Temple Grandin: The Woman Who Talks to Animals
Temple Grandin is one of the nation's leading animal behaviorists. Her revolutionary designs for animal equipment have changed beef production and made it more humane — from the way cattle arrive at feedyards to how cows are eventually processed at the slaughterhouse.
Grandin, who is autistic, didn't talk until she was 3 years old — and then she communicated mainly through screaming and yelling. Instead of institutionalizing Grandin, her parents placed her in highly structured schools, where she eventually thrived.
Grandin has talked with Fresh Air on several occasions, describing how her autism has allowed her to develop an empathy towards animals; she explained in more detail in her book Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior.
On Feb. 6, a full-length film based on her life will premiere on HBO. Starring Claire Danes in the title role, the film explores themes from two of Grandin's books, Emergence and Thinking in Pictures. Grandin is currently an assistant professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
Portions of this interview were originally broadcast on Jan. 5, 2009 and Jan. 11, 2005
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross. This weekend, HBO presents the premiere of a fact-based made-for-TV movie called "Temple Grandin." Claire Danes stars in the title role, playing a woman whose autism was not only an obstacle but a gift, as she pursued a career in designing stockyards and lobbying for the humane treatment of livestock.
Today, we're saluting the real Temple Grandin by listening back to three interviews Terry conducted with Temple over the years. But first, I'd like to switch gears to my TV critic role here and start off by reviewing HBO's "Temple Grandin," because it's wonderful. In fact, it's the best tele-movie of the past several years.
Screenwriters Christopher Monger and William Merritt Johnson, drawing from two books written by Temple herself, throw us into Temple's world and mind without any explanation or background. We first meet her as a high school student, getting off a plane on the way to visit her aunt's farm for the summer, and director Mick Jackson pumps up the volume, literally, so that everything is too loud, too scary, and the images from Temple's point of view are just as unsettling.
When she looks as an object, she sometimes links it to all the similar objects she's ever seen, like flipping through a mental Rolodex of pictures, and Temple herself, as played by Claire Danes, is a bit like her perceptions. She talks a bit too loudly and jumps almost too quickly from thought to thought, but she sees things differently.
When she sees cattle squeezed tightly into a holding pen to inoculate them, she isn't horrified by the treatment, she's envious of how calm they seem when their bodies are immobilized. So she tries it on herself with equally calming results. And when she watches cows or listens to them moo, she notices patterns that eventually lead to a wholesale redesign of the way cattle are handled nationwide.
For the opening scenes of HBO's "Temple Grandin," you are thrown not only by the jarring images and volume but by seeing Claire Danes, the vulnerable young teen from TV's classic "My So-called Life," playing this afflicted, mannered, odd character, yet by the time you've adjusted to the movie's approach, you've also totally accepted Danes as Temple, and for the rest of the movie you are simply amazed by her; not by the actress, though she deserves it, but by the character.
Here she is as a grown woman near the end of the film, attending a parents' conference on autism, one of the first. She's sitting in the audience with her mother, played so touchingly by Julia Ormond, but she can't help but speak out and give her own opinions on the subject. The speaker at the conference presumes Temple, like most people there, is a concerned parent, but Temple instead turns out to offer a rare glimpse into a hidden world.
(Soundbite of movie, "Temple Grandin")
Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) How old's your child?
Ms.�CLAIRE DANES (Actor): (As Temple Grandin) Well, I don't have children. No, I'm autistic, and I need the sensation of being hugged, and I have developed a machine that I get into, and it hugs me, and I'm different afterwards. I'm more social. I didn't speak until I was four, and now I have a B.A. and a Master's, and I'm studying for my doctorate.
(Soundbite of crowd murmuring)
Ms.�DANES: (As Temple) Most autistic people are very sensitive to sounds and colors. Over-stimulation hurts. You know, people talking too much at once, you can cause us to panic.
Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) How did you get cured?
Ms.�DANES: (As Temple) Well, I'm not cured. I'll always be autistic. My mother refused to believe that I wouldn't speak, and when I learned to speak, she made me to go school, and in school and at home, manners and rules were really important. They were pounded in to me. I was lucky. All these things worked for me. Everyone worked hard to make sure that I was engaged, and they knew I was different but not less. You know, I had a gift. I could see the world in a new way. I could see details that other people were blind to.
