Temple Grandin, an animal scientist who teaches at Colorado State University, works to improve animal welfare in farming. She is autistic, and, as she told Terry Gross, she thinks that may give her a special ability to do her work:

It was easy for me to figure out how animals think and how animals would react because I think visually. Animals don’t think in language. They think in pictures. It’s very easy for me to imagine what would it be like to go through a system if you really were a cow, not a person in a cow costume but really were a cow, and autistic senses and emotions are more like the senses of an animal.

My nervous system was hyper-vigilant. Any little thing out of place, like a water stain on the ceiling, would set off a panic reaction, and cattle are scared of the same thing. They’re scared of things like high-pitched noise, sudden clanging and banging, sudden movement, maybe even a little chain that hangs down in the chute and jiggles because it looks out of place, and things that are out of place can mean danger out in the wild.

I talked to Grandin for my recent piece on the morality of meat-eating, and the interview was so interesting I decided to publish the whole thing (edited and condensed for clarity). For those looking for something with citations, Grandin also writes about most of the things we discussed in this paper, and in her book, Improving Animal Welfare: A Practical Approach.


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Q. Do you think that meat eating is OK, and ethical, within our existing system?

A. We’ve gotta give animals a life worth living. That’s what the Farm Animal Welfare Council in England said. Before I heard that, I said “a decent life,” but I like “a life worth living.”

Q. What about confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs); are they as [harmful to animals] …

A. That’s really a big blanket statement.

Q. Absolutely, let’s dig into it.

A. You can’t just say CAFO is this, everything else is this — that’s just painting with too broad a brush. Things aren’t that simple when you actually get out in the field and look at stuff. Compared to the bad old days, it’s drastically improved, and I mean drastically. And the handling at slaughter plants has drastically improved.

Q. So what are the qualities of a cattle finishing operation that give the animals a good life?

A. Keeping the pens dry and keeping cattle clean — that’s really important. When I first started out in cattle, we had lots of feedlots in Arizona, where it’s very dry. So the feedyards did not get muddy, and it provided a good environment.

Q. Why is it so important to keep them dry? From my uninformed perspective that seems like a relatively minor point.

A. It’s the single most important thing in feed yard design. You’ve got to do your dirt work. You’ve got to go in there with big equipment and spend the money to slope the land correctly for drainage. You just can’t do it right if you have puddles of water standing around. If cattle are standing in mud, they are more likely to go lame, and that’s a huge welfare issue.

And then, of course, how you handle cattle, that’s the bright spot — that’s something that has really improved. People have seen the value in using low-stress methods of handling. Stunning and handling at the slaughter plant is greatly improved. I worked with McDonald’s in 1999 and 2000, and back then it was terrible — broken stunning equipment, yelling and screaming and hitting cattle, poking them repeatedly with electric prods. Now, things are not perfect; but they are much, much better than they were in the bad old days.

Q. Are there elements that I might see if I go to a good finishing operation that I might find repellent that are not repellent for a steer?

A. Well, of course, if there are a lot of cattle in one place, they are going to smell. That’s one of the things that really bothers a lot of people. And I’ve had a lot of people tell me that.

Q. Does that bother the animals?

A. I don’t think so. You’ve got to control dust. You’ve got to control mud.

Q. What about feed? I hear people saying that feeding cattle grain isn’t good for them.

A. Well, feeding cattle grain is sorta like a diet of cake and cookies. And cattle love to eat sweet yummy cake and cookies. Obviously a mama cow out on a ranch can’t eat that — because you aren’t going to be healthy eating cake and cookies all your life. But then, for a steer in a feedlot, the whole thing is that you slaughter them before it hurts them. They love to eat it. They come running when the feed truck comes. Of course, beef is the least confined compared to egg-layers or pigs.

Q. Right, so maybe we should talk about that. Take chickens first.

A. Remember there are two types of chickens that live in very different conditions. There’s the meat chicken, or broiler, and they live in sheds just walking around on the ground, and then you have egg-layers. And that’s where the real housing controversy is. There are things the egg-layers need to get changed — the standard battery cages where the ceiling is so low the bird can’t stand at normal walking height.

There’s a new kind of cage design — furnished cage, enriched housing, colony housing — they’re all the same thing. The birds can walk at full height. They have a very strong urge to lay their eggs in a secluded spot, so the cage has a little nest box, a perch, and a place for them to scratch. For a large-scale commercial operation that’s probably a good alternative. Now if you raise them in loose housing without cages, you do have problems with dust — it’s hard to keep the atmosphere good. There are tradeoffs on the different systems. I think the colony house is the way to go.

