Following the debut of HBO’s bio-pic bearing her name, animal scientistTemple Grandin found time to talk with Drovers, sister publication of Dairy Herd Management, over the weekend. The film, starring Claire Danes in the title role, documents Grandin’s early struggles with autism and her eventual success in earning a PhD and becoming a renowned expert in animal behavior and livestock handling.

Grandin says she was swamped with calls and e-mails over the weekend, from journalists and the public wanting to discuss the film. Especially gratifying, she says, are the numbers of children, many with mild autism, telling her they find inspiration in the film and her career. “I tell them to find their own strengths and build on those,” Grandin says. She notes that many mildly autistic students can succeed in science and technology areas, and she credits her high school science teacher with helping her find her own academic strengths. Grandin adds that hands-on education such as shop classes, art or science lab get kids “turned on” while helping them learn and apply mathematics and communication skills. She worries that schools are cutting back on these kinds of classes.

In the film, she says the directors succeeded in illustrating her own learning process and how her autism allows her to “think in pictures” and gain a unique understanding of animals. She also says Claire Danes delivers a remarkable performance. “She became me,” Grandin says. Danes spent hours with Grandin, and studied video and audio tapes of her earlier career. She worked with voice and motion coaches to master Grandin’s mannerisms and speech. Temple says it was almost spooky when Danes put on a wig, donned Temple’s signature western-style clothing and transformed herself into TempleGrandin of the 1970s.

In spite of her growing fame, Grandin continues to pursue her true passion – helping the livestock industry develop and implement better ways of handling animals. Earlier in her career, she focused largely on designing equipment, facilities and processes to allow easier, less stressful livestock handling. Today, she says, she’s focusing on management. Changing people’s behaviors, she says, is more challenging than installing a new processing chute. People will more readily buy a design – or a thing – then they will buy into a way of doing things.

Specifically she is working with packers and producers to implement auditing systems to continuously measure and monitor their own animal-handling practices. These audits, she says, are simple, measurable behaviors such as:

  • How many cattle walk or trot away from the squeeze chute rather than run? Seventy five percent is a minimum target.
  • How many cattle require use of an electric prod? More than 10 percent suggests a problem.
  • How many fall down as they exit the chute? This number shouldn’t exceed 2 percent.
  • How much vocalization do cattle exhibit during processing? If an animal vocalizes in direct response to restraint, such as a steer mooing when you catch it in the head gate, something is not right.

A systematic auditing process, Grandin says, helps managers determine whether their crews are improving in their animal-handling practices or slipping back into bad habits. After years of training people to handle livestock humanely, she has observed that about 20 percent are “naturals.” They learn good stockmanship and continue to practice it. About 10 percent, she says, unfortunately lack compassion and are not good with animals. Managers should identify any workers in this category and get rid of them. The remaining 70 percent, she says, can learn good handling practices but need continuous evaluation and reinforcement to keep them on track.

Finally, Grandin reminds producers of some basic principles of humane animal handling.

  • Install some kind of non-slip flooring in processing areas to provide animals with sound footing.
  • Eliminate distractions in processing areas such as loose chains, uneven lighting or even a worker’s jacket hung on a rail and flapping in the wind.
  • Fill crowd pens to just one-half capacity.
  • Get prods out of workers’ hands! Grandin acknowledges that processing crews might need electric prods at times, but they should be stored away for a time of need. She adamantly stresses that when workers have prods in their hands, they use them unnecessarily.

If you missed the HBO film Friday evening, HBO and its affiliates will re-run it over the next couple months, and Grandin says a DVD will be available, although a release date currently is not determined. 

A short trailer from the film is available on Drovers.com