The Biotic Woman: Is Temple Grandin an activist?

Brittany Shoot
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Claire Danes, who no doubt many of us have loved since My So-Called Life (which I’m still watching on DVD for anyone who’s wondering), is starring in a new HBO movie premiering tonight based on the life’s work of animal scientist, livestock consultant, inventor, and writer Dr. Temple Grandin. Grandin, who is a highly functioning autistic woman, is also noted for her advocacy work on behalf of others like herself. Though she invented the hug machine, a soothing pressurized device that helps calm people prone to hypersensitivity, she is best known for her work in designing new systems of leading cattle to slaughter en masse. She has also written about how to provide the best life for companion animals, and as someone who shares my home with a cat and who has lived with various groupings of animals in the past, I find her work in this area to be quite interesting and informative.

This year, I read Grandin’s Animals Make Us Human and was surprised by her statement that she began working in the slaughter industry when conditions were markedly better than they are today. I wondered why Grandin, understanding how out of control factory farming has gotten in the last forty years (thanks in part to her own work?), has continued her work in the same field without reevaluating present conditions. Coming from such an intelligent person, her striking lack of analysis troubled me.

I also tend to be confused by Grandin’s stated bond with cattle when her actions seem to imply the opposite. As someone who also has deeply empathic bonds with animals—and also has a photographic memory—I’m genuinely bewildered by her ability to create systems that enable further slaughter while stating that she feels connected to animals. If you feel connected—and when your mind can replay life events as vividly as mine can—I truly don’t understand how you can live with that knowledge, with those mental images, of murder by your own hands. Maybe I misunderstand autism, despite having worked with autistic adults in the past. Maybe I also misunderstand myself. Anything is possible, but I remain troubled nonetheless.

In the past, I’ve said that Grandin’s work might bring people closer to understanding animals as sentient beings, deserving of our compassion and protection. But maybe I was wrong, and I’m definitely unsettled by HBO’s description of her as an “activist.” Grandin’s work may shine a much-needed light on autism—particularly adults living with autism, who remain largely misunderstood in society—but must that come at the expense of other lives? Jim Sinclair, an animal rights activist who is also autistic, has responded to Grandin’s work in slaughterhouse design with a beautifully simplistic statement: “If you love something, you don’t kill it.” Sinclair isn’t alone; many in various animal rights communities have taken issue with Grandin’s work and principles for years.

I’m pretty ambivalent about the film, and I won’t be able to watch it this evening to figure out how I ultimately feel about Danes’ portrayal of Grandin. Mostly, I wonder if the movie will actually bring up any debate beyond the animal rights circles that already love to dissect her work. Will ordinary folks think twice about the theory that “human slaughter” is an oxymoron or that Grandin believes quality of life is somehow more important that preserving the life itself? Can her work actually shift perspective, or does it simply make allowances for the continued use and needless killing of animals?

Temple Grandin airs tonight on HBO.

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23 Comments Have Been Posted


I don't really know how I feel about this. You've brought up many good points about how it doesn't make too much sense to love and kill something at the same time. But there is a clutter of vegetarians out there that choice not to eat meat because of the horrible conditions of these animals and they don't wish to support this type of business. For meat eaters, this is a step in a friendlier, more ethical direction for the meat industry, right? At the same time, the overall message of her love for animals does kind of throw it off a bit. I eat meat, but I assume if I were to actually be this connected with cows, I probably would change my mind. But that isn't something I've actually experienced so I technically can't say what I would do exactly.

I don't know. But thanks for the food for thought. :)

NPR Interviews

NPR aired a series of interviews with Grandin yesterday. Maybe 3 different interviews over the course of about 10 years. It was really interesting. Of course the issue of "how can you love animals and develop ways to kill them" came up. Her response was something to the effect of: those animals wouldn't even be here if we (society) didn't raise them AS FOOD, she believes they deserve a good life, and a 'good' death - which she defined as being free from fear and being *bam* quick it's done.