Q. So are big operations with enriched cages good?

A. Well, I have a new thing: Big is fragile. The recent avian flu killed 80 percent of the hens that lay for the liquid egg market. Half of all eggs go into baked and processed foods — it’s called liquid eggs. Big is very efficient; it’s not bad! It’s fragile. When you look at the consumer survey data, local is something people really want. And you know, I think deep down inside, that’s a primitive instinct about food security. What happens if the Walmart truck stops coming? You look at the port strikes on the West Coast: You had refrigerated containers rotting on the docks. Meat supply chains are very fragile.

Q. I think of cars as an analogy — we have cars now that are much faster and much more efficient than the Model T, but when they crash it’s a much bigger deal.

A. Big is definitely efficient. When it works it’s great! But it’s also bad, because it’s a much bigger mess when it crashes.

Q. Getting back to egg-layers — I look at this with my human values and say I’d like the hens to be exposed to sunlight, and grass …

A. Well, then it’s much more expensive. And we’ve got 25 percent of people in this country working minimum wage jobs and they gotta buy the cheapest eggs they can lay their hands on. I think eggs are a necessity — beef you could say is a luxury, but not eggs.

Q. From the hen’s point of view — of course we can’t totally know — but how important do you think it is to be outside?

A. Well I think there are certain behavioral needs we should satisfy, and you can actually, scientifically, look at what things a hen wants the most. There are objective ways to measure her motivation to get something she wants — like a private nest box. How long is she willing to not eat to get it, or how heavy a door will she push to get it? How many times will she push a switch to get it?

A private nest box is something she wants, because in the wild she has an instinct to hide in the bushes so that a fox doesn’t get [her eggs]. Give her some pieces of plastic to hang down that she can hide behind. Give her a little piece of astroturf to lay [her eggs] on. Give her a perch, and a piece of plastic to scratch on, and at least enough cage height so she can walk normally. I’m gonna call that apartment living for chickens. Do they need natural elements? Being outside? Science can’t answer that. I mean, there are people in New York that hardly go outside.

Q. But can’t you use those same objective measurement techniques to see how badly the hens want to go outside and scratch for bugs?

A. Well you can, and the motivation is pretty weak compared to something like the nest box, which is hard wired. Take dust bathing — for a hen dust bathing is nice to do, but it’s kind of like, ‘Yes, it’s nice to have a fancy hotel room, but the EconoLodge will do too.’ Motivation isn’t as great.

Q. If we move over to pigs, now the controversy is about gestation crates.

A. Well, on gestation crates, the science shows that they do just fine. That’s what the science shows. But that’s a degree of confinement that two-thirds of the public find unacceptable. People say things like, ‘I wouldn’t put my dog in that.’ That’s something that probably needs to get changed. Does that mean the pig needs to go outside? Probably not.

Another thing is that all the research that’s been done on gestation crates was done on young gilts [female pigs that haven’t had babies yet] on their first litter, and they actually can sit in the stalls [because they are small]. Now you’ve got a lot of farms out there where the stalls are so tight that the sow can’t even lay on her side, and no research supports that.

Q. Another thing people get upset about is the separating of dairy calves from their mothers.

A. That’s been going on for as long as I’ve been around on every little family dairy that ever was. That’s not new. They did that on our 12-cow dairy when I was a student in high school.

Q. Obviously it’s nothing new, but is it OK?

A. I’m not going to say she doesn’t get upset, but a Holstein gets less upset than a beef cow does. An Angus cow will get a lot more upset. There are a lot of individual differences, but on average that’s true. What I’m more concerned about is that we’ve bred that Holstein so much for milk production. I have a term that I call biological system overload. When you push that animal too hard — either genetically or whatever — you start to have problems with its biology.

When you breed an animal just to be productive, productive, productive, there’s always a price. Nothing is free in this world. They were breeding some of the hardiness out. It takes energy to fight off disease, and it takes energy to make meat. I think we need to be looking at what optimizes production. There are places they are putting HEPA filters — you know, the things that bubble-boy would have — on the windows of pig barns. Well, I don’t know if that’s the way. Maybe we need to breed a more hardy pig.