BIANCULLI: I can't praise this movie highly enough. It's not maudlin or sentimental, but it is excitingly inspirational. It scores big emotional points with very small touches, the sound of a heartbeat, a tentative touch, a victorious smile.
The acting, writing, directing, production values, every sight and every sound in HBO's "Temple Grandin" is perfect.
And now we'll hear from the woman who inspired the film. Temple Grandin has written extensively about autism and the connection she sees between the behavior of people with autism and animal behavior.
When she was young, doctors recommended that she be institutionalized, but her mother said no. Grandin has worked to educate people about what it's like to live with autism. She's also fought for reforms in the livestock industry. She has her doctorate in animal science from the University of Illinois, teaches courses on livestock behavior and facility design at Colorado State University, and has her own business consulting with the livestock industry on livestock handling and animal welfare.
She spent a lot of her career designing humane handling facilities for farm animals. Her books include "Thinking in Pictures," "Animals in Translation," and "Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals." Her latest book is titled "The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger's."
The famous neurologist Oliver Sacks, who profiled Temple Grandin in his book, "An Anthropologist on Mars," described her as one of the most remarkable autistic people at all.
We'll begin our look back at the series of conversations Terry Gross had with Temple Grandin with their first 1995 interview around the publication of Grandin's book "Thinking in Pictures." Grandin described the way she thinks.
Ms.�TEMPLE GRANDIN (Author, "The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger's"): I think totally visually. All of my thoughts are like videotapes playing on a VCR in my head. When I design livestock-handling equipment, I can test-run the system in my head.
It was easy for me to figure out how animals think and how animals would react because I think visually. Animals don't think in language. They think in pictures. It's very easy for me to imagine what would it be like to go through a system if you really were a cow, not a person in a cow costume but really were a cow, and autistic senses and emotions are more like the senses of an animal.
My nervous system was hyper-vigilant. Any little thing out of place, like a water stain on the ceiling, would set off a panic reaction, and cattle are scared of the same thing. They're scared of things like high-pitched noise, sudden clanging and banging, sudden movement, maybe even a little chain that hangs down in the chute and jiggles because it looks out of place, and things that are out of place can mean danger out in the wild.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Now, like most autistic people, you don't really like to be hugged or touched by other people, but you found a way of getting that comforting, secure feeling from a machine that you designed.
Ms.�GRANDIN: That's right.
GROSS: You call it a squeeze machine. Some people have called it a hug machine. Would you describe what the machine does?
Ms.�GRANDIN: Well, I can get in it, and it's made with foam rubber padded sides on it, and I can apply pressure to myself. See, when I was a little kid, I wanted to feel the nice feeling of being hugged, but the stimulation was too overwhelming. My overly sensitive nervous system just couldn't tolerate it.
You know, I got an engulfing tidal wave of stimulation just pouring over me, and when I got into puberty, I started having horrible anxiety attacks, and I found that pressure calmed it. So I built this device I could get into that would apply pressure that would calm down my nervous system.
Many autistic children seek pressure. They'll get under mattresses, they'll get under sofa cushions, and at first I would tend to just pull away from the device, but then gradually I got to where I could tolerate more and more, you know, being touched, and now I'm, you know, much more desensitized and can tolerate it.
GROSS: So how often do you use that machine now?
Ms.�GRANDIN: Oh, I will sometimes once a week. Now that I'm traveling on the road, I hardly ever get a chance to use it.
GROSS: So how does it make you feel when you use it?
Ms.�GRANDIN: Well, it makes me feel very relaxed. It makes me feel gentler. I think that, you know, little babies need to feel the feeling of being held in order to, you know, develop empathy. I found that my empathy with the cattle got much deeper when I actually started touching the animals. I found when I touched the animals, you know, I could calm them down.
GROSS: If somebody were to hug you now, would you feel as overwhelmed and uncomfortable and afraid as you did when you were young?
Ms.�GRANDIN: Oh no, no, no, no, no. Now, I actually like it when people hug me. You know, sensory oversensitivities can be desensitized. There are a lot of little autistic kids that pull away, and they don't want to be touched. Then you gradually work on touching them.
It's sort of like taming a wild animal. At first, the wild animal pulls away, but then after you work on touching it, then a stimulus that was at first overwhelming becomes something that the animal will like, and firm touch is calming, and very light touch sets off a fear reaction. Also, steady pressure is calming, and sudden, jerky motion causes agitation and excitement.
