We are honored and proud to share a conversation with Dr. Temple Grandin, one of the leading designers and thinkers in humane animal handling. Half the cattle slaughtered in North America are handled using equipment that she designed. Dr. Grandin also serves as an industry consultant, working with some of the largest meat processors and retailers in the world. She is currently a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University.
AGC: What drives your work in the agricultural industry?
Dr. Grandin: Making change happen! I can remember working back in the 80’s, it used to feel like I was banging my head against the wall. The industry was really awful in the 80’s, and the early 90’s were really bad too. When the McDonalds audits started in 1999, I saw more change than I’ve seen in my whole entire career. It’s very interesting watching the executives of big companies like McDonalds and Wendy’s take an issue that used to be an abstraction, an issue that they would normally delegate to the legal department or the public relations department, and give it attention and allow it to become something real. I remember the day that I saw one of those executives watch a half dead dairy cow going into their product. He was really upset. He said, “Wow, there really are some things that we need to change.”
AGC: For those who haven’t seen your movie, how did you discover your connection with animals? And how would you describe that connection?
Dr. Grandin: One of the things that really helped me was being an extremely visual thinker. That’s more like how cattle think. They don’t think in words; they are sensory based. Their world is sounds, touch sensations, pictures, and smells. I think that being more of a sensory based thinker helped me to understand animals. Their memories are visual; they will associate something that they were looking at the instant something bad happened to them.
AGC: What is the most common mistake you see in animal handling? Does this come from some great misunderstanding of animal behavior?
Dr. Grandin: People just get them too excited! The first thing that people have got to do is calm down, stop waving their arms, stop screaming, and stop whistling. That’s the first thing you’ve got to do. When cattle get scared they stick together like glue and then they are impossible to sort and it takes a half an hour for them to calm back down. So don’t get them all excited in the first place! People just need to understand and use behavior. People think you have to force things and they don’t understand that the animals will do it by themselves. I talk all the time about little distractions that make animals balk. People send me training videos for me to review and they always leave out talking about the little visual distractions. They don’t think that these details are important, but it won’t work if you don’t address those things. Most people don’t see the small visual details. It’s hard for people to understand that you can make simple changes like putting a piece of cardboard here, lighting something up here, picking up a hose here, and suddenly everything works better. It’s understanding and working with behavior.
AGC: Do you think that there is a place in animal handling for the electric prod?
Dr. Grandin: Yes, but in a very limited way. I would not recommend banning them. There is only one place where you might actually need an electric prod, and that is right before the squeeze chute. Like in all of the big plants now, there is only one electric prod in the whole place, and it’s at the entrance to the restrainer. And it’s NOT in someone’s hand. I’ll tell you one place where electric prods should be banned and that’s from being constantly carried around in somebody’s hand. That’s where it should not be. It is nice to have one though, so that when you have an animal that absolutely will not go in the squeeze chute, you can pick it up, use it, and then you put it away! That’s what you do. You put it away. Let’s get it out of the yards and get it out of the crowd pens.
AGC: Which of your published materials would you suggest for small producers who want to better understand animal behavior and low stress handling?
Dr. Grandin: My main book for producers is Humane Livestock Handling. There are a lot of designs in there for large facilities, but the whole first half of the book is about behavior. It’s got flight zone stuff and other useful information for small producers. That’s an inexpensive book to start with. They can also look at my website because there is a lot of information up there and it’s all free (www.grandin.com). I also have Improving Animal Welfare: a practical approach, which is more of a text book. And then I’ve got my book Livestock Handling and Transport, which is more of a review on the scientific literature. Any of those would be good resources.
AGC: When faced with the task of approaching an animal to perform some sort of treatment or veterinary procedure, what are the most important things to consider, or techniques to employ to make the experience as low stress as possible for the animal as well as the person?
Dr. Grandin: One of the things is that when you restrain an animal; make sure that your squeeze chute and your scale and stuff all have a non-slip floor. A corral with a dirt floor would count as non-slip, but if you’re on concrete you have to make sure it’s non-slip. When animals start to slip, they just panic and freak out. You’ve got to have non-slip flooring! The other thing is you’ve got to have something for a handling facility. You should at least have a lead-up chute with a head gate on the end of it. That would be a bare minimum, but I’d really like to see a complete squeeze chute. Think of it as insurance so you don’t end up in the hospital. Another really important thing is to make sure you keep the latches on your head gates maintained. I’ve seen too many accidents from poorly functioning head gate latches. I think that a squeeze chute is one of the few things that you really need to have. The rest of it can be pretty rudimentary, as long as it’s not a busted up wreck. Another thing is that when you are touching an animal, use firm touch, not light tickle touches. That will make an animal react and kick. It sets of a vigilance response.
