How many moos should you allow in a herd of cattle?

A curved "V" cattle race.

A curved “V” cattle race. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“…each year, half the cattle in the United States are handled in cruelty-free facilities [Grandin] has designed.”

‘To achieve this unprecedented success, Temple used one of the strengths of autism: she thinks visually, the same way animals do.”

Her father thought she was retarded and insisted she be sent to a mental hospital at the age of three.

Her mother refused.

Instead, she engaged a speech teacher to come three times a week for a daughter who could not talk or laugh.

She found a nanny who was used to working with another autistic child who could explain things to Grandin in the visual images she thought everyone used.

The nanny explained the dangers of walking in the road without looking, for instance, by showing her squirrel road-kill.

“This is why you look both ways before crossing the street – so you don’t end up flat like that squirrel.”

And, when Grandin’s Mom decided that her daughter could handle a regular school with other children, she picked a small, private school near home and briefed the teacher, who then briefed the children in her class before Grandin arrived.

“It was sort of like polio, the teacher told the class.”

“Temple was born in 1947, a time when American families feared the polio virus almost as much as the atomic bomb….Everyone in Temple’s class had seen children who had survived polio wearing leg braces and walking with crutches.”

“Temple’s problem wasn’t something you could see like leg braces, the teacher told the class, because her problem was in her brain. But it was just as real.”

“The children promised to be patient with Temple.”

Grandin was in her forties before she realized other people did not think in pictures.

It turns out that animals also think in pictures.

She learned to ride horseback near her childhood home in Massachusetts and continued riding on her aunt and uncle’s ranch in Arizona.

But, her great strengths were four-fold:

  • Since she thinks the same way animals do, she has a precise understanding of what spooks them
  • She loved to build things
  • She could focus on a single project for long stretches of time
  • She was extremely detail-oriented.

When Grandin observed cattle chutes in Arizona, she decided to make one for herself and found the close quarters calming.

Her high school science teacher encouraged her to test different models of the “calming machine” to see if it worked for other people.

This work eventually led to her Master’s thesis on whether an improved chute, leading to more relaxed cows, could save money in cattle handling.

But, not with the help of her animal science professors, as you might expect, rather with the help of construction and design professors.

Eventually, Grandin earned a Ph.D. and worldwide fame as a cattle chute designer.

But, let’s start with the first cattle handling design.

Working on her Master’s degree, she gained access to an Arizona feedlot to see how the cattle were being handled and what factors spooked them, like shadows, clothes flapping on a fence, or chains rattling.

But, just because she had permission, didn’t mean everyone wanted her there.

“Some people welcomed her, like the feedlot manager. Some cattlemen admired her special affection for the cattle.”

“But, she also remember the others. Many of the men working with cattle at that time didn’t want an autistic person, didn’t want a woman, didn’t want an easterner, and didn’t want someone with a concern for animal welfare poking around in ‘their’ business.”

“One day at the Scottsdale Feed Yard, she returned to the lot where she’d parked her car and found it covered with bloody flesh. Some of the workers had splattered it with the testicles of freshly castrated cattle.”

“She turned on her windshield wipers and drove home – and came back the next day.”

She discovered in her observations and patient data gathering that chute designs that did not stress the animals made procedures like vaccinations and branding  faster and less likely to cause injury to the animals, saving the ranchers money.

She discovered that flapping clothes on a fence or a hanging chain scare cattle because they don’t belong there.

Shadows on the ground scare cattle because they might be a hole in the ground.

After Grandin had earned her Master’s degree and published several articles about cattle behavior, she found herself at a livestock show where cattlemen were all talking about how to deal with the mites that were causing a contagious disease, scabies, among the cattle.

Cattlemen were dipping the cattle in a pesticide to kill the mites, but the cattle strongly resisted going into the dipping vats.

One of the feedlot managers, who had read Grandin’s articles, asked her if she could help figure out why the cattle were so afraid to walk into the dipping vats.

She went from the show directly to visit some dipping vats nearby.

She found that to trick the cattle into going into the seven-foot deep vat of pesticide, they were urged down a steep, slippery ramp.

Some were so panicked by the time they entered the vat they flipped over and drowned.

Her design reduced the incline of the ramp and gave it cleats so it wouldn’t be slippery, thinking that by the time the cows entered the vat, they would simply swim across and walk out the other side.

That’s not exactly what happened. The cows were still drowning.

So, she went to inspect the vat she’d designed. Some cowboys, sure that the cows would never walk down a gently inclined, cleated ramp on their own, had put a slippery metal sheet over her ramp.

As soon as she told them they had to remove the slippery ramp, the cows stopped drowning. No longer panicked, they walked down the ramp, swam across and walked out the other side, just as she’d predicted.

Her design and consulting business was launched.

She drew designs for easy-to-build, economical, humane cattle handling facilities. No one else was doing anything like it.

Grandin’s influence now extends to consulting with huge buyers of meat, like McDonald’s, who have set standards for how the cows whose meat they buy are treated.

They committed not to buy from suppliers that mistreated their animals.

But, aside from the obvious markers of bruises or injury, how to tell?

“You want us to do what?”

“That’s right,” she told him, “I want you to count moos.”

As it turns out, cows moo when they are distressed.  They also run and stumble. If chutes are designed correctly, cattle prods are not necessary and cows do not panic.

Grandin developed a scoring system for counting the events that represent fear so processing facilities would know what success looks like.

For mooing, she set the standard at no more than three moos out of one hundred cattle.

Think about that the next time you go to McDonald’s.

Click on the title to see Temple Grandin’s TED talk, “The World Needs All Kinds of Minds.”

Order Sy Montgomery’s as-told-to book about Grandin from amazon by clicking on the title, “Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World.”

Order the movie on Grandin’s life, starring Claire Danes, by clicking on the title, “Temple Grandin.”

Whether there is autism in your life or not, sharing her story with your grandchildren will help them understand more about people they meet and how one person can change the world.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers


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