And the same thing's true with animals because I've designed a lot of systems for holding animals. In fact, one-third of all the cattle in this country, when they go to a meat-processing plant, are held in a device I designed, and I found that you have to have just the right amount of pressure.
You hold the animal too tight, it hurts and he fights it. If you don't hold him tight enough, he doesn't feel held, and he fights it. There's an optimal amount of pressure. Also, slow, steady pressure is calming, and if you do it too quickly, the animal will get excited.
GROSS: Is the hug machine that you created for yourself based on cattle-restraint devices that you had seen?
Ms.�GRANDIN: Well, yes, because when I was 18 years old, I had a constant state of anxiety all the time. It was like panic attacks. I felt like first radio interview nerves all the time for absolutely no reason. You know, I was in complete nervous system flight, you know, as if a lion was stalking around, you know, ready to get me, and I was desperate to get relief.
And I watched when the cattle went in the squeeze to hold them for their vaccinations, some of the animals would sort of just relax. So then I talked my aunt into letting me try it, and for about an hour afterwards, I was a lot calmer. In fact, pressure is used by a lot of therapists with autistic children. They'll roll them up in mats, they'll get them onto beanbag chairs, and it helps to relax them and calm down the nervous system, so it's easier to work on things like learning how to talk.
GROSS: So your aunt had a cattle ranch?
Ms.�GRANDIN: Yes, she did.
GROSS: So after you realized how comforting the pressure of this restraining device could be, did that lead you to want to work with animals?
Ms.�GRANDIN: Well, that's one of the things that got me interested, because I started going out to the feed yards and watching how the cattle reacted, and then I this was about 20 years ago, and so I wanted to learn more about how the cattle reacted to things. So I got down into the chutes with my camera and took pictures through the chutes to get a cow's-eye view.
In fact, that was going to be the original title for my book, but somebody in the marketing department didn't like it very much. And I got down there and looked through the chutes, and I began to see the sort of things that would bother the cattle: a shadow, a little thread out of place, any little thing, a coat or a hat hanging on the fence, and see the things that would make them balk.
GROSS: Well, you've really devoted your life to creating more-humane conditions for animals and more-humane, pain-free ways of slaughtering them. Do you feel like you empathize with cattle?
Ms.�GRANDIN: Well, I know how cattle feel, and a lot of people, you know, when they think about the slaughter plant, all they can think about is, well, the cattle have got to know they're being slaughtered.
Well, the things that scare the cattle are not the same things that we worry about. There's several slaughter plants in Colorado. I go visit them fairly often, and at one of them, the cattle don't like a little chain that's sometimes hanging down in the chute. They'll watch that little chain.
I was at the plant one day, and a train went rushing by, and the cattle were much more scared of the train than they were of going in to the slaughter plant.
You've got to have proper lighting. They won't go in if they can't see. High-pitched noise, sometimes just changing the plumbing on the hydraulic system to get rid of high-pitched noise will make the cattle go in much easier.
It's easy for me to figure out how the cattle think because they think the way I do. In fact, the title of my book finally got made to be "Thinking in Pictures," and that's the way animals think. They think in pictures.
GROSS: Tell us about one of the designs you came up with for a more humane slaughterhouse.
Ms.�GRANDIN: Well, I've done a lot of work on putting in curved chute systems. And one of the reasons this works is because the cattle can't see people up ahead, they just sort of go round and round and round like the Guggenheim Museum.
And then I designed a device called the center track restrainer system, and it replaced older-type conveyer systems, and it holds the cattle in a more comfortable manner, and they just follow through. They just keep following the animal in front of them, and they just go in there, and they're shot, and they don't know what's happened.
BIANCULLI: Temple Grandin, speaking to Terry Gross in 1995. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 1995 interview with Temple Grandin. She's the subject of this weekend's new HBO film's telemovie starring Claire Danes called "Temple Grandin."
GROSS: You understand cattle so well. What do you find very mysterious about other people?
Ms.�GRANDIN: Well, my emotions are not as complex. I have a difficult time understanding how somebody can be jealous and love somebody at the same time. I definitely have emotions, but fear is one of my main emotions, and of course, that's one of the main emotions of animals.
They see a little chain or something jiggling, or they see a shadow looks out of place, they get a fear reaction. And I just don't it just isn't part of my experience to, like, swoon over some guy because I think he's really cute.