Grandin's response

I really disagree with her response. As a vegan, I've gotten the "all those animals you're concerned about wouldn't even be here if it weren't for the meat industry," argument before. I find it absolutely ridiculous. I would personally prefer non-existence to being raised (in any conditions) for someone to eat.

Domstication is a fact of life

Grandin's own words:
"I do not believe that my profession is morally wrong. Slaughtering is not wrong, but I do feel very strongly about treating animals humanely and with respect. I've devoted my life to reforming and improving the livestock industry. Still, it is a sobering experience to have designed one of the world's most efficient killing machines. Most people don't realize that the slaughter plant is much gender than nature. Animals in the wild die from starvation, predators, or exposure. If I had a choice, I would rather go through a slaughter system than have my guts ripped out by coyotes or lions while I was still conscious. Unfortunately, most people never observe the natural cycle of birth and death. They do not realize that for one living thing to survive, another living thing must die."

Domesticated animals exist solely because we have bred them for a specific use. They are not wild and would perish if we didn't view them as useful. We judge the utility of domesticated animals by assigning them roles as we see fit. If we choose to "save" them from the slaughterhouse, we are again assigning a role, as a "pet" or "doll" to do with as we like. Since they're incapable of caring for themselves, we sentence the animal to live in a cage, albeit a gilded one. It makes far more sense to argue for the ethical treatment (including death) of domesticated animals during their lifetime, living out the roles we have assigned them, whether that be "livestock" or "companion animal".

"Usefulness" is not a

"Usefulness" is not a prerequisite for a free life. There are sanctuaries that take in animals- farmed, companion & wild- just because it's the right thing to do. Not that that model could last on a large scale, but we owe it to other animal species to get them out of the mess we are responsible for, as you pointed out.

Simply put, killing another creature purely for your tastebuds isn't right, no matter how you slice it.

I'm currently a veterinary

I'm currently a veterinary student and not a vegetarian (omg). I would like to point out a couple of points that have not been addressed in this ongoing and difficult argument.

First of all, I find Em's comment about killing another creature for your tastebuds a bit ignorant and distasteful (pun somewhat intended). Broken down into a nutritional aspect, meat is extremely nutritious by providing a perfectly balanced source of amino acids. In order for a vegetarian to get their complete balance of essential amino acids, it most be either supplemented or found in a variety of large quantities of grains or vegetables. In SMALL infrequent quantities, I believe that meat is an excellent food source, but not for every meal and snack of the day (as our society tends to do), or week for that matter. Some people don't eat meat just because it tastes good but because it's good for you in small quantities.

I'd also like to mention that, yes, food animals have to eat an awful lot of grains and forages to get one pound of meat, but what they are doing is turning foodstuff that is not available to humans (alfalfa hay, anyone?) into a food source that is digestible by people, be it meat, eggs, or milk. I also understand that these animals eat grain that people also can, such as oats, barley, corn, etc., but the are not eating people grade grain. The grain they consume are the grains that people would not find palatable or could make us sick but is perfectly suited for the diet of, say, a cow.

Also, I would like to point out that human's current standard of living (although outrageous) can almost be directly attributed to our close association in domesticated animals. Back when we were nomads, we expended alot of energy being hunters and gathers following the four-legged herds around, but once we were able to domesticate food animals, there was no longer a need to constantly travel and we could begin to establish permanent dwellings, and human civilization as we know it quickly (sort of) followed. Did you know that a person's ability to digest lactose (the sugar found in milk) as adults is due to a beneficial mutation because of our close association with domestic cows and sheep?

This all being said, I have to add that I don't necessarily agree with the way we treat our food animals currently. The mass production of these animals definitely does not ensure a stimulating and rewarding life for the animals and it is difficult to be called ethical in most situations. I don't think we should be debating whether vegetarianism or carnism is right, but I think we should be instead pushing for eating LESS animals products (much less, for that matter). Eating less animal products would mean less animals so that we may be more capable of ensuring a high quality and stimulating life for them, and humane death as well.


