An interview with animal scientist Temple Grandin

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

This is a corrected version of this story; an earlier version omitted part of the first question and answer.

Temple Grandin is an animal scientist whose work designing cattle pens and corrals revolutionized slaughterhouses in the 1970s and '80s. Today, she estimates that half of the cattle in the United States and Canada are handled in equipment she has designed. Grandin, 62, is also autistic and lectures tirelessly at conferences across the country telling her life story and advocating early therapies for the disorder. She lives in Fort Collins, Colo., where she is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She credits her autism for her special ability to empathize with animals.

The biographical film "Temple Grandin," which aired on HBO in February and starred Claire Danes, ignited a new interest in Grandin and her work. The scientist squeezed in a phone call with us while on a layover en route to an autism meeting in Pennsylvania.

-- Rachel Saslow

The HBO film chronicled your life as a young woman but left off 30 years ago. Are you still working on slaughterhouse design?

The newest thing I've been working on is a numerical scoring system that measures how well a plant is handling its animals. It's been in use for 10 years. It looks at how many cattle fell down during handling, how many got poked with an electrical prod, how many were mooing or bellowing.

I can measure that. If three cattle fall down, you fail the audit.

The movie is from the beginning of my career when I was much more focused on equipment. Good equipment is half the equation and the other half is management. You've got to have management that cares.

How has your autism helped you understand animals?

Well, I'm a visual thinker. I think totally in pictures, and so do animals. Animals don't have words. They are completely sensory-based with pictures, smells and sounds. There's no other way to store information in their brains.

I thought that everybody could do visual thinking. I didn't realize it was a special skill until I started interviewing [people] about how they think. I was really shocked to find out that most people don't think in such photo-realistic pictures. For example, if I asked you to think about a factory, most people get kind of a vague thing in their heads. I see specific ones: you know, the John Deere plant in Moline, Illinois.

How did you start working in the cattle and meat industry?

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company