When I was in high school, my roommate would, like, practically faint on the floor when Bob the science teacher walked into the room. I mean I'd and she'd be swooning on the floor when she was watching The Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms.�GRANDIN: And I go yeah, they're cute, but I'm not going to faint on the floor over it.
GROSS: Do you understand love?
Ms.�GRANDIN: Well, I understand caring. And see, most of my relationships are more intellect. I have a number of friends that I think I've been able to help them out, you know, on some counseling sort of things, and to me, love is caring.
In fact, my mother wrote one time that love was making something grow. I mean, that's sort of the way I look at it, but it's more of an intellectual thing. And when I see people abuse cattle, it makes me very angry, and, you know, and I want to, you know, change things.
GROSS: Do you feel like you're missing out on something special by not being in love and not understanding that emotion?
Ms.�GRANDIN: I'm missing out on some things, but I also have talents that other people don't have. I don't want to give up visual thinking. In fact, Oliver Sacks asked me in his book, "Anthropologist on Mars," if you could, you know, suddenly snap your fingers and not be autistic, would you do that?
And no, I wouldn't, because I don't want to give up visual thinking. Visual thinking make me a very thinking gives me very, very clear thinking in scientific and technical things. To me, a lot of the highly verbal thinkers are very fuzzy thinkers, and they're not logical.
GROSS: Children who are autistic often engage in very repetitive, obsessive behavior, like rocking back and forth or spinning. You did some of that when you were young.
Ms.�GRANDIN: Very definitely. And the reason why autistic children engage in these behaviors is to block out stimuli that hurt. But the problem is if you just let the child sit in a corner and rock, he's going to end up sitting in a corner and rocking for the rest of his life.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of getting a child very early, when they're two and three and four years old, into a really good program. Okay, what is a good program?
You need to spend a lot of hours a day just keeping that child engaged with the world. In my case, I was very lucky, and my mother really worked hard to get me a good education. At two and a half, I went into a speech therapy nursery school, where we had a very structured day, and I was not allowed to just tune out.
And then meals were structured because I'm 48 years old, and I lived at a time when you sat at the table, and we were taught manners. And then my mother had a nanny that would spend two or three hours a day with me just playing games, keeping me occupied so I couldn't tune out.
But then on the other hand, you've got to protect these children from certain sounds that hurt, like a smoke alarm, certain telephones, the school bell. These sounds hurt like a dentist drill going down my ear, and I was scared to go into certain rooms because I didn't know when the bell was going to go off, and the children have got to be protected from these sounds.
I had a mother call me up, and she told me her child was scared to death of church. He would go into the Sunday school, but he wouldn't go into the church. And the reason for this is that one day, the microphone fed back and squealed, and that hurt the child's ears, and he was afraid to go in there because he was afraid it would happen again.
GROSS: When you went to school as a girl, was it a public school?
Ms.�GRANDIN: I went to a small, private school. You know, I had two years of really intensive treatment, and I was mainstreamed into a normal kindergarten at age five. But it was a very old-fashioned, highly structured kindergarten. There was only 12 children in the class with an older, experienced teacher. It was no open classroom with kids running around doing all different sorts of things. Everybody did the same thing all at once.
GROSS: Now, I want to get back to the idea of spinning, that kind of or rocking, that kind of obsessive behavior. You say that it helped you and helps a lot of, like, autistic people block out painful stimuli.
Ms.�GRANDIN: Well, it helps you block out painful stimuli, but the problem is if you let the child do it all day...
GROSS: That's all they'll do.
Ms.�GRANDIN: That's all they'll do. Autism is a neurological disorder. Research done by Margaret Bauman in Boston shows very clearly that there's immature development in the limbic system of the brain and in the cerebellum, which is involved with balance and with sensory modulation.
GROSS: Do you feel that as time goes by, you're becoming less autistic?
Ms.�GRANDIN: Well, you keep learning how to get more and more normal. It's sort of like Data on "Star Trek." You know, Data keeps trying to learn more about how people act, and I remember watching a "Star Trek," and I wish I could remember the name of the episode, but Data was trying to date a girl. And it was a total disaster because he told her that she was beautiful in scientific terms, like saying, you know, you have a lovely, smooth epidermis. Well, that just doesn't work.
GROSS: So you identify with him?
