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January 14, 2012

Temple Grandin to Speak at Vermont Grazing and Livestock Conference

GrandinThere’s exciting news for the ag aficionados out there: Temple Grandin is coming to town.

Well, she's coming to Fairlee, Vt., which might be a bit of a hike for some. But the trip is worth taking: Grandin is a pioneering thinker in livestock handling, behavior and processing — in other words, the real deal (and something of a rock star, in my humble opinion as an amateur cattle farmer).

Grandin is speaking on Saturday, Jan. 21, at the 16th annual Vermont Grazing and Livestock Conference. (If you're not interested in attending the whole conference, you can buy a $10 ticket to Grandin's talk.) Perhaps best known for her work in slaughterhouse innovation — equipment she designed is used in half of all cattle processing facilities in North America — Grandin has written bestselling books on animal behavior, consulted for corporations such as McDonald’s on animal welfare, and inspired the excellent HBO biopic Temple Grandin.

She's also autistic, and has spoken and written extensively about the experience of living with autism — and about the connection she sees between autistic and animal behaviors. She describes herself as a visual thinker who understands words and concepts in pictures — a tremendous asset in her line of work, it turns out, because she can relate to “thought without language,” allowing her to sympathize with animals’ experiences.

Early in her career, she spent a great deal of time in cattle feed lots and slaughter facilities trying to figure out what distracts and upsets the animals. Sometimes, it was something as simple as a shadow, a moving hose or a blinking light — distractions that were obvious to Grandin, whose autism makes her hypersensitive, but had seemed insignificant to the animal handlers in the slaughter facilities.

Eliminate the distractions, Grandin said, and cattle will move calmly through chutes on their way to a vaccination or slaughter. Hers is a compassionate approach to livestock management, but it also happens to be a profitable one: Dairy cows that aren’t afraid of their handlers will produce more milk.

If you can’t make the conference, but are still interested in Grandin, don’t miss some highlights of her work online. In 2009, she spoke with Terry Gross on NPR's "Fresh Air" about her book Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals and her general approach to livestock management. Also, check out the HBO movie (my admiration for Grandin is nearly matched by my admiration for Clare Danes as Grandin). And, if you’re interested in her work on autism, don’t miss her TED talk, “The world needs all kinds of minds,” about the importance of embracing autism-spectrum thinkers. 

Photo courtesy Colorado State University.


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