Why animal advocates should read Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State, who is also known for her autism rights activism and work as a consultant for the meat industry. Many animal rights advocates do not have a high opinion of her. The Daily Pitchfork is fairly representative:

Grandin is a paid industry consultant. She profits financially by designing industrial slaughterhouses. She supplements her income by writing books and delivering speeches about those designs. Whatever animal welfare advice she offers should always be framed in the context of her monetary connection to industrial agriculture.

It should also be noted that big agriculture—big beef in particular—adores Grandin. She approaches agricultural “reform” from a compellingly safe perspective, one as much informed by her Ph.D. in animal science as her autism…

Obviously, one would think, Grandin’s empathy for these animals runs deep, deep enough at least for us to trust her as a viable source of information on their welfare.

But her real job is to help agribusiness kill them. Grandin argues that industrial slaughter should be as peaceful for animals as possible. But it turns out that cattle rendered calm by Grandin’s architectural designs turn the grimmest work of agribusiness—slaughter—into a more efficient and emotionally palatable process.

Calm cows are more likely to go gently. And cows who go gently—say, by not thrashing around inconveniently before being shot in the head with a steel bolt—enhance productivity. When Grandin’s relationship to industrial agriculture is placed in this context, the welfare benefits her slaughterhouses offer are significantly diminished.

On one side of the scale, cows raised under horrible feedlot conditions are spared a few moments of anxiety before their throats are slit. On the other, industrial agriculture per se is not only reified as a legitimate (and more productive) practice, but it becomes in the eyes of consumers a welfare-oriented endeavor.

However, after seeing Robin Hanson praise Grandin on Facebook, I decided to buy a copy of her book Improving Animal Welfare: A Practical Approach. Much of the book consists of extremely detailed advice on practices for improving animal welfare, not of interest to the general reader, so I ended up only skimming much of it. The book is roughly half Grandin’s writing, and half chapters contributed by a variety of other researchers.

Based on what I did read, I think that if Grandin is a shill for the meat industry, that’s all the more reason for animal advocates to read and quote her work. In spite of the academic tone of the book, and any biases she may have, the picture of animal agriculture she paints is often not pretty.

An important source of information for the book is Grandin’s experiences conducting audits of farms and slaughter houses. Among the things she reports seeing are disturbingly high rates of lameness among farmed animals:

The author observed a big increase in lame slaughter weight pigs between 1995 and 2008. A major breeder of lean rapidly growing pigs did nothing about it in the USA until in some herds 50% of the slaughter weight pigs were clinically lame… This breeder was selecting for leanness, loin-eye size and rapid growth, and over a 10-year period did not notice that there were more and more lame pigs.

She also describes the kind of horrific overcrowding I normally expect to hear about from animal rights advocates:

To have a bare-minimum acceptable level of welfare animals must NEVER be jammed into a crate or pen so tightly that they have to sleep on top of each other. The author has observed some caged layer farms where hens had to walk on top of each other to reach the feeder.

She also discusses the problem of biological overloading, in which breeding animals for rapid growth and extremely high milk and egg production leads to welfare problems such as lameness, increased aggression, and dairy cows that last only two lactations. The problems that have resulted from selective breeding have recently become fairly well known, see for example this Vox.com article titled, “Chickens have gotten ridiculously large since the 1950s”.

One thing I did not realize before reading Grandin’s book, however, is the way that parellel problems are caused by the drugs animals are fed, or, in her words, the “welfare problems caused by over-use of beta-agonists, rBST growth hormone and other performance-enhancing substances.” She writes:

The author has also observed healthy pigs that had been fead too much Paylean(R) (ractopamine) that were too weak to walk from one end of a lairage to the other. This is another example of bad conditions that some people perceived as normal. The author observed pigs 30 years ago that were strong enough to walk up long, steep ramps.

Grandin does claim that some farms are better than others when it comes to animal welfare. I think this is probably true, and important to understand for organizations like the Humane Society of the United States, which work with farmers to improve welfare on their farms.

In general, Grandin’s book has a lot of material that I think would be useful for orgs like HSUS–though I wouldn’t be surprised if HSUS already knew this, and keeps a copy or two of the first edition of Grandin’s book around their offices.

Among the chapters written by other people, one of the best was by philosopher Bernard Rollin, who devotes his chapter to arguing that “animal welfare” cannot be solely defined in terms of what makes animals most productive. One of the major ideas of his chapter is “the end of husbandry.” By “husbandry,” Rollin means the way how farmed animals were raised almost everywhere before the 20th century, practices that were increasingly abandoned as farming became industrialized:

Whereas husbandry animal agriculture stressed putting square pegs into square holes, round pegs into round holes, while producing as little friction as possible, industrialized animal agriculture forced square pegs into round holes by utilizing what I have called ‘technological sanders’, such as antibiotics, hormones, extreme genetic selection, air handling systems, artificial cooling systems and artificial insemination to force animals into unnatural conditions while they none the less remain productive…

In husbandry conditions, animal suffering would usually lead to loss of productivity. Under industry, however, the technological sanders mentioned sever the close connection between productivity and welfare, in so far as the animals may suffer harm in ways that do not impinge on economic productivity.

Rollin also mentions something whose significance he doesn’t seem fully aware of, the concept of ‘sound science’:

When one discusses farm animal welfare with industry groups or with the American Veterinary Medical Association, one finds the same response – animal welfare is solely a matter of ‘sound science’.

Those of us serving on the Pew Commission, better known as the National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, encountered this response repeatedly during our dealings with industry representatives. This commission studied intensive animal agriculture in the USA (Pew Commission, 2008). For example, one representative of the Pork Producers, testifying before the Commission, answered that while people in her industry were quite ‘nervous’ about the Commission, their anxiety would be allayed were we to base all of our conclusions and recommendations on ‘sound science’.