Ms.�GRANDIN: Oh, I definitely identify with him, and I indentified with Mr.�Spock.
BIANCULLI: Temple Grandin, speaking to Terry Gross in 1995. We'll hear some of their more recent conversations in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. We're listening back to interviews Terry conducted with Temple Grandin, the subject of this weekend's HBO telemovie of the same name. Here's another scene from the film in which Claire Danes, as Temple, is demonstrating the new system she developed for getting cattle to move calmly and submerge themselves into an antibiotic dip.
(Soundbite of film, "Temple Grandin")
Ms. CLAIRE DANES (Actor): (as Temple Grandin) So the handlers walk slowly clockwise outside the chute, then the cow will walk counterclockwise through the chute. They'll just follow that cart. The cattle just keep calmly walking thinking they're going in circles following their buddies, and theyre happy to follow a cart because they think they're going back to where they came from. They're okay because it's grooved and they know they won't slip. So when the take the next step for center of gravity, they can drop calmly into the dip so they just walk through the water.
BIANCULLI: Terry's second interview with the real Temple Grandin was in 2005. The occasion was Grandin's book "Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior." In addition to her work in the livestock industry designing humane handling systems for cattle and other animals, she also teaches livestock behavior and facility design at Colorado State University.
GROSS: You teach college.
Ms. GRANDIN: Yes I do.
GROSS: Are there things that you know your students are going through emotionally that you feel like you are incapable of really understanding?
Ms. GRANDIN: Well, some of all the romantic stuff, I just dont get into that. And I certainly understand emotions like being nervous and scared, you know, before final exams. You know, being nervous and scared, you know, when I first started teaching classes. That I fully understand. But some of that complex stuff - the subtle stuff. I didnt even know that people had eye signals until I read about them in a book 10 years ago.
GROSS: What kind of eye signals are you talking about?
Ms. GRANDIN: A little, you know, subtle eye signals that somebody's annoyed with you. Basically, the one subtle signal I pick up, and this is something that humans and animals share, is tone of voice. You know, if I think one of my clients might be angry with me, I like to call them up and just listen to what he sounds like because I can tell if he's got this little whine that maybe he's a little angry with me. And animals are extremely sensitive to tone of voice. They also can really clue into the voice of the good person and the voice of bad the person.
And let's talk about fear memories. An animal can get a fear memory that of black hats. You know, let's say a person abused a horse wearing a black hat and the horse was looking right at the black hat, now the horse is afraid of black hats. Or a dog who got hit by a car, you'd expect a dog to be afraid of the car. No, he was afraid of the piece of pavement he was staring at right at the time that he got hit by the car. They make an association, either of sight or sound.
There was another animal that was afraid of nylon ski jackets because he was abused by a person wearing a nylon ski jacket that made a shush-shush kind of sound, so now the animal was afraid of that sound. And an autistic kid, he can get afraid of seeing a little red fire alarm box because you never know when that horrible thing's going to go off and blast out your ears.
GROSS: Well, because you were so overwhelmed by fear so much of the time, did you fear work as a way to discipline you or did it just kind of send you off the rails?
Ms. GRANDIN: Well, at a point it just will send you off the rail. I mean it -you just get so scared you just can't function. I mean I've been on antidepressant drugs for 25 years and if I hadn't got on antidepressant drugs in my early 30s, I mean I wouldnt be here now and I wouldnt have done the things that I've done.
GROSS: You were talking about, you know, how if a horse is abused by somebody wearing a black hat, the horse will become afraid of black hats, so let's take that hypothetical example of the black hat, how would you try to desensitize a horse to that fear?
Ms. GRANDIN: You can desensitize it, but one of the problems that you have is you can never erase the fear memory. Nature will not let you erase it. It'll only allow you to put a lock on the file. Now, if the horse is a high-strung horse, that lock can come off the file really quickly and it can come back.
Now, black hat's a difficult one because I can't eliminate black hats from the horse's environment. I mean showing that horse would be difficult. Now let's say a horse was afraid of a certain type of bit he'd been abused with. Now one of the ways I might be able to correct that would be to change maybe from a jointed snaffle bit to a one-piece solid bit and that would feel enough different.
