Hall of Famer Dr. Temple Grandin speaks about different styles of learning at Eastern Wyoming College event
for Tri-State Livestock News
“What would happen to some of the top innovators today? What would happen to them in today’s educational system?” began Dr. Temple Grandin, herself a celebrated animal welfare and behavior expert, autism advocate, author and professor. “Many of these innovators did not follow conventional educational paths,” she continued. For example, Jane Goodall started her work with primates having only a two-year secretarial degree. Thomas Edison was labeled hyperactive and addled by his teachers but conducted his own experiments early on. Steven Speilberg was rejected from the top film school due to poor grades.
These unique-minded people all had something in common, however. They came from families where education was valued, they had early exposure to things that would at some point become interests, and perhaps most important, they all had early work experience aside from school. As a teenager, Dr. Grandin had sewing jobs, cared for horses and did carpentry work.
People with unique minds and skills are sometimes bullied in school, as was Dr. Grandin, who was diagnosed with autism at age three. She found that she wasn’t bullied when she became involved with people having shared interests. Educators, too, must not screen out students who think differently, but instead try to help and encourage them. Hands-on classes such as art, theater, electronics and shop are beneficial but are in many cases are disappearing from school curricula.
Dr. Grandin said there are a number of these different kinds of thinkers. She is a visual thinker — one who thinks entirely in pictures. In this case, keywords trigger visual associations rather than abstractions. When given the word “tractor” by a member of the audience, she responded by describing in detail the tractors she had seen in her life, instead of giving a generalized depiction of a tractor. Drafters are also visual thinkers. A downside to these thinkers is that they are prime candidates for video game addiction, due to the visual stimulation. Other thinkers include pattern thinkers — the mathematicians and engineers. Still others are verbal thinkers. It takes all kinds of thinkers to keep projects moving forward.
Dr. Grandin started applying her thinking style to cattle behavior after spending time on an aunt’s ranch. She took a special interest in the squeeze chute that was used there to restrain the animals, and decided she could improve upon it. She became more and more fascinated with cattle and what motivated their behavior. At feedlots she watched them closely, noticing that they balked at sunbeams, shadows, parked cars, and even coats on fences. She thought about what they were seeing that made them act in a fearful way. She used this knowledge to improve methods of handling cattle, such as putting lights at the entrance of a chute to encourage them to go inside. If there was any tin showing on the walls, she advised that it be removed and replaced with white translucent plastic so they could see through it. “It’s amazing what lighting can do,” she commented. “It can make or break you.”
Cattle also need to have secure footing, and this concept was used to redesign a dip vat for treating mites. Her ingenuity in designing working facilities took advantage of the natural tendency of cattle to travel in a circle and to go back to where they came from.
Meat packing plants were not spared from Dr. Grandin’s diligence, either. She knew that audits were the best way to ensure their compliance with the new, more humane standards. She would visit the plants with representatives from restaurant chains, and they would measure things that could be quantified. This included counting how many times electric prods were used, how many cattle vocalized or mooed, how many fell down, and how often the stun gun didn’t work properly. The prospect of losing a valuable customer due to noncompliance virtually guaranteed that these numbers would be manageable.
Dr. Grandin said that today, cattle handling is much better. Each year about half of the cattle in the U.S. and Canada are processed in cruelty-free facilities she has designed. Now she is starting to see other issues she feels are caused by narrow selection for genetic traits. In the late 80s this happened when the hog industry bred pigs for big loin eyes, rapid growth, and thin backfat. The result was aggressive animals with foot and leg problems. She has noticed lameness in dairy cattle and some heart defects in feedlot cattle. A few proposed reasons include heart disease, brisket disease, or simply large size which puts stress on the heart. “Don’t go overboard in selecting for traits,” warned Dr. Grandin. “It can get you into trouble.”
Dr. Grandin’s feelings about livestock and how their existence could be improved was a big motivator for her accomplishments. She not only revolutionized humane cattle handling but also improved upon the treatment of caged chickens and hogs in confinement. She stressed that animals intended for food deserve to have a good life as well as a death that’s free from fear and pain. Meat from stress free animals is also more tender and palatable. In the long run everyone benefits.
Dr. Temple Grandin spoke on March 27th at Eastern Wyoming College in Torrington before an audience of 700 people. The event was sponsored by the Western History Center of Lingle and funded in part by Go Goshen (County) Tourism. Proceeds went to the Southeast FFA Club in Yoder and the Bent Barrels Broken Arrows 4-H Club in Torrington.
Dr. Grandin was recently inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. F