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Published February 09, 2009, 12:00 AM

AG AT-LARGE: Grandin's book offers tips

FARGO, N.D. — Temple Grandin is in the news again. Grandin is one of the nation’s best-known autistic people and a famous designer of animal handling facilities and practices for cows, chickens, sheep and pigs. I interviewed her in 2004 when she was a guest lecturer at North Dakota State University in Fargo.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Temple Grandin is in the news again.

Grandin is one of the nation’s best-known autistic people and a famous designer of animal handling facilities and practices for cows, chickens, sheep and pigs. I interviewed her in 2004 when she was a guest lecturer at North Dakota State University in Fargo.

Grandin has written a new book, “Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals” (2009: 342 pages; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26 hardcover).

Grandin is a descendant of the Grandin family for whom the town of Grandin, N.D., is named. She grew up in Massachusetts. Instead of being a hindrance, her mild autism made her empathetic with animals and a keen observer.

Among her points in the book is that “stereotypies,” or repetitive behavior, can be an indicator of troubled animals. Animals chasing their tail or pacing, or digging, can be a problem.

“What gets interesting is looking at the motivation,” she says.

Cats have a high level of obsessive compulsive behavior, she says. A cat can get so compulsive about chasing a red laser pointer that it can injure itself, she notes.

Domestication

Of particular interest to agriculture-related readers will be her thoughts about domesticated farm animals.

Cattle aren’t like horses, she says, because they aren’t “pure flight animals.” They have “close relationships,” especially between sisters and between mothers and daughters, who like to graze together.

Grandin makes a distinction between cow dominance and leadership. A “leader cow” is curious, where the dominant cow pushes others away from the water trough and stays safe from predators by walking in the middle of a line. Cattle are very visual and notice high-contrast, fast-moving items — shadows, reflections, a chain hanging down.

Cattle are not tame, she writes, except for working oxen or pet cows. Dairy cows that are milked twice of three times a day are somewhat tame, and Holsteins are “probably genetically further away from wild ancestors” compared with beef cattle because of their selection for milk production. Cattle only seem tame because they don’t immediately take flight, but what they really are is “habituated” to the sight of human beings.

Among her theories is that herding cattle over a distance is a more difficult problem than moving cattle short distances, using treats.

“To drive wild cattle over a long distance, you have to activate the fear system to the smallest possible degree, and that’s hard to do quietly,” she says.

Old movies where roundups featured cowboys whistling and yelling model “the absolute wrong way to move cattle.”

“Anytime cattle start to run, it’s bad, especially if there are mamas and babies in the herd, because calves can’t run fast enough to keep up,” she says.

The book has several sections, such as “What do animals need?” followed by particular sections on dogs, cats, horses, cows, pigs, chickens and other poultry, wildlife and zoos.

Grandin has a fascinating “Afterward” section, where she tells why she still works for the meat industry instead of being an activist against a system in which slaughter is involved.

“Many people today are totally insulated from death, but every living thing eventually dies; this is the cycle of life,” she says.

But she also says intensive farming systems must continually be improved so that animals can experience health, freedom from pain and negative emotions and be given opportunities for natural instincts.