Peacegal's Reviews > Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World

Temple Grandin by Sy Montgomery
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's review
May 11, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: humane-education
Read from May 11 to 12, 2012

Enlightening and engaging, students and adults alike will find something to love about this book. While the author writes for a tween/young teen audience, I’m willing to bet the average person of any age will learn quite a bit about autism from Temple Grandin.

Through her astounding story, titular visionary gives inspiration to youngsters who are autistic, suffer bullying, or simply feel “different” from their peers. She encourages readers to go against the grain and develop their own abilities.

Temple Grandin’s autism has given her a unique insight into her environment. She feels she has special empathy with animals such as horses and cattle.

“I’ve got the nervous system of a prey animal,” Temple explains. Her senses are ratcheted up—attuned to sounds and details that humans don’t notice but animals do.

Grandin uses her ability to design livestock handling systems, particularly slaughter systems, to reduce the sum total of fear and pain experienced by animals. When used properly, Grandin’s designs are meant to not only reduce the animals’ negative experiences, but keep the line of animals moving more smoothly for the slaughterers. Some of her most far-reaching reforms have come with working for major fast food chains on animal welfare policies.

Unfortunately, in some sections of the book the author seems to make rather sweeping generalizations regarding how much animal welfare reforms are really able to improve animals’ lives.

Dozens of huge corporations—from restaurant chains like McDonald’s and Wendy’s to giant meat-packing plants where food animals are slaughtered—consult with Temple about the animals who provide most of North America’s meat, eggs, and milk. Her clients don’t want to be part of the cruelty that, as humane organizations have shown, is too often standard practice on “factory farms”—huge outdoor facilities or warehouses where the animals are treated like machines instead of thinking, feeling creatures.

One reading this book with no prior knowledge of the subject might logically conclude that the major fast food chains have rejected all animal cruelty and do not deal with factory farms. This is, of course, absolutely false. While it is true that several high-profile restaurant chains have announced that they will no longer deal with suppliers who engage in the worst factory-farm abuses—such as gestation crates for pigs—it would be simply impossible for a fast food chain to serve the volume of meat they do, at the prices they do, without engaging in the rampant crowding and corner-cutting that is the hallmark of Big Ag. Every little step the fast food industry takes is encouraging and should be applauded—but it should never be mistaken that Big Macs and McMuffins are cruelty-free fare.

Nor will massive-scale commercial agribusiness ever fully embrace the idea that animals are “thinking, feeling creatures”…it’s simply not compatible with their business model. However, consumer pressure can convince them to make some changes—if only for the sake of their profit margins.

Mike Chabot, general manager of Cargill Meat Solutions, points out that Temple was way ahead of her time. “She was talking about animal behavior and even animal welfare” at a time when many in the industry “thought of the animals only as a source of their products”—not as thinking creatures with feelings like their own.”

Meat solutions? Admittedly, the juxtaposition with the term “solutions” with a mass killing facility brings up some unpleasant associations.

She invents new ways to make sure that livestock handlers are not being cruel to the animals. Half of the beef cattle in the US and Canada, and a growing number overseas, are handled in facilities she designed.

Before Temple came along, cattlemen would often resort to yelling at the cattle and poking them with painful electric prods to force them into a scary situation.

It is passages like this that make me recommend that everyone who checks out a Temple Grandin book should also check out Timothy Pachirat’s Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight Pachriat worked in one of the Midwest’s largest cattle slaughterhouses and wrote of his experiences. Suffice it to say that humane handling reforms work when auditors or supervisors are looking, and often, only then. Because slaughterhouses “process” animals at such a breakneck pace, the pressure is on the chute workers to ensure there’s not an inch of space or hesitation between cows lined up for the kill box. What ends up happening in this strenuously demanding environment is exactly what you might imagine.

The part of the book that addresses vegetarianism is part refreshing and part Defensive Omnivore Bingo.

