February 16, 2006

Grandin Decodes Animal Behavior

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Prof. Temple Grandin, a Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of ’56 professor at Cornell, is hailed by animal welfare activists, the government and the agriculture and food industries for her work in humane livestock facility designs that take an animal’s behavior into account. She is known for her criticism and attempts to reform livestock facilities that show little regard for their animals.

Grandin is also autistic. She has a milder form, known as Asperger’s Syndrome. In addition to researching and speaking on animal welfare, she is actively involved in the autism advocacy movement. Grandin has published over 300 articles in scientific publications and is responsible for designing one-third of the livestock-handling facilities in the United States.

Provost Biddy Martin introduced Grandin last night before her lecture, titled “Animals in Translation.”

“All of [Grandin’s] contributions sound conventional enough,” she said. “But of course her contributions go way beyond. She has contributed to our understanding of animal handling and welfare, autism, and what it means to be a human in the most fundamental sense.”

One of the most notable aspects of Grandin’s work is her unique perspective.

“She uses the mysteries of autism to decode animal behavior,” Martin said.

Autism provides Grandin with a greater understanding of animal behavior because there are similarities between an autistic brain and an animal brain.

“A normal brain drops details while an autistic brain remembers details,” Grandin said. “Animal thinking is sensory-based. I have autism and I think in pictures. To understand how an animal thinks, you have to get away from verbal language.”

Mollie Hurley’08, who is studying animal science, said that Grandin was an excellent speaker who carried herself well.

“I thought she was very dynamic and captured the audience’s attention,” she said. “I did not notice anything different about her, but knowing she was autistic, I sat there thinking that this woman was amazing and has had such an impact, regardless of autism.”

While describing what it is like to think with autism, Grandin compared her mind with the internet.

“My mind works like Google for images,” she said. “You type in a word and a picture comes up. The older I get and the more information I download, the smarter I become.”

Although she has a photographic memory, Grandin lacks other abilities. “I cannot do algebra because I can’t visualize it,” she said. “I also did not know people had secret eye signals until about ten years ago when I read about it in a book. I was 50 years old.”

Another aspect of autism is that its sufferers are often prone to panic attacks.

“When I got into puberty, I had constant panic attacks,” she said. “I was the type that as I got older, they got worse and worse and worse. Anti-depressants were the only way I could control them and I had results in three days.”

Grandin was able to overcome many of the difficulties that autism has presented and has channeled her unique abilities into a successful career.

“When designing a system, I can get a three-dimensional running movie in my head,” Grandin said. “For a while I didn’t know other people could not do that.”

Part of Grandin’s success derives from her ability to be an important figure in both the animal figure and the autism worlds.

“I heard of her throughout different animal science classes and through the pre-vet society,” Hurley said. “My roommate heard of her because she has done a lot of work with autistic kids.”

Despite her personal achievements, which she largely attributes to excellent teachers, many people with autism have difficulty finding a job. Grandin said one of her biggest concerns is that there is too much focus on the deficiencies autistic people have, and not enough emphasis on what they can do.

“Einstein today would have been labeled autistic,” she said.

Grandin is able to use her abilities to discern what things could be distracting to animals. For example, while visiting at a cattle facility, she noticed that the light behind the building was casting a shadow into the chute where the animals were supposed to walk. Seeing the dark passageway, the cattle were afraid and refused to move. By understanding this, Grandin was able to advise that changes be made so the chute remained well-lit and approachable to the animals.

Hurley was struck by Grandin’s devotion to understanding animals.

“She told us she would lie down on the ground to get a cow’s point of view,” she said. “You have to consider the little details when building things for animals.”

Keeping in mind the tendencies of animals, Grandin came up with the innovative design for a curved chute system. This method allowed the animals to walk in a circular shape so they could not see what was going on ahead of them, and thus remain calm.

“A calm animal is easier to handle,” Hurley said. “You use an animal’s behavior to direct it instead of [using] force. If you sit down and think about it, it is practical stuff. She was able to see things from an animal’s perspective and therefore she could see what needed to be changed.”

Many of the innovations Grandin created were designed to reduce the amount of fear livestock feel.

“Fear is the main emotion in both animals and in people with autism,” she said. “Animals feel stress.”

In addition to being afraid of darkness, animals can also be spooked by loud noises or sudden movements.

“The worst thing you can do to an animal is make it fear,” Grandin said. “It is important that an animal’s first experience with a new place, piece of equipment, of person is good. An initial experience that is averse can create a permanent fear-memory.”

Grandin gave an example of a horse that was terrified of black cowboy hats because he was abused by a person who wore a black cowboy hat. White hats, however, elicited no reaction.

Archived article by Bekah Grant
Sun Staff Writer