My Beef With Temple Grandin: Seemingly Humane Isn't Enough

While I enjoy Dr. Grandin's feistiness I disagree with her views on cows

Posted Apr 14, 2013

Temple Grandin is an icon, an "anthropologist on Mars" as she aptly puts it, in a book of the same name by renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks whom I had the extreme pleasure of meeting a few months back. We did not talk about Dr. Grandin but we chatted about a wide ranging number of topics including if nonhuman animals (animals) hallucinate. Dr. Sacks's book newest book Hallucinations was just about to be published and he was keenly interested in this topic and I said it's highly likely that other animals hallucinate, basing my reasoning on Charles Darwin's ideas about evolutionary continuity.

In a recent and all too brief interview in the New York Times titled "Temple Grandin on Autism, Death, Celibacy and Cows" based on her new book called The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the SpectrumDr. Grandin reflects on a number of issues. She clearly is a wide-ranging thinker who is willing to talk about diverse issues including autism and capital punishment without hesitation.

Let me say right off that I applaud Dr. Grandin's quarrelsome, frisky, and sometimes irreverent nature and her down to earth take on many complex issues. One area in which Dr. Grandin and I continue to disagree centers on the slaughter of cows and other animals for food. 

Is Dr. Grandin's seemingly humane "stairway to heaven" acceptably humane?

Dr. Grandin prides herself on making the lives of farm animals "more humane". She calls the ramp she's designed to make their lives better until the bitter, harsh, and heartless end the "stairway to heaven". Here's what she wrote about this stairway:

"One night when the crew was working late, I stood on the nearly completed structure and looked into what would become the entrance to heaven for cattle. This made me more aware of how precious life is. When your time comes and you are walking up the proverbial stairway, will you be able to look back and be proud of what you did with your life? Did you contribute something worthwhile to society? Did your life have meaning?"

As romantic and inviting as that sounds it's really a bit too poetic for me because in reality it's just a ramp to death, and most often an undignified and brutal death at that. 

In an essay I wrote in February 2010 called "Going to slaughter: Should animals hope to meet Temple Grandin", and in all fairness to Dr. Grandin, I noted:

Does Temple Grandin actually make the lives of factory farmed animals better because they are treated in a more humane way because of her research? I think, to be fair, that perhaps some animals - likely a tiny fraction of the animals who go to slaughter - may have slightly better lives than they otherwise would, but let's face it, no animal who winds up in the factory farm production line has a good or even moderately good life, one that we would allow our dogs or cats to experience. In fact, their lives are marked by constant fear, terror, and anxietySo, "slightly better" isn't "good enough" and I'd like to see Grandin encourage people to stop eating factory farmed animals and call attention to the fact that none of the ways in which they are currently treated even borders on what should be acceptable and humane. "Humane slaughter" allows for interminable pain, suffering, and death and simply must be stopped. Efficiency standards for "bolting", a technique that is supposed to end an animal's life immediately and "humanely" because of the damage done to the individual's brain vary and the likelihood that the trip to the slaughterhouse and waiting in line to be killed are even borderline humane are so low you wouldn't head to work if you had such a small chance of getting there alive. The American Veterinary Medical Association’s 2002 panel on euthanasia approved bolting "if done properly."

Dead cow walking: Is it "a really good life"?

In the interview in the New York Times (NYT) three of Dr. Grandin's (TG) responses concerned with killing cows caught my eye. I've inserted some comments under each in italics

NYT: You have used your ability to empathize with cattle to design humane slaughterhouses. Given that you’re asked to imagine how they feel on the way to their deaths, I’m surprised you eat meat.

TG: Nature’s very harsh. There is nothing about how nature kills things that is kind. When cattle are raised right, they have a really good life. When they go to the meat plant now, they just walk up the chute; it’s no more stressful than going to the veterinary chute.