AGC: Is there a major disconnect between your research and policy makers?
Dr. Grandin: Well, I was shocked to find out that we’ve got a lot of policy makers, people writing policy for meatpacking plants that have never been in one. I was really shocked when I found that out. It’s ridiculous! How can you create policy for something you’ve never even seen? There is some weird idea in policy theory that you shouldn’t see the things you are regulating.
AGC: Because it may create a bias?
Dr. Grandin: Yea, that’s right. I think that is totally ridiculous.
AGC: Please explain how low stress animal handling results in a higher quality finished product.
Dr. Grandin: In the last five minutes, you can completely wreck meat. If you’ve got electric prods all over cattle right before stunning, you’re going to have tough meat. Five minutes is the same for pigs. If you’re stressing them out in that critical time, you’re going to raise the lactate levels and have bad effects on the meat. Pigs are more fragile than cows in regards to stress induced meat toughness. And with Cattle, there is the issue of dark cutters₁, which is caused by long-term stress. That is also being affected by implant programs and beta agonists₂; I mean why are we putting all this stuff into cows? It’s wrecking the quality of the meat. Quality and quantity, they’re two opposing goals. If we either use genetics, or hormones, or whatever to make them bigger, you tend to have some dried out, tough meat. If you allow the growth to slow down a bit, you tend to have more tender, better meat. I don’t care if we’re talking about cattle or pigs, we’ve got to stop taking good genetics and messing it up with ten tons of additives and implants. Why are we even castrating bulls if we are going to implant and feed them beta agonists to try and put the bull back into them? Why are we doing that? I think it’s ridiculous! Why not just feed bulls? Well, because the grading system won’t grade them… but that could be changed.
₁ “dark cutters”
₂ “beta agonists”
AGC: What is your opinion of slaughter without stunning, as for religious purposes?
Dr. Grandin: There are two issues here. The first is how you hold your animal. The second is the actual throat cut. Some of the worst animal welfare problems with religious slaughter are dreadful ways that the animals are held, because in this country it is legal, for religious freedom purposes, to take live sheep and cattle, put a chain around their ankle, and hang them upside down. I’ve done a lot of work trying to get rid of those dreadful things. You can’t study how they react to the throat cut until you get the holding aspect figured out. I’ve done a lot of work on designing a good box to hold them in, and then I could watch how they react to the throat cut. For Kosher slaughter, I’ve seen that if you do it right, the animals don’t seem to react to the cut. If you do it wrong, they react very badly.
AGC: Were these techniques originally designed to be more humane?
Dr. Grandin: Yes, originally I think that kosher slaughter was the first food safety inspection and the first human slaughter. The idea is that there can’t be any nicks in the knife, because if there are nicks in the knife, the animal feels pain. And all the stuff where they look at the lungs, they were looking for tuberculosis lesions. Tuberculosis makes people good and sick. The problem with it today is like a clash between modern industry and ancient ritual; an ancient ritual that was originally there for humane treatment and food safety. Now it’s just there for religious purposes and by making it sacred… it makes people do it.
AGC: What do you think are the biggest problems, if any, associated with the mass consolidation in slaughter and meatpacking?
Dr. Grandin: People automatically think that big plants are bad. The big plants work fine if the equipment and personnel are set up for the speed of the plant. What doesn’t work is understaffed and overloaded equipment. That does not work! I’ve seen a mess like that in small plants and I’ve seen a mess like that in big plants. If you overload equipment and exceed the designed capacity of the plant, that’s when it doesn’t work. That’s true for many different kinds of equipment. You also can’t overload people. If you have a job that takes a person and a half and you force one person to do it, it’s going to be done poorly.
AGC: Do you find smaller plants that handle less volume to have a greater focus on low stress animal handling?
Dr. Grandin: What I found out about small plants is that there are two kinds: dreadful, and really nice; there is nothing in the middle. When they’re dreadful, they’re really dreadful and when they’re nice, they’re really nice. It all has to do with the attitude of the owner.
AGC: What are your opinions on mobile abattoirs? Do you see benefits for smaller producers?