You see, these memories are very specific. They're real, real, real specific. So, I put a different bit in his mouth that feels different, then I got rid of the feared thing. And I can control what bit I put in the horse's mouth, where I can't eliminate all of the black hats. You know, now why did the horse get afraid of black hats? Well, that's what he was looking at. Or you might have a dog that's afraid of Nike sneakers because that's what he was looking at when somebody was whacking on him. You know, its, you know, its what the animal associates with the, you know, the bad thing that happened.
GROSS: Would you ever use negative reinforcement punishment as a way to discipline an animal?
Ms. GRANDIN: Most of the times I would not, but I would never say never. I would never use punishment on something that's fear-based behavior because that will worsen it. If you want to teach the animal a new skill - like if you want to teach a dog a trick, I want to do that all with positive reinforcement. You want to teach the lion or the dolphin at the marine park or the zoo to cooperate with veterinary work, that's all done with positive reinforcement -totally, totally, totally.
There's only one thing where punishment is - you just about have to use punishment and that's stopping prey-drive behavior. Youve got a dog that's killing cats or youve got a dog that's killing sheep and theyve already done it. I absolutely despise shock collars and I despise a lot of the things that hunters are doing with shock collars. I think it's totally wrong. But there's one legitimate use for it: Car chasing, jogger chasing, cat killing, deer chasing, anything that's prey-drive behavior. And this is not aggression and it's not fear. It's a very special other kind of emotion that the animal has. And you'd want to put the collar on, have the dog wear it for two days, and then - because you never want him to find out that the collar did it. And then one day a thunderbolt from the sky blasts him for chasing deer. And that's one of the few situations I would use a punishment. For all kinds of other things, no.
GROSS: The last time you were on our show after the publication of your book "Thinking in Pictures," we talked a little bit about the humane slaughter systems that you had devised for cattle in the meat packing industry and you talked a little bit about how you devised the systems and some of the things you look out for. What kind of work are you doing now? Has your work changed at all in the past few years?
Ms. GRANDIN: It has. Last time I interviewed you, I was strictly working on the engineering side of things and the design side of things. For the last seven years I've been working with McDonald's and Wendy's and Burger King Corporation on animal welfare auditing. I designed a very simple scoring system where an auditor can go into a plant and determine, you know, how good the welfare is and it's not somebody's opinion. You watch a hundred cattle go through the plant and you count well, how many cattle out of a hundred were mooing and bellowing? Now that's really bad if they're mooing and bellowing.
Well, youre only allowed to have three cattle out of a hundred mooing and bellowing while they're being handled then they go into the slaughter plant. How many were hit with an electric prod? It used to be all of them. You know, now, most plants its only 5 or 10 percent. How many fall down? How many were rendered insensible on the first attempt? You can measure these things. And I worked with the McDonald's food safety auditors on implementing these measurements and it's resulted in tremendous improvement. And about 90 percent of the beef plants are involved in this. There have still been some bad problems in plants that are outside of this audit system, but right now about 90 percent of the cattle are part of this audit system.
GROSS: So in other words, if a lot of the cows are mooing and bellowing it means something's wrong in the way they're being treated and the ultimate goal here is to fix how they're being treated.
Ms. GRANDIN: Well, yes. Mooing and bellowing is a sign of pain and fear. I mean cattle moo and bellow when they're being handled. If youre making them scared or youre pinching them in some piece of equipment or youre shocking them with an electric prod, those are all things that make them moo and bellow. And when we first started there was lots of mooing and bellowing going on. Now you go into a plant that's really well run and it's almost silent.
GROSS: Let me ask you a question I know youve been asked a million times. You obviously love animals. You feel very specially connected to animals, yet you work in the design of humane slaughter systems and some people might say well, there's nothing humane about slaughter. If you really love the animals you'd have nothing to do with their slaughter for chop meat.
Ms. GRANDIN: Well, one of the things is the cattle that we raise for food would never even been bred if we hadn't bred them and they wouldnt have lived at all. And I feel very strongly that we owe these animals a decent life. And some of my biggest concerns now, especially in animals like chickens and pigs, are problems with genetics. And I'm not talking about bioengineering. I'm talking about old fashioned breeding where you over-select for single traits like rapid growth and then you get problems like lameness. I think these are some of the worst animal welfare problems and I'm very, very concerned about that and those kind of problems need to be corrected. You know, we raise these animals, we must give them a decent life. I think that's extremely important. They feel pain. They feel fear. That has been scientifically proven.
GROSS: And what about a decent death? What does that mean to you for animals?
