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.