03/22/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Profiles in Counter Intuition : Temple Grandin on Working from the Inside

First in a series of author interviews


Temple Grandin's life and her career are counter intuitive on several levels. First, she is arguably the most accomplished and well-known adult with autism in the world. She has a Ph.D. in animal science and is a professor at Colorado State University. She is the author of the classic memoir Thinking in Pictures, about to be released as a film starring Claire Danes. Secondly, as an animal lover, she has carved out a specialty for herself in the highly oxymoronic field of humane animal death.Today over half of North America's cattle are handled in systems she designed.


Yet perhaps the most counter intuitive thing about Grandin is her approach. She works tirelessly from within the agricultural industry to bring about the reforms she seeks. At a recent lecture she gave here in Los Angeles, I had to ask her if she considers herself an activist or an insider:

TG: If I have to take sides, I'm on the industry side. What happens is activists can soften the steel and I can bend it into a new grillwork. Some are too strident: they burn a hole in it, way too nasty. I'm concerned that people are getting too abstract. Few people have practical experiences in childhood like building tree houses or having a hamster; these types of practical hands-on things. So we get radicals fighting radicals.

What's happening in the industry is that good people, when they get an opportunity, they move to improve things. Truth is not usually radical right or left. As for animal activists, when you get people who actually work in shelters or dog rescue, you find they are much more moderate in their opinions. You don't have extreme opinions because those things don't work in the practical world. Destructive type activism just makes people mad. I've been called a Nazi by people who just want to get rid of the animal industry. If you wreck one of Monsanto's labs all that does is make everyone angry.

Why do you still choose to work from within the industry?

People who run large animal operations, they live in small world. People at meat plants have their little world and when they get attacked they get scared and build a bigger fence around their plants. We need to be getting a lot more communication to reform things. One day I'm at a plant and the next day I'm lecturing at the Los Angeles Public Library, and then I'm teaching and doing research. Very few others go back and forth between all these worlds.

What is your advice to activists?

What you want to do is what Henry Spira did [he is widely regarded as one of the most effective animal activists of the last decade. He is credited with the idea of "reintegrative shaming," which involves encouraging opponents to change by working with them in an effort to shame them, rather than by vilifying them]. He knew when to put the heat on and when to back off. Better to get 80 percent than nothing. Do activists want reform or to get rid of the entire industry. So if the company's attitude is 'no matter how good I make it they just want to take me down' you have to work with them. The plant manager who worked to get a plant up to speed and the activists who want to reform will get a whole lot further. I don't think we can get rid of all the large operations because they are a necessity. We need Big Ag but we can make it better and more sustainable. I use the example of Monsanto: a little pressure could make them work on some products that are really good and monSATAN can become monSAINTo.

Temple Grandin's most recent book is Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals (Mariner, January 12, 2010).

HBO"s "The Temple Grandin Story," will air in February 2010.


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