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Temple Grandin to students: Learn what animals notice

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Joe Schwartz
Temple Grandin
Jason Koski/University Photography
Temple Grandin, Rhodes Class of '56 Professor and an autistic designer of livestock facilities, speaks at an animal science seminar. Grandin's visit to campus was her last as a Rhodes professor.

To improve conditions for cattle, you have to learn to think -- and see -- like a cow. So said Temple Grandin, an animal welfare expert and Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of '56 Professor, at an animal science seminar Feb. 23 in Morrison Hall during her last visit to campus as a Rhodes professor.

"If you want to understand animal behavior, you have to get away from language. Animals are visual thinkers and sound thinkers," Grandin said. What makes cows and pigs panic as they enter a slaughterhouse are small visual cues that humans tend to ignore, such as a chain hanging from the ceiling, a coat on a fence post or reflections off smooth surfaces.

"They notice the little things," Grandin explained, "and I want to get you to be more observant."

Grandin, who also spoke to food science students and gave a public lecture on animal behavior and welfare, among other activities, is a professional designer of livestock facilities who has spent her career figuring out what frightens pigs and cattle. These animals experience fear, she said, despite some claims to the contrary. "Fear circuits have been mapped in animal brains -- that's not anthropomorphism; that's neuroscience," she said.

Grandin, who has autism, became well known after being described by Oliver Sacks in his book "An Anthropologist on Mars." She has recently re-entered the public eye through an HBO film starring Claire Danes about her life, which will be screened by Cornell Cinema Feb. 25.

An advocate for more transparency in the agriculture business, Grandin has posted several videos that demonstrate proper animal handling. "I decided to put my stuff up on YouTube because ag has been doing a really bad job of communicating with the public," she said.

"Most of the other videos up there are bad, and I'm finding that most people think all the [animal processing] plants are terrible, and that everything looks like it does on the animal rights Web sites. If we don't show what we do, there will be people out there who just want to get rid of animal ag altogether because they only see the bad stuff," she said.

She explained that, "when an industry gets bashed, it should be opening a door, not shutting it. We want to get some reasonable discussion."

When a student asked how she gets along with animal rights groups, Grandin responded that while she has the respect and support of many activists, "some people have called me a Nazi!"

Grandin has witnessed horrendous handling of animals in some facilities, she said, and described several of the monstrosities that can occur at chicken layer houses. She explained that, despite these horrors, she has managed to remain in the industry because early in her career she worked with cattle that had good living conditions. She saw how raising beef could be done right.

"Maybe had I started with chickens, I would've wound up working for PETA," she said.

"The talk was really interesting," said Natasha Pettifor, a graduate student in animal science. Although she works with sheep and not cows, she said Grandin's lecture "made me want to go over to the beef facilities and work with them a little bit, just out of curiosity."

Graduate student Melissa Rice is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.


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