Ms. GRANDIN: It means they just walk up the chute and bang, it's done and they dont know what's happened. That would be a decent death.
GROSS: A death without a lot of fear.
Ms. GRANDIN: Just walk up the chute, bang, it's done. And right now, looking at some of the research, there is some - they get a little bit scared when they go in to get vaccinations. And I compiled a whole lot of studies together and the amount of stress hormone that was secreted was measured at the slaughter plant. It was also measured in a chute where they just went in to be held like for vaccinations and the levels of stress hormone were the same at the slaughter plant as back on the farm in a chute that'd be used to hold cattle for vaccinations.
BIANCULLI: Temple Grandin, speaking with Terry Gross in 2005. A TV movie based on her life premiers this weekend on HBO.
Coming up, dogs chasing their tails and pacing polar bears. Temple Grandin will explain after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: In this weekend's HBO telemovie "Temple Grandin," actress Claire Danes plays the title role. Terry Gross spoke most recently with the real Temple Grandin last year about her latest book "Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals." Her previous books include the memoir, "Thinking in Pictures" and the bestseller "Animals in Translation."
GROSS: What are some of the typical - like, animal repetitive behaviors that are a sign that something is wrong? Like we've all known dogs who chase their tail endlessly. Would that be an example?
Ms. GRANDIN: That would be an example, pacing, in a lion or a polar bear. Tongue-rolling - recently I saw some Jersey cows putting their heads up in the air and just waggling their tongues all around. That's totally abnormal.
A gerbil that just sits in the corner digging and digging and digging constantly, that's abnormal. The main thing about a stereotypy is it's just sort of - is exactly the same over and over and over again. An animal that's pacing will - you know, wear down the floor right where he paces.
GROSS: So do you feel like you have any insights about how to break animals of that kind of, you know, like, repetitive compulsive behavior?
Ms. GRANDIN: Well, you've got to start looking at what does that animal do in the wild. You take the polar bear. He's a nomad animal. He walks for miles and miles and miles and miles. Grazing animals like cattle tend to get mouth stereotypies because what do they do all day? They eat. Gerbils will get into digging stereotypies. But what gets interesting is looking at the motivation. A polar bear is turned, you know, he's seeking, seeking stuff to do and that's why he walks and walks and walks.
Now the gerbil, you know, they thought, okay, let's make a good environment for a gerbil, let's just give them more sand to dig in. Well, he still spends 30 percent of his day digging and digging and digging. You know, but what the gerbil really wants is a place to hide because of it's a prey species animal, and he's trying to dig a hole in the bottom of the aquarium and he can't make a tunnel.
Well, if you give him give a tunnel, even a fake one, he'll go in there. That gives him cover. And he's digging because he feels exposed. You know, that stereotypy was motivated by fear, where the stereotypy in the polar bear was motivated by seeking.
GROSS: Seeking is when you're hunting for something, looking for something, and you have anticipation that when you find it, it's going to be really good and therefore, you even got pleasure in the hunting part, in the seeking part, because of that the sense of anticipation.
Ms. GRANDIN: Well, that's right. It's, you know, it's the anticipation more than - it's thinking about, you know having a chocolate sundae more than the actually having it.
GROSS: So, once you know what you think might be behind the repetitive behavior in the animal, how do you break it?
Ms. GRANDIN: Well, you've got - one of the things that was done with Gus the polar bear is you had to give him things to do. Okay, the problem is an animal that walks for miles and miles and miles and miles I mean he can't do that at the Central Park Zoo. So what they did was they gave him lots of barrels that he could jump on with all different buoyancies. And every time he jumped on these barrels in the water they would float up at different buoyancies. And that cut down on the stereotypies. But the emphasis has to be on preventing the behavior in the first place, because the problem with stereotypic behavior is it can get entrenched into the brain and be difficult to get rid of.
GROSS: You've written about how - because you do have autism, you don't really like physical contact with people. You've chosen to avoid romantic love in your life. You choose to live alone. What about, kind of, physical contact with animals? Do you enjoy petting them? Do you enjoy things like a cat sitting in your lap and snuggling up against you?
Dr. GRANDIN: Yes, and I really enjoy stroking an animal. And you don't want pat an animal; you want to stroke it, kind of just firm strokes, like mother's tongue. You know, cattle, sometimes, you rub them on the neck just right. They put their head up in the air, and they' kind of go, oh, that just feels so good. I do get pleasure out of, you know, seeing - stroking an animal and seeing that animal get happy when you do it.
