Temple Grandin Talks Drew Conroy Drives

Temple Grandin Talks, Drew Conroy Drives: Rare Breeds Come Together at ALBC Meeting in New England

by Sally Eckhoff of Stuyvesant Falls, NY

Having reached the level of sophistication where I can tell a Brabant horse from a breadbox, I thought I’d be OK skipping the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy meeting. So what if it was going to be at the Hancock Shaker Village, right over the hill from where I live? I know what those weird sheep with the three horns look like. If it weren’t for my procrastinating habit of reading every little pamphlet that sneaks into my mailbox, I would have missed the greatest confluence of animal personalities since Jane Goodall and Drew Conroy sat across from each other on a plane from London to Dar es Salaam. These things never happen, or they do only once in a while, when animals make people lucky. I think they do that. Rare animals bring even rarer luck.

I tend to think of Mr. Conroy as the Leonard Bernstein of the ox world, not that he needs any superlatives now that his nickname (Mr. Oxen) has been upgraded to The Ox God. He was slated to give one of his oxen workshops at the end of the Rare Breeds weekend, though without becoming a member and paying the workshop fee on top of that, I wasn’t going to get in. I’d have to track Mr. Conroy down somewhere else; too bad. But idling in my car outside the Post Office, nursing a cup of cold coffee and flipping through the pile of stuff on the way to the recyclers, I saw the cover of the New England Heritage Breeds Conservancy newsletter. It was there in black and white – the ALBC had invited Temple Grandin to speak at the meeting. I’ve been trying to see Dr. Grandin ever since I read her book Thinking in Pictures eight years ago. Anything that might be trying to happen the weekend of September 20 would have to find another time to do it. Hancock Shaker Village, I’ll be there no matter what, even if the Church of Oxen goes into session without me.

Temple Grandin is known to long-time readers of the New Yorker as a study subject of the famous Dr. Oliver Sacks. Dr. Sacks, a neurologist and fascinating nonfiction author, writes amazing and odd case histories that illustrate how human personality can be shaped by brain chemistry. That might seem depersonalizing, explaining peoples’ eccentricities through the way their nervous systems act, but Dr. Sacks’s writing does exactly the opposite. He brings clarity to a subject that confuses almost everyone. We then can try out the idea that a purely scientific reading of human differences allows people to be more fully and unapologetically who we are.

Since Temple made her memorable appearance in one of Sacks’s more recent books, An Anthropologist on Mars, many readers have become familiar with the idea that although autism is pretty much a personal disaster, the vantage points it affords can be priceless. Many autistic children and adults find almost any kind of physical contact unbearable. Try to imagine Temple as a little girl, fighting like a wildcat in her parents’ arms. Later on, she found ways to help herself, and realized her socially-isolated state gave her a clearer window into the world of animals than her “normal” associates had. When she was visiting her aunt’s dairy farm, the young Temple discovered the squeeze chute used for vaccinating dairy cattle and convinced her aunt to let her climb into it herself. The sensation of being pressed between two panels of a machine was so much more calming than being embraced by a human. ”It was difficult for me to understand the idea of kindness until I had been soothed myself,” she confesses in Thinking in Pictures, and you can begin to feel her world expand. The cattle themselves were calming to her. Temple found herself irrepressibly drawn to the way they behaved, and began her journey into an area of study that will likely engage her for the rest of her life.

What does this have to do with rare breeds, animal welfare, or a working Shaker farm? Thanks to her unusual outlook and a lot of patient research, Grandin is internationally known for her innovative work in handling livestock animals. She holds a Ph.D. in animal science from the University of Illinois, and is currently a professor in the same subject at Colorado State. Dr. Grandin is credited with designing one-third of all the “kill chutes” of cattle-processing facilities in the U.S., and is almost single-handedly responsible for the disappearance of the horrible shackle-hoist system, in which cattle are hauled up by their hind legs as they writhe and kick. Her work in this field has eased the passing of untold hundreds of thousands – maybe even millions – of beef cattle. It has also made the point that humane treatment of food animals is economically as well as morally practical. It’s not much of an imaginative leap from that to the concerns of archival breeders, food producers, and anyone responsible for the health and well-being of farm or even sport animals. Dr. Grandin says that in one of her designs, a steer can walk into a restraining entrance and settle down on the conveyor “like a little old lady getting on a bus.” Contrast that to the image of a horse trying to knock the walls out of a trailer, and you have an inkling of her appeal.