Hello S... Ah, so your are a

Hello S... Ah, so your are a veterinary... I just fired mine and employed another. I found it absurd to have my vegan dog cared for by someone wearing leather shoes... I'm sure you can see the contradiction?

Now, you found "Em's comment about killing another creature for your tastebuds a bit ignorant and distasteful" - Well... that's the general way I feel while in a grocery store - having to avoid the long line of frozen body parts. They offend me to no end! But anyway - on to a healthy diet: The American Dietetic Association says that an appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.

Millions of people thrive on a tasty, satisfying plant based diet. It's not difficult, complicated or expensive. So the justification of "necessity" is highly contentious.

In fact, the more that we know about a meat based diet... It's inefficent use of water and resources, and it's negaitve impact on the environment the more we can see it's just not a sustainable habit.

About ingesting milk. Don't you think it's odd to be an unweaned adult? An adult drinking the secretions from another species no less... Actually, to be acurate - Drinking the stolen milk from the calf the mother never got to nurse herself. Would any care to say this was "gOd's" devine plan... Or even one acceptable to a "civilized" society???

And you "don't agree with the way we treat our food animals" --- I don't agree that they are "food" animals. A "rewarding life" for these animals is no different that a rewarding life for any animal... A long, complete life.

Finally as a future vet you might want to familiarize yourself with what "humane" means. Defined it is: "the concern to alleviate suffering". These beings are not ill, maimed or otherwise "unhealthy". They are not in an aging pain. They are delivered "fit for living", so there is no "suffering to alleviate".

The most "humane", kind or compassionate act one can do, if they wish to end animal suffering is to go vegan.

First to Anonymous who says

First to Anonymous who says "Domesticated animals exist solely because we have bred them for a specific use. They are not wild and would perish if we didn't view them as useful. We judge the utility of domesticated animals by assigning them roles as we see fit." My, my... reminds me of the logic used 200 years ago regarding the "uses" of other races. And certainly at one time man declared that "women were here for the purposes of men". Children? Their use was as extra farm hands. No, I think beings are born with their own purpose, regardless of what names we give them "food animals", "pet animals", lab animals, entertainment animals and so forth... They are owners of a life - And those lives cannot be justified by our frivolous wants.

And you're right, most are nothing that nature ever made... Most might go extinct --- Without the further genetic breeding of domestic cows, perhaps they would vanish except for some kept to live out their lives in sanctuaries. But what is the loss? Pigs? They would revert to their original hog ancestry in a few generations... And chickens? The "broilers" or "meat birds" can hardly survive beyond their second month of life. But the "egg layers" might have a chance... Well maybe not --- There's that nasty issue of the beak blunting... and the destruction of all the male chicks...

Oh yes, what wonderful gOds we have made ourselves to be - inventing "flesh bodies" for our gluttonous indulgences!

And Grandin and her ilk can say "Slaughtering is not wrong" - But the fact is eating animals, for most of the civilized world - is NOT necessary; And killing without cause can never be "kind" or "humane", no matter what "rationale" one wishes to fabricate.


I have a really hard time with Temple. This is why, she makes all Autistic people seem like idiots and treat animals as things. She might pretend she understand them, but understanding them is granting non-humans the status as Individuals and therefore seeing that the way we keep animals are treating them as Slaves.

I have an Austism Spectrum diagnosis, which would translate quite close to high-functioning autism and I think she is absolutley horrendus. I don't want somebody like her speaking up on my behalf .

In the end all we can do to grant animal indivduals the freedom to not be slaves or property, is to go vegan, now!

Autism & empathy

Excellent, Im glad someone else on the spectrum replied with something involving actual empathy for the life these creatures lead and their inherent interests and thus the rights we *should* be affording them .. these creatures would not exist in the wild like Grandin is insinuating but simply wouldn't exist at all , and the disney esque circle of life she is spouting doesn't apply to humans as we are more than capable of existing on vegan food and jumping out of that chain, yes insects and some other animals will be killed trying to cultivate the plants we live on but this part is unavoidable and involves less individuals than an omnivorous existence (we feed more plant matter to animals ,about ten fold more, to get the animal products we live on).