Q. And there are issues with genetics and structural problems, right?

A. Oh yeah. Broiler chickens 10 years ago had really bad structural issues with their legs. They’ve actually corrected some of those problems, and now they have tree-trunks for legs. Pigs still have bad structural issues that started back in the late ’80s. If you’re just breeding for production traits, you don’t bother to look at the leg structure to make sure it won’t get lame.

Q. There was something I wanted to get at with you, because I’d seen animal activists talking about you on the internet, playing on the stereotype that autistic people are cold and unfeeling. But it’s clear when you write about animals that you have tremendous empathy and deep feeling for them. I was really struck by the passage in which you described working on an animal holding mechanism for a slaughterhouse, then crying all the way back to the airport.

[That passage: “To design a good restrainer system, you have to really care about the animals it will hold. You have to imagine what it would be like if you were the animal entering the restrainer. It is a sobering experience to be a caring person, yet to design a device to kill large numbers of animals. When I complete a project I am left with a feeling of great satisfaction, but I usually cry all the way to the airport.”]

A. I did cry all the way back to the airport, yes I did. Then I think of another project. I was up on a catwalk over a whole sea of cattle — this was in the summer of 1990 — and getting kind of upset about it. And then I thought, you know, none of those cattle would have been born if we hadn’t bred them — they would never have existed at all. But we’ve got to give them a decent life.

Also, with my kind of metabolism, being a vegan is just not going to work. I think there are genetic differences in the ability to tolerate a vegan diet, and I [don’t have them]. My mother is the same way — she’s got to have her sausage in the morning.

Q. And so when you look at just sort of the average of what we have for animal agriculture in the U.S., do these animals have a decent life as far as you are concerned?

A. It varies a lot. Some people do a better job than others. I think cattle, done right, have a decent life. There are some muddy feed yards that need to be worked on. I think another issue we’ve got to look at is shade. We are growing cattle bigger, we’ve got more black cattle, we’ve got to start shading these feed yards. Keeping cattle clean is really important. But cattle I’ve seen in dry feed yards, I think they have a decent life, yes.

Q. What are the biggest issues that need to be addressed?

A. Well, pigs and laying hens are the most controversial. If you look online, the worst activist video — where people are hitting cows and stuff — is dairy. Pitchforks in the milking parlor, beating cows, just bad stuff.

Q. And that may have something to do with labor, and the conditions those workers are living in.

A. There are some very good dairymen. One of the problems that the dairy industry got into was breeding these gigantic big cows that would last just two years milking. Some of the really progressive dairies now are starting to go to smaller cows that last three or four years milking, a much better cow. I visited a couple this spring. There are about a third of the dairies here in Colorado that are really, really progressive and really, really good. And there’s another percentage that are not, that will milk cows until they are half dead and then market them. There’s a certain segment of the dairy industry that’s just horrible. About 25 percent of all dairy cattle are lame, and lame cattle are in pain — that’s just not acceptable.

Q. Is that a genetic issue?

A. Partially, but also standing on concrete, foot diseases — there are a lot of different causes. Having these humongous cows tends to make it worse.

Q. So are there specific things that you’d like to see changed? Forget about what the activists want, forget about public opinion for a second, just from the perspective of what science suggests would be good for the animals …

A. People get into, “big is bad, small is good.” It’s not that simple. The key is management. Whether you are big or small, you’ve got to have good management. Another thing you cannot do is understaff and overwork. If you overwork people they are going to get so tired there’s no way they can do things right.

We’ve got to figure out sensible things to do. The thing that worries me on a lot of these issues is that we’ve got more and more people getting involved who have never done anything practical, because schools have taken out all the cooking, sewing, woodworking, and art. And in the real world of practical things, nothing can be perfect. You can work to make it better, but it won’t be perfect.

You have to pick out some specific thing to work on. I worked on improving slaughter plants — that’s a specific thing. You gotta pick out something specific if you want to make constructive change on the ground, not destructive change. We have this abstractification, with activists attacking things they don’t even know anything about. And ag has responded poorly. Ag gag laws: dumbest thing they could have ever done. That just makes you look guilty. Why are they passing laws to make it a crime to videotape something?

Q. This has been really fascinating. Any last words?

A. We have got to find reasonable, practical things to do. I’m worried about pushing animal biology too hard — either with genetics or with drugs or whatever — and I like to look at welfare on outcome-based measures. First of all, you gotta make sure your air quality is good, they aren’t lame, they don’t have sores on them, they are clean, and they get to act out their behavioral needs.