I don’t feel great about this, but the question that rang most insistently in my mind about Temple Grandin was, “What’s she like?” A friend who’s seen her lecture says she reminds him of Marjorie Main, the plain-talkin’ 1940s Hoosier character actress. This was getting interesting. Start with a typical autistic child who rocked and spun incessantly, out of reach of her frustrated parents, and somehow we arrive at a woman with a world reputation in an arcane subject with cosmic dimensions who nevertheless reminds people of Ma Kettle. Dr. Grandin loads Thinking in Pictures with descriptions of her life that are entrancing but sometimes painful to read. For example, abstract concepts in language are almost impossible to grasp – at least in the way most of us are accustomed to understanding them. “Spatial words such as “over” and “under” had no meaning for me,” she writes. “The first memory that any single word triggers is almost always a childhood memory.” Working with the concept of the word “under,” she says, “If I allow my mind to keep associating, it will wander a million miles away from the word… to submarines under the Antarctic and the Beatles song “Yellow Submarine.”” The associations go on and on. People with severe autism are sometimes unable to stop them. Many autistic people find it difficult to figure out where their bodies end and the rest of the world begins, Grandin tells us. “Jim Sinclair, a young man with autism, reports not being able to find his body.” Another young person with autism, Donna Williams, “tapped rhythmically and sometimes slapped herself to determine where her body boundaries were.” When Williams became seriously overloaded with painful stimuli, she could bite herself and not feel it.

Reading Grandin’s book, it’s amazing that some autistic people find a place of comfort in the world at all. They tend to be terribly sensitive and averse to change. “Shampooing actually hurt my scalp,” she writes. “It was as if the fingers rubbing my head had sewing thimbles on them.” Having to switch from pants to shorts, or from shorts to pants when the weather changed, nearly sent her over the edge. “It still takes me at least two weeks to adapt. New underwear is a scratchy horror. I wear my bras until they are falling apart,” often inside-out, because the stitching hurts that much. College presented a complex set of social problems. Temple describes how her friends helped her by reminding her to wash her hair, wear deodorant, and change clothes.

She still can’t rely on the feelings of others to make her way through the world, but she has something else that works for her. Temple describes her coping mechanism as a library of mental videotapes she replays when she needs to – hence the book’s title. This, in a nutshell, is what enables her to get inside the way cattle think.

Temple has a rare gift, but she pays for it with her state of continual disconnect. Her rejection of cruelty of any kind, therefore, comes as a surprise. She does consider that there’s a natural order in the universe, but she arrives at her understanding through numbers and logic: quantum physics provides the underlying structure for our existence. Cruelty disturbs the sacred chains of order, and the consequences for stirring up chaos by treating animals badly could be dire. This is spirituality – just not the conventional kind. “In all the years I have worked with animals,” she writes, “I have intuitively felt I must never misbehave near the kill chute.” The animals that provide for us are bound to humanity by an ancient contract, she says. “We must never abuse them.”

So it’s Saturday afternoon, a sunny and drowsy day for a rare animal meeting, and an hour before Grandin’s lecture is scheduled to begin, I go see what unusual animals we’ve got this year. I pet the American Cream horses and admire the Old Spot pigs. I love the Poitou donkey, sure, but I’d just about kill for a Dales pony like the stallion I saw. I never realized that Dexter cattle were so little, so deep-cheeked and clever-looking, and so quick. I’d love to see an Akhal-Teke horse, finally, but that’s hoping for a bit too much. There’s no giant jackstock here either, but I can go to Tennessee for that. What kinds of cattle are here for tomorrow’s workshop? I walk over to the corral at the top of the hill to find out.