GROSS: What else gives you pleasure, beyond work?
Dr. GRANDIN: Talking about autism with other people, talking about animals with other people, talking about engineering with other people, talking about really interesting stuff. And I can relate to another lady that's got Asperger's. She was giving a talk, and she was telling me that, you know, she and her husband have these great romantic dinners in a really nice restaurant with candles and everything else, and that sets the stage for a beautiful, romantic conversation on computer data storage systems.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I love it.
Dr. GRANDIN: Because that's just so interesting, and I can completely relate to that.
GROSS: You know, how does your body and how does your nervous system respond to physical pain? Even the ordinary aches and pains of aging, does that send you into panic, or are you okay at coping with that?
Dr. GRANDIN: No, I've got quite a bit of back pain, and I'm coping with that.
GROSS: So that doesn't frighten you? You can handle that?
Dr. GRANDIN: Yeah, I can handle the pain. In fact, when I had a major surgery, the nurse told me that I used very little pain medication compared to some of the other patients.
GROSS: Now why do you think that is? Like so many people can't deal with pain, like pain is very upsetting? Pain hurts. And you seem to cope with pain fine, and yet, you know somebody's car beeping is going to send you into panic if you're not on medication.
Dr. GRANDIN: Well, that's a common thing with a lot of people, you know, with autism, you know, they're more pain tolerant.
GROSS: Really? Has anybody investigated why?
Dr. GRANDIN: That's something that probably needs to be investigated. One of things that really need to be investigated in autism are the sensory sensitivity problems, and they're very variable from mild nuisances to being totally debilitating. There are some people in the spectrum - in fact, smart Asperger people on the spectrum, they can't tolerate a normal office because they can see the flicker, the 60 cycle flicker, of fluorescent lights. They feel like they're in a disco. They can't tolerate just the noise of, you know, office equipment, things like that because it hurts their ears.
And these sensory problems are now just starting to get researched. I mean, I've been a big proponent of saying to researchers, please; you've got to study these problems. They are just so debilitating. You know, how can a person socialize or live a normal life if they're - if every little phone ringing or something hurts their ears?
GROSS: Right. You recently wrote a book that's about socials skills and teaching social skills to people. Do you feel like you had to be taught social skills, that you didn't have any intuitive understanding of them, that you had to - you had to be shown what the rules are?
Dr. GRANDIN: I had to just be taught. This is where my '50s upbringing, I think, really helped me. All kids back in the '50s were taught to say please and thank you. They were taught table manners. My parents and my nanny spent hours playing turn-taking games, you know, like board games, Chinese checkers, Parcheesi, things like this that teach turn-taking. Because I have to learn social skills like acting in a play. Now the thing is, there's differences in how many social circuits are hooked up. It's going to be very, very variable.
GROSS: You've said that when you first started working, that because you really didn't understand certain social skills, you would dress in a very kind of, you know, unkempt way, your personal hygiene wasn't the greatest, until you were told that this had to change. So, when you were told and you changed, were you insulted? You know, most people if you say to them, wow, you're dressing unkempt, or you know you have bad personal hygiene, they'd be really offended. But this - does that kind of personal offense register on you? Do you take it that way?
Dr. GRANDIN: Oh, no. Yeah. I was absolutely furious, but I did it because I wanted to keep the job. Now I still dress kind of eccentric. And I think eccentric's fine. But a filthy, dirty slob - that's not fine. In fact, I've gotten after some other people on the spectrum for showing up at an important meeting, you know, with a dirty T-shirt and told them to go up to their room and get a different shirt, you know. But on the other hand you can't totally de-geek the geek, and don't even try. They can't...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. GRANDIN: You can't make me into something that I'm not. You know, you have - it's sort of like you've got to meet - you've got to meet halfway.
GROSS: Well, Temple Grandin, I really want to thank you for talking with us and coming to Fresh Air, again. It's really been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you very much.
Dr. GRANDIN: Well, thank you so much for having me.
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Temple Grandin speaking with Terry Gross in 2009. A new telemovie based on her life titled "Temple Grandin" and starring Claire Danes premiers this weekend on HBO.
Coming up, "From Paris With Love." David Edelstein reviews the new action film starring John Travolta.
This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.