activities were scheduled during her presentation.”
The Range Club invited Grandin to UW.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Bender. “In March, I was at the Mr. T Bull Riding Competition when my cell phone rang, and I heard, ‘This is Temple Grandin.’
“Temple Grandin was on my phone!”
The day after the snow, Grandin, with her coordinator, Teresa Corey, arrived in Laramie to meet Bender and give two public talks.
Striding back and forth across the checkerboard floor at the front of the College of Agriculture Auditorium, Grandin takes up a theme she wrote about with Catherine Johnson in Animals Make Us Human.
“Cattle’s first experience with new people and places must be good,” she says, commanding the attention of students, professors, and others from the livestock community.
Grandin is dressed in a black ranch-style shirt with golden roses embroidered on the yoke and pearl-button cuffs up to the elbows. Her wavy salt-and-pepper hair appears perpetually wind-swept.
“A man on a horse and a man on foot are not the same thing,” says Grandin. “If a cow’s only seen a man on a horse, a man on foot is a different picture, one it hasn’t seen before.”
Grandin describes herself as one who thinks in pictures, her brain a search engine set to the image function. Diagnosed with autism at age 3, she credits visual thinking for her ability to understand the animals she works with and her career as a livestock handling equipment designer.
She urges stock growers to habituate cattle with people and loading before sending them to the feedlot or packing plant. The heart of her approach is described in chapter one of Animals Make Us Human:
“My theory is that the environment animals live in should activate their positive emotions as much as possible and not activate their negative emotions any more than necessary. If we get the animal’s emotions right, we will have fewer problem behaviors.”
The behavior problems Grandin speaks of have consequences for people, animals, and the meat they provide.
“Fear is a proper scientific term,” she states. She paints a picture of factors that unsettle cattle in a chute: corners, shadows, slippery floors, crowding, bunching, electric prods, and barking blue heelers.
As fear factors add up, cortisol lactate levels rise. The end-product of stress is meat that is dark, dry, high in pH, and has a shortened shelf life. Before Grandin’s five-point auditing procedures were adopted at major plants, the incidence of downers, dead in the chute, was unacceptably high. Now it is rare. (“Don’t let bad become normal” is a key Grandin concept.)
She speaks in declarations.
- Make chutes with solid walls, not slats cattle can see through (no open sides).
- Don’t park pickups close-by; cattle get startled if they see reflections from the bumpers.
- Time the bunches moving through a chute.
- Teach good following behavior.
- Practice crowd control.
- Stroke, don’t hit.
- Never scream or yell.
Good stockmanship requires confidence, she says, commending the character of the confident introvert. “Happy Chirpy Charlie isn’t the best.” She says. “Twenty percent get it, 10 percent shouldn’t be there, and the rest need to be supervised.”
It’s a two-way street. “Cattle have got to have manners,” she insists. No mobbing around the gate. No eating off the floor.
Grandin’s observation: problems at the plant usually start with problems at the farm. She recommends walking among the cattle within their flight zone and keeping training lessons short. Ten minutes a day.
Grandin would later reveal as a child in Boston, her mother had her shaking hands at cocktail parties at age 8. A child with autism had to learn to be around people.
“A good attitude toward animals improves productivity and handling,” says Grandin. “You have to go back to the brain to understand animal welfare.”
Emily Post might agree. “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others,” she said. “If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.”