Slaughter is not "sobering" its unnecessary and if Grandin had true empathy for nonhuman animals she would consider their sentience as sufficient criteria not to enslave them, breed non beneficial characteristics into them (usually painful, e.g. udder size making mastitis in dairy cows) then end their lives.

If Grandin had never been born...

....cattle would still be slaughtered, right? I don't understand why it's not okay for her to be commended for empathizing with these animals while simultaneously wanting their relatively short lives on this earth to be lived with dignity and ended with as little fear as possible.

Also, what is your basis for suggesting that Grandin's work has had the result of worsening the conditions of factory farming? Is this a known fact?

I agree completely...

While I respect vegetarians and vegans, the choice to go vegetarian will not necessarily ever be widespread enough that animal slaughtering for food will cease to exist. Too many people like to eat meat, and don't care about the consequences for the animals they eat. As long as animals are going to be slaughtered for food, let it be as painless as possible.

agreed x2

It is the way of life in some countries to eat meat. Sure, you can argue that it's inexpensive and what not, but if you are living in a country where you get some basic nutrients from eating insects, I'd like to see you go over there and call them murderers.

I completely respect people that choose not to eat meat, but when they start viewing people that do as horrific and heartless, I don't think that's quite fair.

Temple Grandin talks to Beef Magazine about "funny times"

"Grandin says the experience has had its fun, and funny, times. One central scene that appears in the movie chronicles her experience in designing a cattle dip tank for a now-defunct Arizona feedyard. Once a common feature in feedyards, dip vats were long, narrow vats, about 7-ft. deep, filled with insecticide solution. Cattle were forced single-file into the vats to swim through the solution for lice and tick control.

Grandin’s design featured a tractioned ramp for the cattle to calmly walk into the vat; the cowboy crew thought the traction was unnecessary and removed it. The resulting slick surface caused cattle to panic with some calves drowning after ending up upside down in the liquid."

Grandin is NOT an animal right's activist. She is an architect of mass murder.

It is unfortunate that people

It is unfortunate that people cannot view the situation objectively. If you feel eating meat is wrong (as most of the vegans and vegetarians on this forum seem to do) then you will never be able to appreciate what Temple has done.

No, she has not stopped the slaughter. This is true. However, she did not design cattle handling equipment that increased stress as your post implies, she created equipment that reduced stress. What the cowboys did by adding the metal plate to her design was horrible and she was enraged. Two cows died that day because of those idiots. With her design, the cows easily go into the bath and out. They are not scared, they do not drown. This would be called humane.

In old slaughter systems, the cows would panic entering facilities, they would trample each other. They were scared and anxious and stress. Her designs keep the cattle calm. They walk peacefully into the facility. They are not anxious; they are not trampling each other. Yes, they are still being marched to death, but they are peaceful.

Whether you think killing animals for food is right or wrong, the fact is animals are slaughtered for food. So, if slaughter houses are going to continue to exist, should we improve conditions so that they live their days without stress and fear. This is what her systems do. They prevent the animals from panicking. Their heart rates are reduced. They do not drown being bathed. They do not trample each other. They are not mooing and rearing in fear. The only negative moment is the very moment of death and with her methods that is instantaneous and would appear painless too.

If you want to debate the right and wrong of humans eating meat, that is a separate issue. She witnessed horrifying practices when on ranches. She was able to improve the situation. She didn't change the ending outcome, but she improved the quality of life and treatment of these animals up to the final moment. How is that not compassionate?

So you’re saying if people choose to eat meat that they should treat them without care or compassion up to their death. How about small town farmers who raise their own food? We name our cows, we pet our cow, 4-H kids sell them for food. You can treat an animal with kindness and still end up eating it some day.