Rollin goes on to argue that what counts as “sound science” depends on whether your goals are mere productivity or you actually care about animal welfare. But what he seems to miss is that the the phrase “sound science” is a corporate buzzword which, in context, generally means “scientific findings amenable to corporations.” It appears to have origins in tobacco-industry PR efforts, and has also been used to spread confusion over other scientific issues like global warming.

Seeing Rollin mention the phrase makes me wonder, “what scientific issues is the factory farm lobby lying about?” I’m not talking about ethical issues, I mean, what scientific issues as straightforward as global warming or the effects of second hand smoke are they lying about? Trying to find this out seems like potentially a good project for an animal advocate to work on. (The website of the Animal Agriculture Alliance looks like a good place to start.)

Grandin herself is quite clear on the difference between productivity and welfare. For example:

Research shows that sows can be highly productive in stalls, but confining a pig in a box where she cannot turn around for most of her life is not acceptable to two-thirds of the public… Confining an animal for most of its life in a box in which it is not able to turn around does not provide a decent life.

Similarly:

When pigs or chickens are jammed too tightly into a house, the welfare and productivity of each individual animal usually declines. Unfortunately, there is an economic incentive to do this because the overall output of eggs or meat per house may be greater.

How, according to Grandin economic incentives aren’t the sole source of problems with animal welfare. Ignorance is also a major source of problems. For example, she discusses how “bad becomes normal”, when animal welfare problems grow slowly and farmers don’t notice, and think what they see is normal and unavoidable. This happens because they don’t know what conditions are like on other farms and therefore don’t realize that not all farms are as bad as theirs.

Managers may also be out of touch with the day-to-day operations of their farms. Grandin talks about her experience giving seminars on handling techniques:

Employees were taught to use behavioral principles of animal movement, stop yelling and greatly reduce the use of electric goads. A year later when the author returned to re-evaluate the handling practices, it was discouraging to observe that many employees had reverted back to their old rough ways. When the manager was informed that the animal handling methods were bad, he was surprised and upset. Because the regression back into the old rough ways had happened slowly over the course of a year, the manager did not notice the slow deterioration of handling practices. Bad practices had become normal because the manager had not measured handling practices in an objective manner.

The importance of measuring animal welfare is a major theme of Grandin’s book. Examples she gives of measures of animal welfare that can be objectively quantified include bruises, sores, rates of lameness and broken bones, and cortisol levels.

Grandin also mentions measuring vocalizations, while being careful to note that many species of animals will avoid showing pain when humans are around. This means that with those animals vocalizations must be measured when the animals do not know they’re being observed (for example, by using video cameras).

Grandin emphasizes the importance of clear quantitative standards for what is acceptable, as opposed to vague requirements. She writes:

Unless a numerical limit is placed on an animal-based measure, it is impossible to enforce it in an objective manner. An example would be 5% as the maximum acceptable percentage of lame animals. Data presented from the studies reviewed in Chapter 1 show that well-managed dairies can easily achieve this. Vague terms such as minimizing lameness should not be used because one auditor may think 50% is acceptable and another may consider 5% lame animals as a failed audit.

Setting the standard at one level may result in even lower rates of problems in practice:

Data from audits done in many beef and pork plants indicated that for a plant to reliably pass an audit of 100 animas at the 1% level their actual falling percentages dropped to less than one in 1000.

Unfortunately, she notes, “there are some politicians and policy makers who make standards vague on purpose.” For example:

Many people are reluctant to assign hard numbers or they make the allowable numbers of bruised, injured, or lame animals or birds so high that the worst operations can pass. For example, the National Chicken Council in the USA set the limit for broken wings during catching and transport at 5% of the chickens. When the more progressive managers improved their catching practices, broken wings dropped to 1% or less. The standard should be set at 1% not 5%.

Similarly:

There have been serious problems with conducting audits when an input standard is vague. One example was a standard for pasture; it stated that animals must have access to pasture. There was no stipulation on how much time the cows had to be on pasture.

Grandin doesn’t say these kinds of quantitative standards should be the only standards used. She agrees some practices should be banned outright, and that subjective standard can be valuable if auditors have seen a wide variety of farms, so they know what better and worse farms look like. However, the idea of measuring welfare does seem to be an important idea. As the saying goes in the business world, “what you measure is what you get.”

Prior to reading Grandin’s book, I tended to think the answer to the question, “what tactics should animal advocates use to advance the cause?” is “a range of tactics.” The work of the Humane Society of the United States, for example, includes undercover investigations, efforts to tighten animal welfare laws, as well working with animal product producers to improve the treatment of animals used in food production. My impressions reading Grandin’s book tended to confirm this view.

She doesn’t go into great depth about activist organizations, but does mention them a couple of times:

Non-governmental (NGO) animal advocacy groups are also a major factor in developing animal welfare standards and legislation. When videos of animal abuses are seen around the world on the Internet, it makes people aware of the issue and they demand improvements.

She also says that, “Pressure from activist groups has also forced the upper management of many big companies to examine the substandard practices of their suppliers.” Here, “big companies” refers to companies such as McDonalds, which have such an important role in the market that suppliers need them more than they need any one individual supplier. This gives them enormous power to enforce changes if they deem it necessary.

One last tidbit that will interest Brian Tomasik, if he’s reading this: Grandin has a section discussing research on whether various types of animals can suffer. She seems fairly confident that fish can, given that they engage in quite complex behavior in response to aversive stimuli. She reports being able to find only one study on whether insects can suffer, but advocates for more research on that topic.

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