Dr. Grandin: I think that to have them travel to every farm is going to be too expensive. I think that a reasonable thing to do with mobile abattoirs would be for it to go around to different places, like sale barns and fairgrounds, where there is a slab setup with water and electric. You could have chutes set up there and utilize the pens at the auctions or fairgrounds. Then it could come around and maybe stay a couple of weeks in one place and then go to another place. Then people would only be bringing their animals in a real short distance. I think that is more doable. I just don’t think that traveling to every farm is going to pay. I think the docking stations are the key to the success mobile abattoirs. What I’m worried about is the problems with moving inspectors around to every farm. Animals would still have to be transported, but the distances are much shorter.
AGC: We have been talking mostly about animal welfare, but large scale Industrial agriculture seems to have problems with human (worker) welfare and high turnover rates as well. Have you witnessed this?
Dr. Grandin: These kinds of things have gotten better. Safety has gotten better. The big plants have gotten a whole lot better. We’ve gotten into a strange situation, especially during those McDonalds audits, where the big plants actually ended up being better than the little plants. And that is because the big customers audit them. When you’ve got McDonalds all over your butt, you behave yourself. Usually plants that treat people decently tend to treat animals decently. It boils down to the attitude of management. There is no comparison between plants now and the way they were ten years ago; it’s like night and day.
AGC: What can the meat industry do to improve their image?
Dr. Grandin: In meatpacking plants you see pictures of all this bad stuff. I think that Cargill ought to be commended for having the Oprah show there and letting them come into the plant₁. And as far as the ranchers go, they need to be showing people stuff too. Ranchers should be showing people how they take care of their cattle. The public has a hunger for looking at normal stuff that goes on at a ranch. We need to be showing just regular stuff like putting feed out for cows, fixing fences, moving cattle, taking care of newborn calves. Showing what they do on their ranch, that’s the kind of stuff we need to be showing.
AGC: Is there any use in trying to work with animal rights organizations?
Dr. Grandin: We’ve got to communicate with the public, not those organizations. And the public, for the most part, is just curious. When I went out to Hollywood, those Hollywood reporters were just curious. They were asking things like, “what’s a feedlot?” They were asking curiosity questions. We have got to communicate. Ag has done a lousy, lousy job at communicating with the public. And we’ve just got to communicate with the public, not activists that have an agenda, just regular people that go shopping in the stores. That is our audience.
Another thing is that there now seems to be two sides within Agriculture, where now big Ag seems to hate little Ag and little Ag is going against big Ag. I think that’s wrong. It’s all animal Ag and animal Ag needs to be going together. I work with both, and they’d better stop throwing rocks at each other.
AGC: What is the key to that?
Dr. Grandin: Well, we all want to show that meat is not bad. People on Michael Pollan’s website eat meat; they’re not going to be vegans. When I go to those organic meetings, I don’t find any vegetarian or vegan literature on their book table. They’re not interested in that sort of stuff because they know you’ve got to have animal agriculture to have organic agriculture. And that’s the kind of stuff we want to get out to the public. Big Ag and little Ag need to stop throwing rocks and work together.
A lot of people who seem to be more into local agriculture, which means they are getting interested in how food is produced. That is a positive thing! We need to be communicating with those people. And the thing that I’ve noticed when I go to these organic meetings is that there are young people there! There are no young people at the regular cattlemen’s meetings, but when I go to these organic conferences and there are young people there, I know that people are getting interested in this.
AGC: You have done so much already to improve the lives of animals in production agriculture. What are your current research objectives? And what are your goals for the future?
Dr. Grandin: Well I’ve got a student right now that’s working on cow and calf behavior, and different ways that mother cows protect their babies. I had a student come up with a better way to solve the problem of pigs waking back up after stunning at small abattoirs. At the plants where they use the electric head stunner, the stun would wear off after 30 seconds and if the plants weren’t moving fast enough, the pigs would wake up after being hoisted up and it was terrible. So he came up with the idea that after we put the head stunner on them you can stun them again under their fore leg and stop their heart. He verified that method as a part of his thesis.
AGC: Do you think that this new method will be adopted?
Dr. Grandin: Oh yes, I think it will be adopted, and the thing is that it doesn’t cost anything extra; it’s the same equipment that they already have. It’s just that simple.
Contributed by Tommy Otey
Visit www.grandin.com for more information on low-stress animal handling. For more information on Dr. Grandin’s life, please take the time to read her inspiring biography and check out the HBO film Temple Grandin.