How to Think Like an Animal
By Temple Grandin
Blood won't bother cattle,
but a coffee cup will
Language-based thought is foreign to me. All my thoughts
are full-color motion picture, running like a videotape in
my imagination. It was always obvious to me that cattle and
other animals also think in pictures. I have learned that
some people mainly think in words, and I have observed that
these verbal thinkers are more likely to deny animals'
thought; they are unable to imagine thought without words. It
is easy for me to see things from the animals' perspective. I
can imagine looking through their eyes or walking with four
legs. It is the ultimate virtual reality system.
My life as a person with autism is like being another
species: part human, part animal. Autistic emotion may be
more like an animal's. Fear is the dominant emotion in both
autistic people and animals such as deer, cattle, and horses.
My emotions are simple and straightforward like an animal's,
not deep-seated. They may be intense while I am experiencing
them but will subside like an afternoon thunderstorm.
For the past 15 years I have designed chute systems for
handling cattle in slaughter plants. The conveyorized
restraint system I designed is used in slaughtering one-third
of all cattle in the United States. Cattle are not afraid of
the same things people fear. The problem is that many people
cannot observe this because they allow their own emotions to
get in the way. To design a humane system I had to imagine
what it would be like if I were the animal. I had to become
that animal and not just be a person in a cow costume. Cattle
and people are upset by different things.
People are repulsed by the sight of blood, but blood does
not bother cattle. They are wary of things that spell danger
in the wild. A high-pitched noise may be a distress cry, and
dirt or grass that is displaced may mean that there has been
a struggle to avoid being eaten.
Abrupt motion may be associated with a predator leaping
onto its prey. Many times I have observed cattle refusing to
move through a chute at a slaughter plant. They may balk at a
jiggling gate, a shadow, a shiny reflection, or anything that
appears out of place. But cattle will walk quietly if the
things they are afraid of are eliminated. Solid sides on
chutes prevent them from seeing people up ahead, and muffling
devices lessen the shrill sounds that alarm them. Cattle are
sensitive to the same things that disturb people with autism.
Immature development in the lower brain system causes some
people with autism to have a heightened sense of hearing, and
an intense fear is triggered when anything in their
environment is out of place. A curled-up rug, or a book that
is crooked on the shelf, causes the same fear as being
stalked by a predator. The autistic brain is acutely aware
of details most people ignore. Sudden high-pitched sounds in
the middle of the night cause my heart to race as if a lion
were going to pounce. Like a wild animal, I recoil when
people touch me. A light touch sets off a flight reaction,
and my oversensitive nerve endings do not tolerate hugging. I
want the soothing feeling of being held, but the sensations
can be too overwhelming, so I pull away.
Puberty began the onslaught of hormones that sensitized
my nervous system and started the constant fear and anxiety.
I was desperate for relief. At my aunt's ranch I observed
that when cattle were placed in a squeeze chute for
vaccinations, the pressure from the side panels relaxed them.
Pressure over wide areas of the body has a calming effect on
many animals-it will cause a piglet to fall asleep-while a
light tickle touch is likely to set off a flight reaction.
Parents have observed that their autistic children seek
pressure by getting under sofa cushions or a mattress. I
decided to try the squeeze chute and discovered that it
temporarily made my anxiety go away. When I returned home
from the ranch I built a squeezing machine. At first I
flinched and pulled away from it like a wild animal. As I
adjusted to being held I used less intense pressure and added
foam rubber padding to make the machine more comfortable.
I became more interested in figuring out how cattle felt
at the feed yards. Many were scared because people were
rough with them. They chased, prodded, and yelled at them. I
found I could coax most cattle to walk through a chute to be
vaccinated by moving them quietly, at a slow walk. When an
animal was calm I could observe the things that would catch
his eye. The leader would stop and stare at a coffee cup on
the floor or move his head back and forth in time with a
small chain swinging in the chute. If the handlers tried to
force him to move before he had determined that the chain was
harmless, he and the other cattle would panic. Cattle moved
quietly and quickly through the chutes as soon as the
swinging chain was removed. I found that the animals were
less likely to resist being held by the squeeze chute if
pressure was applied slowly. An animal would panic if it was
The chute must apply sufficient pressure to provide the
feeling of being held but not cause pain. And the chute
always needs solid sides, so that the cattle do not see
people deep inside their safety zone. They become anxious
and want to get away when people get too close. Years later
when I designed a restraint chute for holding cattle for
slaughter I was amazed that the animals would stand still and
seldom resist the chute. I found that I could just ease
their head and body into position by adjusting the chute.
When I got really skilled at operating the hydraulic
controls, the apparatus became an extension of my arms and
hands. It was as if 1 could reach through the machine and
hold each animal very gently while the rabbi performed the
final deed. More and more women have been hired to handle
cattle and operate chutes in feed yards and slaughter plants.
At first the men were skeptical, but progressive
managers have found that women are gentler and work well with
the animals. Engineering is only part of the equation. The
most important thing is the attitude of management. To be
most effective, managers have to be involved enough to care,
but not so involved they overdose on the constant death.
Those who enforce humane handling are most likely to have
close associations with animals, or are close to the land.
I am often asked how I can care about animals and be
involved in their slaughter. People forget that nature can
be harsh. Death at the slaughter plant is quicker and less
painful than death in the wild. Lions dining on the guts of
a living animal is much worse. The animals we raise for food
never would have lived at all if we had not raised them. I
feel that our relationship with animals must be symbiotic and
reciprocal. We owe animals a decent life and a painless
death. I have observed that people who are completely out of
touch with nature are the most afraid of death. Many people
attempt to deny the reality of their own mortality. When I
designed my first system, I had to look my own mortality
straight in the eye. I live each day as if I could die
tomorrow. I want to make the most of each day and do things
to make the world a better place.
From Intimate Nature: The Bond Between
Women and Animals, edited by Brenda
Peterson, Deena Metzger and Linda Hogan
Copyright 1998 by Brenda Peterson, Deena
Metzger and Linda Hogan "Thinking Like
Animals" copyright 1998 by Temple Grandin,
Reprinted by permission of Ballantine
Books, a division of Random House, Inc