How can an animal lover work for an industry that raises animals to be killed for food? How can she eat a steak when she loves living cattle?

[Grandin] was so sick of all the cruelty she had witnessed on farms and in slaughterhouses that she gave up eating meat altogether. Polls show that 7.3 million Americans are vegetarians, and most of them are very healthy on a meat-free diet (including the author of this book). Another million Americans are vegans, whose diet includes no animal products at all—no eggs or milk or cheese. But when Temple gave up meat, she felt lightheaded and dizzy.

I don’t believe that meat possesses some magical property that prevents people from functioning without it, but I do know that some people who become veg*n do not research their diets properly, and do not eat a large enough variety of foods. I could see where making dietary changes would have been difficult for Grandin, as her autism causes her to process many tastes and smells as overwhelming. And, let’s face it, the meat industry is going to take a consultant more seriously if she eats their products.

On the other hand, I am glad that the author included the information of the viability of veg*n diets, which may not have appeared had the author not been vegetarian herself.

“If I had my druthers,” Temple says, “people would have evolved as plant-eaters and wouldn’t kill animals for food at all. But I don’t see the whole human race converting to vegetarianism anytime soon.” Ten billion animals in the US alone, including laying hens, provide food for people each year. What about the quality of all these animals’ lives? Don’t they matter? By choosing not to eat meat or animal products, a vegetarian or vegan saves thousands of animals from slaughter over the course of his or her lifetime.

This, to me, is the reason people like Temple Grandin and organizations such as the Humane Society of the US are so essential—because billions of animals are caught up in this system NOW, and any steps that can be taken to reduce their misery is worth it. Even if you are veg*n and promote a plant-based diet, take a look around you. The uncle who is unmoving in his conviction that God created animals for humans to use in whatever way they see fit. The co-worker whose solution to factory farming cruelty is “I just don’t think about it.” Thousands of animals will die for these individuals’ choices over their lifetimes…and no, they aren’t going to shell out for free-range, locally-raised organic. I’m with author Erik Marcus when he says that every animal born into this system is a tragedy, but we owe it to those who are to ease their suffering.

But Temple points out that if all use of animals for food—including laying hens and milking cows—were eliminated, organic agriculture wouldn’t work, because manure from animals is an essential part of this method of farming. Besides, 95 percent of Americans do eat meat, and even more eat eggs.

Ever heard of veganic crop farming?

Even if you never eat a hamburger or pork chop, you’ll find animal products everywhere. The thickening agent in Jell-O is made from the boiled bones and hides of cattle and pigs. … Even the strictest vegans use animal products in daily life whether they know it, or like it, or not: dyes that color dollar bills, oils that lubricate parts of computers and airplanes, and medicines that save human and animal lives are among the hundreds of common nonfood products made from the bodies of slain animals.

The origin of gelatin is practically learned in Veg*n 101 these days…and it’s not that difficult to avoid, at least in foods. You’ll find very few veg*ns slurping Jell-O.

As for everything else…the argument that animal products are everywhere so there’s no use avoiding any of them is a specious one. The only reason slaughter by-products show up in everything from laptops to detergent is because ten billion animals are slaughtered every year in the US. If so many animals weren’t being “processed” through the system, there obviously wouldn’t be a huge glut of their bodily byproducts at rock-bottom prices. If boiled-down bones and fats and cartilage weren’t flooding the marketplace, manufacturers would have to find other materials. (They did with whale oil, didn’t they?)

[Grandin states] “They can live better lives on a ranch than most animals live in the wild. And I’d rather die in a good slaughterhouse than be eaten alive by a coyote or lion!”

Straw-man argument alert. As human beings living in the developed world, it is highly unlikely that any of the above will happen to us. One could argue that it’s better to be shot in the head with a high-caliber rifle than bludgeoned to death with a crowbar—but do we really want either of these things??

“Many people forget that most farm animals would never have existed at all if people had not bred them.”

