A Conversation With Temple Grandin, Humane Animal Scientist


Temple Grandin doesn't think like most people, but when it comes to understanding animals, she's in a league of her own. An animal scientist who advocates for a more humane livestock industry, Grandin was born with autism, a neurodevelopment disorder that can make it difficult to navigate social situations. The disorder, she says, allows her to think like the animals she works with, specifically by giving her insight into the feelings of cattle.

Grandin, who lives in Colorado and often dons rancher attire, designed more humane corrals for cows heading to slaughter. She is also an author and autism activist, and she invented a hug machine to calm hypersensitive people that share her disorder.

Her unusual story has been the subject of an award-winning HBO film and a BBC documentary. Time magazine has named her one of the top 100 influential people. Here, Grandin discusses skyrocketing health care costs, a common misconception about slaughterhouses, and what we can all learn from a home makeover show.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I tell them I am a professor of animal science at Colorado State University.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on health care?

Eliminating the separate fees for every test or procedure. This makes costs skyrocket and serves as an incentive to do procedures that are not needed.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your field?

People think cattle know they are going to get slaughtered. Their behavior is the same in both the slaughter chute and the veterinary chute. If they knew they were going to get slaughtered, they would act wilder in the slaughterhouse.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the health world?

Computerized medical records will enable statistical analysis to be used to determine which treatments are most effective.

What's a health trend that you wish would go away?

Costs for liability insurance are higher than costs for many procedures. There is a need to reform liability laws to stop out-of-control health care costs. Artificial hips cost one-third the price in England compared to the United States.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

I think of how much money the financial bailout was. Since I am a visual thinker, I know that the original bailout was equal to building two large airports in every state. I wish the money had gone into rebuilding bridges and roads instead of disappearing into the black hole of the banks. The banks played casino with the economy. This country needs to get back to making things and doing real stuff.

Who are three people who you'd put in the health care Hall of Fame?

Somebody who could cut through the quagmire of entrenched bureaucracy and vested interests; somebody who could lock up all the lobbyists so we could cut costs and deliver affordable, effective health care; and the producer of the television show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, because he knows how to get everybody to cooperate and get a really nice house built in a week. I visited one of their builds for a family with two children with autism. Their management skills need to be applied for an extreme makeover of health care. They get people to cooperate!

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

Experimental psychologist. I was fascinated with optical illusions.

What websites or apps most help you do your job on a daily basis?

Google Scholar, for looking up scientific and medical information. PubMed, for looking up medical and veterinary information. And regular Google, for looking up anything I want. I have learned to dig way past the first page of results.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

"There's No Business Like Show Business." I get this song stuck in my head every time I pass a sign in the Denver airport that says, "There is no business like your business."

Image: Rosalie Winard.