Learning From the Animals
But then animals showed her the way to soothe her demons. Grandin says when she was a teenager, she was visiting a relative's cattle ranch in Colorado, and when she walked down to the corral one day, the cowboys were herding the animals into something called a squeeze chute. It had movable wooden walls that would clamp around the cow, so the cowboys could give it a vaccination. And Grandin says as she watched the strange machinery envelop the animals, she was transfixed: she suddenly realized that she'd been
craving intense pressure like that her whole life.
Grandin has always felt an affinity with animals. In this essay, Temple Grandin looks back on her life and explores why her autistic ways of thinking help her understand animals. Photo: Daniel Zwerdling
"And I thought, I've got to try out this cattle squeeze chute; because when I got into puberty I started having terrible problems with constant anxiety," Grandin explains. "And I was desperate to get relief, and I noticed that some of the cattle would just sort of relax. So I talked my aunt into putting me into the cattle squeeze chute. And for about 45 minutes afterwards, I was a whole lot calmer."
And when Grandin got older, she built a squeeze chute for herself. So Grandin feels grateful to cattle: they showed her the way to relax when she's feeling most afraid. And now, she's devoting her life to helping relax the cattle, just before they lose their lives.
Grandin says, from within the squeeze machine, "Yeah, it's starting to work. I'm starting to relax now."
At the Slaughterhouse
It's 9 a.m. on a chilly morning and Grandin has just arrived at the Excel slaughterhouse on the plains of Colorado, right next to the railroad that carries the state's grain and coal. Excel is one of McDonald's biggest suppliers, and Grandin has come to inspect whether they're killing animals humanely. The staff is already waiting.
Grandin's wearing her usual outfit. She looks like a ranch hand from a 1940s western: blue jeans and boots, and a cowgirl shirt, which she always buttons at the neck. She wears a western kerchief like a tie. She says she doesn't have patience for makeup or small talk. Grandin strides toward the edge of the plant, where she wants to begin the inspection, and the manager of the plant trails behind. His name is Mike Chabot and he says when he first met Temple Grandin, he thought she was strange.
"She is strange," says Chabot. "She's an autistic savant, too. She was a consultant for Dustin Hoffman on The Rain Man. So people around the world know that that's just the way she is."
Photo: Daniel Zwerdling
Grandin still seems to live in her own world, even when she's talking with you she looks everywhere but in your eyes. Chabot says he met Grandin in the 1980s, before she ever inspected this plant for McDonald's. He was running another slaughterhouse, and Grandin was designing squeeze chutes for handling cattle.
"She came to me," says Chabot. "And said she's worked on a different restraining system and that she really thought it would work. And would we be willing to take the risk?"
Did some of your colleagues ask 'Why are we bringing in this woman?'
"She was one of those people that when you sat down and talked to her, she was so totally committed to doing what she wanted to do, that I felt you just had to try it," explains Chabot. "It was just driven on somebody saying 'I know this could work, I know we could do this better.' And Temple and I have struck up a relationship that will last the rest of my life, I'm sure."
Next: The Inspection