And we have a bingo. I’d argue that the predominant breeds of animals used in factory farming today—such as the ‘broiler’ chickens who grow so big so fast their legs can collapse underneath them—would be better off not being propagated at all. As for the healthier and more traditional livestock breeds—it’s primarily Big Ag that is driving them to extinction.

Despite the overused omni arguments, the author sprinkles throughout some grimmer facts about the modern food industry.

Temple realizes that horrible abuses of animals continue in both kosher and nonkosher slaughterhouses and on farms around the world. She’s concerned about not only her favorite animals, cattle, but also about pigs and sheep and goats and turkeys and chickens. Laying hens, she said, probably have the worst welfare of any farm animal.

Upon viewing one factory egg farm with especially poor animal welfare, Temple realized that

Cruelty had been tolerated for so long on this farm that “bad” had become the new normal. And if the management doesn’t care about animal welfare, workers follow suit.

Such seems to be the case on so many of the undercover videos captured in factory farms in recent years. Cruelty becomes work culture. There’s a great quote from Grandin on this phenomenon:

“I think we have to look at everything we do on farms this way,” Temple insists. “What would ten random people from the airport think if they saw this? What if you brought your wedding guests to this farm or packing plant? What would they think? Are you going to be proud to show them your animals—or are you going to be squirming?”

And that’s the motive behind the troubling deluge of ag-gag law proposals—instead of improving their farms into facilities they would be proud to show the public—some agribusinesses interests are simply saying “Don’t look.”

Temple can’t take millions of Americans to see the farms and plants where our food animals live and die. So she’s doing the next best thing: she’s putting video cameras in barns, feedlots, and even slaughterhouses. In some cases, only the farm manager sees the videos. In other cases, auditors are able to watch at any time, so that bad farmers can’t fake good behavior when the auditor shows up at the door. And in a few cases—anyone can see the videos—on the Internet.

I can’t think of a greater idea. If Big Ag wants to continue doing business, they’re going to have to make some big changes in their policies. Transparency and accountability are going to be the rules of the day. Don’t have anything to hide? Show us. Let the customer decide if you’re treating your animals in a sound and humane manner. It’s where things are going, and livestock companies that hide behind ag-gag legislation and other shady methods are going to be lost in the stampede.

Thank you, Temple Grandin and Sy Montgomery, for reminding that "not looking" simply doesn't cut it anymore.

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Comments (showing 1-8)

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message 8: by Caroline (new) - added it

Caroline I'm sorry you didn't give this a review - I was looking forward to seeing what you had to say about it.

Peacegal oh...I intend to...just had a very busy weekend and haven't had time yet. :)

message 6: by Caroline (new) - added it

Caroline Oh good :^)

message 5: by Caroline (last edited May 22, 2012 03:30AM) (new) - added it

Caroline Ah, I have just caught up with your review. I totally agree with all the points you raise! A great review of an interesting-sounding book. Wish I could give this review more ***.

Peacegal This really was a thought-provoking book.

message 3: by Caroline (last edited May 22, 2012 09:55AM) (new) - added it

Caroline Whilst I am concerned about animal welfare across the board - the main thing in my life to get me banging the table is farm animal welfare. I'd heard of Temple Grandin before, but never read anything by her. It was really fascinating to read your review. Thank you for being so thorough.

I tried to order this book from the library, but even a search across libraries in the south east of England didn't show it up. Instead I have ordered her book Making Animals Happy, which is available. If I get on well with that I might well buy this one.

I so admire the way she deals with the most horrendous sounding aspect of animal welfare - management in the slaughter house....

I also liked the way you pulled her up on a couple things. Better no hens than battery hens, that is for sure, and if the extinction of farm animals means the end of our abuse of them, then so be it.

Peacegal Yes, me too--I think factory farming is the most important animal issue--considering the sheer number of animals and the scope of their abuse.

message 1: by Caroline (new) - added it

Caroline Yup. Exactly.

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