First thing I see is a pair of carmine-colored Devons that’s – in every way you can imagine – spectacular. Now I’m happy. I like Devons to begin with, but these are calling out to me in their fulsome healthiness like ripe tomatoes. They have the fattest, smoothest horns and the sweetest eyes. They’re also the reddest red. I’m admiring these oxen, with their polite attentiveness to their owner, an earnest young man named Jake Hodges, when I see Drew Conroy coming into the paddock with his team of young Belts. He seems happy that his workshop students are so elegantly prepared. Kerry Smith has brought some nifty Linebacks. I’m regretting that I can’t be at the workshop tomorrow and indeed can’t be everywhere all the time, while also knowing that looking at nice teams of oxen means you’re really Somewhere. Now I have to drop everything and get on over to the lecture hall for the main event. Dr. Grandin’s talk is titled “Selecting Genetics for Humane, Grass-Based Production,” but I bet it will be about a lot more than that. I wonder if this free-associating thinker can stick to her subject, but I suspect it’s not going to matter.

Here comes Dr. Temple Grandin, striding purposefully to the front of the filled room, turning suddenly to her audience. There’s no “Hi, how are you” or time-wasting introductory chat. She simply launches into her speech. “Let’s look at the reasons why it’s a good idea not to get animals excited,” she blurts in her cowgirl drawl, all energy and palpable shyness. Dr. Grandin is tall. She’s wearing a chambray shirt and a tiny, almost imperceptible smile. The audience is hanging on every word.

Her delivery is so fast it’s hard to get her thoughts down on paper, and yet this talk is refreshingly concise. Her audience murmurs in recognition when she shows photos of things that bother animals: chains, metal baffles, juxtapositions of light and dark in drain gratings. Cattle are particularly sensitive to intrusive objects that are yellowish-green or bluish-purple. OK, I’ve got that. Yellow’s a major offender. Clicking on a slide of a man in a shiny poncho standing near a chute, she barks, “Get that outta there!”

With handling cattle, sudden movement “makes the predator chase, and it makes the prey animal run away.” Calm animals will stop and look at the distractions that normally scare them. Grandin surfs on energy as she speaks, and I’m loving it. A person who doesn’t argue with animal nature is something to watch. Of course, in order not to argue with animal nature, you have to know what it is to begin with, and here’s how autism apparently becomes her ally in a thickly-layered process of discovery.

How can a kill chute not frighten animals? It can have solid sides, for one thing. Dr. Grandin shows a picture of a chute with a hat hanging on it: big mistake. Long, straight walkways are opportunities for trouble, as are alien distractions of any kind, which cause cattle to jam on the brakes. “Cattle like to go around in circles because they always want to go back to where they came from,” she says. I didn’t know that; I work with horses who don’t seem to be wired that way at all. But here’s something for me: “Nonslip flooring is essential. Animals panic if they feel like they’re slipping.” In horse-training situations, I see people forcing animals to move out on surfaces that make them feel unstable. I do it too, sometimes, and then I forget about it. No wonder it’s so hard to get sensitive horses to jump.

Temple Grandin is very tuned in to wavelengths the rest of us don’t always notice. “As a person with autism, I have a lot of problems with loud noises, especially high-pitched, intermittent sounds,” she says. I immediately flash on a wobbly PA speaker that roared and squawked outside a practice ring where I was trying to warm up a horse. He couldn’t put it back together after that. His composure was shot for the rest of the day. Beyond the scope of my suburban sport of showjumping, Grandin moves on to the architecture of holding pens. “Too many jam-packed animals is trouble. Fill that crowd pen half-full!” When cattle are excited, they tend to stick together. It takes a good half-hour to sort them out again.