Yes, nature can be very harsh but natural predators do not consider what's "right' from "wrong" in their predatory ways. There are no non-animal alternatives as there are for humans. They are natural born killers and while we can all wish that nature didn't evolve as it did, that's what predators and prey are faced with. And, what does "a really good life" really mean? It means that very few cows perhaps have a better life than cows who don't benefit from their walk up the  "stairway to heaven". However, their lives aren't all that good, really, and in the end they are killed for predominantly unneeded meals no matter if they had supposedly fewer moments of pain and suffering. There's no doubt that their pain and suffering mean as much or more to them as ours do to us (please see "Do "Smarter" Dogs Really Suffer More than "Dumber" Mice?) and for more discussion on this topic kindly see Wild justice: The moral lives of animals)

NYT: I know you think in pictures. When you’re looking at a steak you’re about to eat, do you think about the cow in the slaughterhouse?

TG: Oh, yes. If I know where it comes from, then I see the plant, because I know all the plants. I’ll go, “That’s Cargill,” or, “Oh, that’s National,” or, “That’s Tyson.”

Oh my, while I know Dr. Grandin says she cares about the cows who die for food ... Would it be different if she referred to the animals by name - "that's Mary or that's Harry?" I should hope so. Among the major problems is that these highly sentient beings become mere objects in the wholly unnatural, heartless, and reprehensible food chain that characterizes factory farming. Calling animals by name and recognizing them as individuals fosters a much closer connection and we should hope it would make abusing them much more difficult or impossible. 

NYT: And it doesn’t spoil your appetite?

TG: No. I also think about the hyenas ripping the guts out of something, and that did not happen to that steak. The way the wolves kill things is not that nice. Cats will kill you first, but wolves just rip you open and dine on live guts.

I stand by what I wrote above in response to the first exchange. 

Would you walk up a "relatively" humane stairway or into a "seemingly" humane pen only to be killed?

I decided to write this brief essay because I find Dr. Grandin's responses to be a bit too fast and glib. She clearly knows evolutionary theory yet so easily discounts it when she considers the killing ways of natural predators and uses this misleading argument to justify factory farming.

In 1992 I had a brief exchange with Dr. Grandin in the professional journal called Animal Welfare (I'm happy to send the text of this exchange to interested readers). In an essay she wrote Dr. Grandin referred to modified ASPCA pens for animals as being "seemingly humane" and I called this phrase into question. A pen or a stairway that is "seemingly" or "relatively" humane leaves a lot of room for concern, far too much for my liking or comfort and I'm sure that's true for the animal beings involved.

In response to my query and concern about the vagueness of the phrase "seemingly humane" Dr. Grandin wrote: "I disagree with Professor Bekoff on the use of animals for food. The relationship between people and domestic animals should be symbiotic. We owe them decent living conditions and a kind death. I will define my the term 'relatively humane and seemingly humane' from my article as follows: If I visualize myself as an animal I would willingly walk into the modified ASPCA pens."

I know I would not walk into one of these pens or up the stairway to heaven if I had the choice, which these animals do not. Clearly after numerous years of thinking about cows (and other animals) as food Dr. Grandin hasn't changed her ways. I totally agree that we owe food animals "a kind death" but rearing them solely to be killed doesn't sit well with me

What if cows had guns?

As I wrote this essay I was reminded of singer Dana Lyon's website called "Cows With Guns" (see and also). What if ... and they could "speak" back and tell us how really feel? If I were a cow I'd make a rapid "U" turn if I saw Dr. Grandin waiting to say "hello" and warn all the other animals who were around. 

Going "Cold Tofu" to End Factory Farming

I know the issues centering on the use of animals for food can get mighty complex pretty fast, but if anyone wants to increase the amount of compassion in the world all they have to do as a start is to say "no" to factory farmed meat. A "better" life on a factory farm isn't close to being marginally "good." Surely, nobody would choose to send his or her dog to a factory farm. It's really easy to go "cold tofu" and end factory farming once and for all. 

Each of us can add more compassion to the world by not eating factory farmed animals and ending factory farming. This is an indisputable fact so please let's begin today. Your choice of your next meal can make a huge difference in the lives of millions of sentient beings. And after you stop eating factory farmed animals, being a "conscientious carnivore" means entirely phasing out animals and animal products from your diet, and this is also very simple to do.

Where to from here?

This essay pretty much summarizes my beef about beef with Dr. Grandin. I would like to see her come out against factory farming and also consider the rest of the horrific journey to which factory farmed animals are exposed as they are transported to the death chamber before they plod along her stairway to heaven. Their utterly miserable life on factory farms is only part of the egregious abuse to which these remarkable sentient beings are continually subjected.