Temple Grandin on Thinking Like a Cow

Autistic scientist Temple Grandin thinks like an animal—in pictures—and she’s using it to get more humane treatment for cattle.

Temple Grandin uses her unique perspective as an autistic person and a scientist to get better, more humane treatment for cattle.

Photo from Workman Publishing

Dr. Temple Grandin says she knows the mind of a cow.

It’s not a fuzzy assertion—Grandin, an animal scientist at Colorado State University, is one of the hardest-nosed researchers you’ll ever meet. She is autistic and claims that she literally thinks like an animal—in pictures. She notices details that most people tune out—such as a hat dangling on a fence or a shiny reflection that could spook cattle.

Grandin brought sweeping change to the meat industry 10 years ago, when McDonald’s and Wendy’s—under pressure from animal rights activists—hired her to improve how their beef suppliers treat animals . Now half of U.S. cattle end up in slaughterhouses designed by Grandin. Even PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk has blogged about her admiration for Grandin’s work. Time Magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people of 2010. And the HBO movie about her early life won five Emmys last August.

Through research, Grandin has learned what makes cattle frightened, agreeable, or curious. There are tangible measures of cattle happiness, she says, such as how often they moo or whether they have parasites.

So I asked her whether sustainable agriculture makes cattle happy.

“The organic standards are a whole lot better about pasture,” Grandin told me at an event for Food Alliance, an organization that certifies sustainable farms and ranches. “That’s going to make it more humane.”

“But I’m concerned about the internal and external parasites. There are some people in organic agriculture who think a whole lot of lice on cattle is normal,” she said. “This is what I call ‘bad becoming normal.’”

Labels like “free-range” guarantee little about ranches—federal law doesn’t require an on-site audit of them. Grandin said some farms that claim to be sustainable still treat their animals poorly—often because of poorly defined standards.

She is an expert on writing standards that work. “People want to write fake stuff like ‘handle them properly,’ ‘give them enough space.’ So what does that mean?” she said. “What is a pasture? I know that sounds like a silly question, but when you’re developing an auditing system you’ve got to define what a pasture is. It’s certainly not a dirt lot. If you lock animals up in a pen and they just chew the grass all down to the ground until it’s dirt, at what point does that go from being a pasture to a feedlot?”

There are tangible measures of cattle happiness, she says, such as how often they moo.

Grandin has praise for sustainable farms and especially for farmers who still raise heritage breeds. We’ll need the genetic diversity that these farmers have preserved, she wrote in her book, Animals Make Us Human . Many old breeds do better on pasture and need fewer antibiotics.

But she gives organic ranchers and farmers a mixed report card. Organic farms sometimes fail to treat animal diseases because, by law, an animal can’t keep its organic label if it’s given antibiotics. Grandin cites one U.S. farm where about a third of the Holstein calves died because they weren’t treated for disease.

Today, the strongest certification programs for animal welfare are run by private organizations, outside of the federal Organic Standards Act. These groups have turned to Grandin for her expertise. She has consulted with the dairy cooperative Organic Valley; helped Niman Ranch, a network of small farms and ranches, improve its animal treatment; and assisted Food Alliance with its new, more stringent standards for humanely raised beef. The nonprofit Global Animal Partnership (GAP) has launched an animal-welfare certification program that has Grandin’s fingerprints on it. You can now buy GAP-certified meat from Whole Foods.

More change is on the horizon. Grandin said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has asked for her input on adding animal-welfare guidelines to organic standards. If Grandin can bring change to burger behemoths like McDonald’s, perhaps her canny, nuts-and-bolts approach to ranching can transform the meat industry overall so that good, sustainable, and humane become normal.