Temple Grandin

January 16, 2011

Classes cranked up again at Michigan State University last week. This semester I’m teaching a graduate course organized around the “the animal” and “the human” understood as metaphysical divide. I realize that this has got to be the kind of topic that strikes people as utterly bizarre. On the one hand, it means that we will be looking at the way simply assuming a radical difference between animals and humans has influenced the growth of science and culture. This includes looking some of the reasons why people have thought that what it means to be a human is so utterly unlike what it is to be an animal as to create an ontological chasm dividing humans and animals. These reasons include the human ability to think and reason, and especially to use language.

On the other hand, it will involve trying to see what it would be like to think differently, to see human beings as one species among many. It’s this latter thought that connects up to my interest in food, agriculture and environment, for I think that seeing the human species as simply one of many forms of life on earth is a major part of what having an environmental consciousness involves. At a more practical level, it points us toward asking important questions about food animals. It tells us that in order to keep cows, pigs and chickens, we need to think of them as cows, pigs and chickens, respectively, and not simply as “animals”. As if some generic conception like that could inform us about our moral responsibilities.

An appropriate ethic for animal husbandry requires us to make every effort to understand what it is like to be a cow, pig or chicken living under the kind of conditions in which we keep them. Simply thinking of them as “animals” won’t do. The needs and experience of a cow are quite different from a pig, and both are quite different from what it’s like to be a chicken. Each species experiences the world differently; each has different drives, different things that irritate or vex them, and different things that rock their respective boats. And life experiences can create differences among individual cows, pigs and chickens, too, just like in humans.

The person who has been most influential in helping livestock producers accept the ethical responsibility to be aware of what it is like to be a cow, pig or chicken is Temple Grandin. Temple is an animal scientist who is also a high-functioning autistic adult. She has argued that because of her autism, she “thinks in pictures,” rather than words, and that this has made it easier for her to get into the heads of agricultural species. In the work that made her famous as an animal welfare expert, she put herself into the experiential situation of cattle: getting “dipped” to remove ticks and other parasites, being herded onto trucks, and into corrals and chutes on the way to slaughter. She was able to literally see what was making cows anxious. She re-designed this equipment so that the experience of moving through it was not disturbing. The cattle moving through Temple’s livestock handling systems show very little signs of anxiety or stress, and handlers have been able to virtually eliminate the need to use electric cattle prods in order to force the cows to do something they were quite fearful of doing.

Temple has become better known to the larger world because of her advocacy work on autism. Back in 1993 Oliver Sacks wrote an article about Temple in the New Yorker. Her reputation as both an animal advocate and a spokesperson for people and families coping with autism has grown steadily ever since. Temple was a speaker at Calvin College’s January speaker series last week, and if I read the website correctly, you can get access to her talk here. I met Temple back at Stan Curtis’s lab at the University of Illinois back in the 1980s. She had been one of Stan’s students, and had recently completed her doctorate under his supervision. I began to see her two or three times a year, but the last time I had any significant interaction with her was back in 2002 when she and I were both attending the British Society for Animal Science banquet, where she was getting an award for outstanding career accomplishment in animal welfare.

I’ve always thought that Temple’s autism helped her succeed in advocating better welfare for farm animals for a different reason. Temple is obviously very bright, but when you spend time around her, it’s also obvious that she is pretty insensitive to subtle cues that tell us how other people are reacting to us. Yet people respect her accomplishments and have learned to cut her a wide swath of slack about things like when it’s appropriate to interrupt someone and ask a question, or how you’re supposed to dress or comport yourself at a particular event. In the same vein, she can stand up in front of livestock producers and tell them straight out that what they are doing to their animals is morally indefensible. And instead of getting pissed off at her, the producers look at what they are doing and think to themselves, “Yeah, maybe she’s right!”

That’s what makes Temple Grandin an icon in food ethics.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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