Lessons Learned from Temple Grandin

It was doing some sort of weird freeze drizzle recently as I got in my car and prepared to head east towards a town outside of Boston. For a brief moment, I considered staying at home. “What if the ride home includes me, the Mass Pike, and a whole bunch of black ice?” I pondered. I hopped out of my car, quickly packed an overnight bag, and decided that if the conditions were slick after the event, I’d find a hotel. I was going to see Temple Grandin, and nothing would stand in my way!

I don’t remember how I first learned of Temple Grandin. I knew I was aware of her impact in the agricultural world, more specifically with animal husbandry. At one point, recognizing her name on the TV and I elected to watch the movie that depicted her life. Claire Danes played Dr. Grandin in her young adulthood through seeking and receiving her high school and college degrees. I was riveted by her story, her perseverance, her intelligence, and, well...let’s call it like it is, her amazing shirts. Since watching the movie of her life, I’ve been keenly aware of Temple Grandin’s influence, and I vowed to meet her one day, if given the opportunity.

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Well, the opportunity manifested itself recently when the local animal shelter that I help when I have time coordinated tickets for volunteers and shelter staff. I am so thankful to Dakin Humane Society for helping to make a life dream come true and I hope to be able to share some key points from her presentation that many pet owners, animal rescue and advocacy groups, students pursuing a career in veterinary medicine, those working in agriculture, and individuals who may want to learn more about Autism may want to hear.

If you’re wondering, Temple speaks how she thinks and she thinks in pictures. As such, her presentation included a variety of images that helped to prompt key points and useful research information. There were themes, but not a formal beginning, middle and end. For a person who has gone to a ton of presentations, I found this format to be refreshing and her full-house audience was riveted for her entire time at the podium.

So, let’s talk about some of the themes that were a part of the presentation. Before diving in, I will share that Dr. Grandin has written a large number of books focusing on Autism along with Animal Behavior and Animal Husbandry. I want to present some essential nuggets to you in this piece and if you find something appealing that you’d like to learn more about, I recommend finding one of her books on the subject to learn more.

Like Temple Grandin, Animals Think in Pictures

This is a general statement, obviously, but an important observation for context. We, oftentimes, humanize animals, adding logic on their behalf that isn’t necessarily how they’re thinking and feeling. If we take a moment to really think about what they’re seeing from their perspective, it can help us better understand why an animal may react with fear to a certain circumstance.

For example, Dr. Grandin posted a photo of a cow who was not willing to walk forward out of fear. She asked what we observed from the photo that might have been the reason for its trepidation. After a few audience suggestions, someone pointed out the reflection of the sun in a puddle in the path the cow was expected to take. The cow couldn’t see what was beyond the glare of the sun, and it didn’t like going into direct light. In short, animal thinking is different because it’s sensory based instead of word based.

Animals Have Emotions

Just because an animal doesn’t have a language that we humans understand, doesn’t mean it isn’t feeling and expressing emotions. The neurotransmitters we have as humans are the same in animals and medications that can affect that way neurotransmitters function can also work on animals, like Prozac. Some of these emotions have a direct tie with its primitive need to ensure survival, such as fear. Others, like panic, are shown in behaviors like separation anxiety in a dog.

Considering the view that animals have emotions, it is important that we as humans help to ensure that the first experience for an animal is a positive one in order to prevent the formation of fear memories. For example, slipping causes fear. If a dog’s first trip to a veterinarian includes a surface (floor or metal examination table) where the animal is unable to gain traction, it may associate this fear with its visit to a veterinarian in the future. To compensate for this, Veterinarians in the Tuft’s Veterinary School have begun administering care on the animal’s level (in many cases, on the floor where there’s more traction). It has helped to reduce fear based responses to such a large degree, that rate and severity of dogs barking has declined significantly.

Breeding for Traits is a Concern

Dr. Grandin posted a photo of a bulldog that you might see in 2019. She then posted a photo of a bulldog that you would have seen if you lived in the 1940s. The stark difference in the breed’s physical characteristics was noticeable and upsetting. Today’s bulldog has difficulty breathing normally, in many cases cannot mate or bear offspring without human intervention, and has a variety of genetic issues, such as hip dysplasia. In short, the dog that was is not the dog that is. The trend of breeding animals for certain characteristics is leading to health problems for many animals. Dr. Grandin referenced a need/want for breed standards to be “shown, not told” through images instead of people’s reliance on written breed descriptions, which can be interpreted differently based on who’s reading them. It was her final point in the evening’s presentation, but served to be a call to action for those serving in the pet and agriculture industries to be mindful of the long-term effects of breeding for certain characteristics and the potential harm that this practice could be causing.

We only had an hour to listen to Dr. Grandin’s presentation, but I could have listened to her for much longer. I strongly encourage you to read some of her many books to learn more about her perspective. If you have an opportunity to hear her speak, run...don’t walk. It was a life-changing experience.

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