Clicking rapidly through her slides of African animals, Dr. Grandin discusses fine-boned creatures’ tendency toward flight. “Do rough training with an Arab horse, and it might just stay scared and not get over it.” She has a graduate student who measured the thickness of cannon bones in cattle, and found that the ones with the thinner legs ran out of the squeeze chute faster. Such a concrete relationship, delicacy and flight. I always thought it could be generated by superstition. I had the same feeling about a talk given by an ex-jockey once. Lissa Calhoun was analyzing a gray Lipizzaner-cross horse by examining its facial whorls, and I was skeptical. Traveling down the boldly-curved line of the horse’s enormous nose, she traced the eddy below his eyes with her fingertips. “A horse to kill or die for,” she said, just as I was thinking, “Oh, baloney. This is just farmyard phrenology.” But I was wrong about that.

For one study, Dr. Grandin’s team observed 1500 head of cattle in a commercial feedlot. One researcher looked at behavior while another looked at whorls. They found consistently that a whorl above the eye means more flightiness in cattle. It worked with horses too, as well as in the auction ring. The hunting horse I’ve been riding, the bay gelding with two beautiful whorls right smack dab in the middle of his forehead, is as steady as a dumptruck. There might be something to this voodoo after all.

Grandin’s students have also examined semen quality in Angus cattle in regards to the shape of the whorl. “A nice spiral is good,” Dr. Grandin says, but “bulls that had this ugly line” – she shows a whorl that looks like a scar – “had more bad semen.” Humans with developmental problems have abnormal whorls, too. Changing gears, Dr. Grandin goes back to her published work on the Angus bulls. You have to hear her delivery on this. There are few people in the known world who can deliver the phrase “really rotten semen” with such brio and not fall over from either hebephrenia or embarrassment. Dr. Grandin is free from both. “We had to go through two papers to get the word “sex” out and change it to “gender”,” she says. “We couldn’t write that the bulls were ejaculated, either. We didn’t want Grandin.com to be blocked as a sex site.”

Temple seems to be constantly checking an internal clock to see if she needs to circle back to her topic. “How does an animal think?” she asks abruptly. “He stores experiences as pictures. He stores them as sounds. He stores them as smells. There can even be a good saddle and a bad saddle. Fear memories are specific enough so a trainer can identify ‘em and get rid of ‘em… You want to make sure the first experience with something is a good experience. The first experience with something can be attractive for animals. If you let an animal approach something voluntarily, they’re often most scared of something new at the same time they’re most attracted to it.”

Is this why the Thoroughbred won’t go within thirty feet of the freshly-fallen tree, but the Morgan mutt pony wants to go stomp it and then run like hell? “Animals need a certain amount of stimulation. But you don’t want them near a semi that’s revving all night, either.” I think the Thoroughbred hears the tree revving, but that’s his story. What’s the moral? “Vary your routines. Get animals used to things. They need to learn that some variation is OK. For flighty genetics, it’s important to get them used to things before they leave home.”

“Never punish fear. Use reinforcements and rewards.” Dominance and aggression can be dangerous issues in dealing with some animals. ”You have to socialize your animals properly… The most dangerous bull sometimes is a hand-reared pet.” This has nothing to do with tameness: animals must be properly socialized with each other. “Horses have to know they’re horses. Then you can have a stallion you can ride rather than a psycho nutcase you can’t handle.”

Now we’re looking at a slide of a cow nose stretched straight up toward the sky. This is an instinctual pose of submission. You can stroke her under the throat to get this response. She can be taught this. Horses you can rub on the forehead. Humane issues have been appearing in the news lately, in connection with vast and mechanistic pork factories. These touch upon natural responses that people have trained themselves to ignore. It’s possible to inhibit fighting if you have to keep pigs at close quarters, Dr. Grandin says. Keeping a sexually-mature boar in there would work.