Temple Grandin: A Willing Pawn

You're making a hero of this woman? She makes insane claims like she "thinks like an animal" (as if she or anyone could claim to speak for all species and all individual animals) which are on their face untestable. She's deluded and that's just what the meat industry wants- a simple-minded but sympathetic character they can trot out and exploit to show how much they care about animal "welfare".

I don't know who is more pathetic, Grandin, or the people who find her a worthy focus for an uncritical documentary.

I have probably gotten my last issue of Bitch.


This article didn't "make a hero" of Grandin at all; it's critical of the notion that she is one. Read it again before declaring a boycott on <i>Bitch</i>.

It's just barely critical.

It's just barely critical. At best the they're playing devils advocate. Bottom line, some issues you can't tap dance around. Bitchs response is too PC for the likes of Grandin. If you have something to say, say it and stop mumbling.

I'm thankful for the "make a hero" post. It's clear to the point and most of all, true.

Science Fail

Note to S the alleged Vet: Don't quite your day job, because you clearly don't know anything about human nutrition. Hopefully you do better with animals. Just don't eat the patients.


Animals kill other animals for food. Animals kill plants for food. People are animals. For one life to continue, another always, always ends. That is a basic fact of life. I find it utterly bewildering that anyone doesn't get this. That is Grandin's point. Life and nature have some immutable facts. That doesn't mean we have to torture and brutalize animals in the process. That is what she is saying.
I grew up in a family that raised its own livestock and hunted for food. I don't believe in this nonsense that it's brutal to eat meat. Life is life, and even vegetarians end life for their own survival. Just because you can't gaze in the eyes of a stalk of corn doesn't make it less a living thing. If you are alive, you are alive because you took part in the end of another living thing. Yes, even you "murder." As for this: "deeply empathic bonds with animals." You really, really don't understand autism, do you? Not all autistic people are the same by any means, but most do not feel "empathy." They do not know what "empathy" is. I say that as the mother of an awesome, loving autistic son. He's great, but trying to hold him to the same standards of emotion is just foolish. It ain't happenin'.

More 'life' (plant) is

More 'life' (plant) is removed by consuming meat than consuming plant matter so the ridiculous 'poor plants' excuse is pointless because it's still more ethical to eat a plant based diet which destroys less plants than a meat based diet (said 'meat' animal has to be fed more plants than a human could consume).

That said, temple is as far from an animal lover as you can get. You can't respect something you're going to kill just because you like the taste. Respect would allow the animals to live their lives to the fullest, not kill them within a few months of living. She clearly has NO empathy for the creatures otherwise she wouldn't create these ridiculous machines to aid in their death.

I'd like to see her go through a slaughterhouse and see how she freaking likes these 'wonderful machines' she's invented. Furthermore, nature may be cruel although the notion that the animals are always still alive when they are eaten is utter bollocks. An alive animal will kick and fray and make consumption a danger to any predator. Lions and tigers etc go for the jugular - usually a quick clean kill. It would make no sense to endanger themselves. Either way, nature is nature and in nature it's about survival, not about the 'juicy yummy steak'.


As an autistic person, I'd like to contest your claim that most autistic people can't feel empathy. From my own experience, I would say that autistic people are no more or less capable of empathizing than non-autistic people, but because we can have trouble interpreting things like tone of voice and body language, it can be difficult for us to realize that another person (or animal, maybe) is upset, frightened, offended, sad, angry, ect. Sometimes autistic people might express empathy in ways that are hard for normal people to understand, as well. (Giving someone who seems sad a favorite shiny rock and then walking away, rather than sitting down with them, making direct eye contact, and asking what's wrong.)

If I <i> know </i> I've caused someone else distress, I usually feel terrible for having done so.

...Totally not going to touch the vegan/vegetarian/carnivore/anti-domestication/ect. kerfluffle here. Your son's lucky to have a parent who appreciates him for who he is. :)

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