Temple Grandin played to a standing-room-only house when she delivered the Second Bruce MacLaren Distinguished Lecture at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond last week. If you’re familiar with Dr. Grandin and her ground-breaking work on autism, animal behavior, and animal welfare, the huge turnout won’t come as a surprise. If not, you should pick up one of her books and start reading. Animals In Translation, a national bestseller, is a good place to start. The insights will be eye openers.
Growing up with autism when the condition was far less understood than it is today, Dr. Grandin earned a PhD in animal science at the University of Illinois. Thirty-plus years later, she teaches animal science at Colorado State University, consults with livestock producers on animal behavior and facility design, and lectures and writes prolifically about how efforts to make sense of her own autism led to a new way of understanding animal behavior.
Her research on autism and animal behavior and her advocacy for the welfare of animals won Dr. Grandin a spot on Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2010. She was the only animal behaviorist on the annual list that included the President of the United States, a batch of other world leaders, prominent athletes, performers and artists, and "thinkers." It’s taken a while, but now when she speaks, people tend to listen.
Dr. Grandin was at EKU to talk about "Animals, Humans, and Sensory Based Thinking," not animal behavior or welfare, and most of the post-lecture questions were from people on the autism spectrum themselves or people who were dealing with autism as supportive family members or as teachers. Given her background in developing facilities for more humane raising and slaughter of livestock, though, a question from the audience about horse slaughter was inevitable.
Dr. Grandin has maintained a generally neutral position on the issue of slaughtering horses for human consumption. It’s a stance that almost certainly fails to entirely satisfy either slaughter advocates (whose efforts toward reopening slaughter facilities in this country would benefit from an unqualified endorsement from her) or opponents (who would prefer categorical condemnation). Rather than coming down on one side of the fence or the other, Dr. Grandin instead addressed the current state of things:
"Horse slaughter is an absolute mess," Dr. Grandin said. She called the ban on slaughter in the United States "well-intentioned," but with unintended and "disastrous" consequences. She characterized slaughter in Mexico as horse "torture," and suggested that efforts to ban international shipment of horses out of this country for slaughter are doomed from the start.
"You can’t close down the border," she said. "If you believe that, you’re smoking something."
It might be tempting to discount Temple Grandin’s approach to horse slaughter—emphasizing improved conditions at slaughter facilities rather that advocating for an outright ban—as selling out, but that’s not a fair characterization. She spoke passionately about her love for horses, calling riding her "salvation" during difficult times in high school, and her writing reflects similar sentiments. For my money, she’s simply taking a pragmatic approach to a difficult situation.
"Humane slaughter" doesn’t seem to be a contradiction in terms for Dr. Grandin, especially when it comes to traditional food animals. Does that thinking also apply to horse slaughter? Should it?