Before this lecture started, I saw a knot of men kibitzing outside the door. The one in the interesting Panama hat was the writer Michael Pollan. This might carry some weight with readers of this article, because Pollan occupies a unique place in the debate on nature and food production. He writes more or less as a consumer, and, subspecially, a poet. Pollan has a vast grasp, and he’s funny. His books, such as The Botany of Desire and Second Nature, are good reading. More to our point, his magazine work exposed the terminator seed project and the Monsanto potato debacle. Any of you who read his piece called “Power Steer” in the New York Times Sunday Magazine about fattening practices in feedlots know his work can be riveting-and even better, accurate. That he’s even here indicates there’s something bigger going on. “There is a book,” I hear him tell the program director in publishing-speak, impressive for its ring of the inevitable. “It’s on the food supply.”

I’m wondering what he thinks about this picture of a black-and-white dog being in a lecture about handling farm animals. Only it’s not a dog, it’s a fox. “Modern breeders overbred for a single trait,” Dr. Grandin says. The Russians wanted fur foxes who were gentle. They wound up with foxes that looked like Border Collies. You run into the same problems with other animals, but they’re seldom so clearly drawn. Superproductive chickens, like the Highline 77s, are hysterically flighty. “They get so crazy when they’re grown up that they pull their feathers out,” Grandin says. “I have humane problems with that.” Breeders aren’t going for multiple indications of quality, such as good feet and legs, and that’s why half the modern lean hybrid pigs Grandin saw at one slaughterhouse were lame. “Arthritis in commercial cattle bred for production is growing rapidly.” On top of that, “overbreeding for hugeness makes for crummy meat. You have to breed tasty meat for the niche market.” Yes, and “tail-biting and ear-biting in pigs has a genetic component.” Ugh. Look at this picture of the “super super fat, super super productive” Chinese pig with the garland of piglets around her underbelly. Who cares if they can walk?

This time we’ve got to swerve sharply to get back to the topic. “Do animals really think? Here’s what thinking isn’t: instinctual, simple operant conditioning,” like Clever Hans’s method. And here’s what it is: “Being able to use previously-learned information to solve a problem under novel conditions. And animals can do this.” Parrots learn patterns and categories. I can almost see the film clips playing in Dr. Grandin’s head.

“Some of the most interesting experiments in animal thinking are being done in birds,” Grandin continues: shades of Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her parrot, Alex. Dr. Grandin talks about crows who can bend a wire to make a hook and haul up a little bucket of feed. “We found it was the female crows that do this, and the males stick around and steal it later.”

“You have to visually appraise animals for breeding. You can’t just select for one thing.” She mentions a guy who keeps breeding ugly bulls. “He should just get rid of ‘em.” People have a tendency, through their single-mindedness and collected assumptions, to get themselves into trouble. Temple believes cattle give plenty of warning, but we ignore it. She mentions eye contact – “a threat” – and shows us how she’d back down a bull. A bull who’s about to charge gives a broadside threat, which some people mistake as a harmless gesture. You can’t ever really trust any of them, anyway. Nevertheless, “properly-socialized animals view people as a benevolent higher power.”

Tracking all this as if all the connected stories emanate from visual cues is remarkably easy to do. Once Dr. Grandin’s lecture began, it ceased to matter that it wasn’t based on any kind of conventional organization. The associations flow into each other, just like a good movie, and I feel like I can hit the pause button and call back my vision of the hall any time I want. The lights are back on and the awed audience is beginning its Q&A period with Temple, who’s standing square-shouldered, one long-fingered hand in the pocket of her black jeans. Her scalloped silver concha belt buckle is catching the light coming through the door. Her denim shirt has horses embroidered on it.

Visit www.Grandin.com on the web. Tons of links. Find Drew Conroy, Ox Teamster, at www.SmallFarmersJournal.com and at Rural Heritage Magazine online www.RuralHeritage.com. [editor’s note: the ALBC and NEHBC are now represented online by The Livestock Conservancy – www.LivestockConservancy.org]