From American RadioWorks®, the documentary project of Minnesota Public Radio and NPR NewsSM. On the Internet at Part of the story McDonald's New Farm: the Fast Food Industry and Animal Rights

April 2002

Kill Them With Kindness

By Daniel Zwerdling

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Executives at a global corporation have turned to a woman with autism and they've asked her to transform their industry. The company is McDonald's—they've launched the first campaign of its kind to pressure slaughterhouses that provide their meat to dispatch the animals more humanely. As we reported in Cracking Down on Egg Suppliers, the company is also pressuring animal farmers to change their ways. The record suggests that the company is partly reacting to political pressures, but whatever the motives, McDonald's is prompting the entire U.S. food industry to make "animal welfare" a major issue. And executives say they couldn't have done it without Temple Grandin.

She Knows How Animals Feel

Temple Grandin is convinced that she knows how animals feel during their final moments in the slaughterhouse. And she's harnessing that power to ease the moment when millions of animals die. In some ways, you can glimpse her connection with animals if you join her at the end of the day, after she's finished another inspection for McDonald's. Grandin goes home to her condo in Fort Collins, Colorado, and she's so speedy, so wired from working and traveling and watching all the slaughter, that she walks to her cramped bedroom and goes to her machine.

"This is the squeezing machine," explains Temple Grandin. "I've got to turn on the compressor to make it work, and when I turn it on, it's going to make a bit of racket. After I use the squeeze machine I have nicer dreams. I get that sort of nice feeling of being held."

Temple Grandin is autistic, and some therapy clinics use this machine, which she invented, when they treat autistic children. The machine stands about waist high, right next to her single bed. There are two slabs of wood, like padded tabletops, propped in the shape of a long V. Grandin lies face down the entire length of the V, so the slabs cradle her body and then she works a hydraulic lever that forces the slabs to squeeze her:

"I can control the pressure," Grandin notes.

Now that she's an adult, Grandin is what researchers call a high-functioning autistic. She's a high-functioning person, period. She's written two memoirs, and appeared on national TV, and she travels around the world giving speeches. But she's struggled her whole life to achieve that. Grandin says she used to attack people in rages. She almost blinded a student who made fun of her. She bit a teacher's leg and made it bleed. Grandin says she'd freak when people touched her:

"I would just jump," says Grandin. "It would be like touching a wild animal. You know when you touch a wild animal — it makes that wild animal jump. People would touch me and I would just pull away. You know, the way my nervous system reacts when I panic is just like the nervous system of cattle or a horse when they panic."

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.

"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."

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."

The Inspection

And now, Grandin's ready to begin her inspection. By the end of the morning, she'll know if this plant is mistreating the animals, or if the cattle are going to a calm and painless death.

"Let's just start looking at the truck unloading," says Grandin, "they're just unloading a bunch of cattle right now."

From the outside, this slaughterhouse almost looks like a car factory: Semis keep pulling up to an unloading dock; there are windowless buildings, and smokestacks. But there's also a greasy, cloying smell in the air; and a labyrinth of fences and pens stretch from the unloading dock about a hundred yards to the plant.

Grandin walks to the rear of the semi, as it backs up to the edge of a pen. The driver hops out of the cab and opens the double doors. And steers pour down the ramp, like black boulders.

Grandin looks down at her clipboard, at the first item on her inspection list. She needs to stand here for a few minutes and count the cattle that go "moooo."

Or as her checklist describes it: What percentage of cattle are "vocalizing"?

Temple Grandin invented this system for inspecting a slaughterhouse. Nobody had ever done anything like it before.

"It's got to be simple," says Grandin. "You cannot have an audit with 50 different things to audit, where it would take the McDonald's auditor a week to do the audit. That would just be impossible."

Moos Tell You How They Feel

So she studied thousands of animals, in slaughterhouses, and she looked for five crucial clues that reveal if they're calm or stressed. Grandin says the more she listened to cattle, the more she realized that their moos tell you how they feel.

"I just started checking off, 'Did the animal moo?' Yes or no? 'Was that moo associated with an obviously bad event?' And I found that about 98% of the cattle that mooed had a real good reason for doing it. I thought 'That's really going to work.' Vocalization scores separate a plant that has big problems from a plant that doesn't."

Grandin says this plant used to have problems: the drivers would shout at the cattle, to shoo them off the trucks. The cattle would get scared, and balk, so the drivers would shout louder, and the cattle would bellow so much they'd practically drown you out.

"One of the things that's been really important to the handling has been to get rid of all the yelling and screaming and whistling," says Grandin. "Cattle have got really sensitive ears and so one of the things I've worked on is getting people to keep their mouths shut when they're moving cattle."

But after decades of western movies—isn't that what cowboys do? They yell, they whistle.

"Well we need to get rid of that yelling, because it just gets the cattle all excited," explains Grandin. "In Canada, researchers have done two studies that found that yelling and screaming at cattle is really stressful. In fact, yelling and screaming does more to raise the heart rate than the sound of metal banging and clanging."

Grandin says this slaughterhouse has changed its ways. According to her inspection system, if only three percent of the cattle "vocalize," it shows that most of them are calm.

As these cattle are unloaded, all is quiet except for the sound of their hooves.

Bad Was Normal

Temple Grandin is the most unusual crusader in a long line of Americans who've tried to make slaughterhouses more humane. Congress passed a law that forbids cruel practices, back in the 1950s.

But Grandin's own studies show that a lot of slaughterhouses ignore that. Around six years ago, she surveyed major meat plants for the U.S. Agriculture Department, and she reported that most of them did a brutal job of killing. Grandin says she also discovered that a lot of industry executives don't care, unless she can prod them to leave their offices and see problems.

"I remember the day one of the managers saw chickens. We had gone to a chicken plant and we found a live chicken in the garbage can," describes Grandin. "The people that were with me were really horrified. But I remember another time when I was out with some managers and we visited a hog farm and there was a half dead pig lying in the alley. He had been there for a good long time, and the manager leading the tour just walked our tour group right over the half dead pig. It's like they become totally desensitized and don't even see it. Bad had become normal."

Selling Change to Corporate Executives

Which brings us to McDonald's. More than a decade ago, activists from animal rights groups went to the company's executives, and they said 'Look, obviously the government's not doing its job regulating slaughterhouses, but you're the most powerful food company in the world — you could force slaughterhouses to change.'

One of the McDonald's executives who dealt with the activists is a man named Bob Langert. He's flown out from company headquarters on this day to watch the inspection. Langert acknowledges that he and his colleagues resisted the activists at first. But eventually, an activist convinced him to call Temple Grandin. And Langert says she changed everything.

"The thing I love about Temple is that she cannot be dishonest," says Langert. "It is impossible for her to be dishonest. She could care less about statements and rhetoric. Everything about her is about getting results."

He says that until Grandin came along, all he kept hearing was rhetoric. The activists kept telling him, 'Slaughterhouses are cruel, they should be more humane.' But Langert says McDonald's needed more than that: they needed to learn how to measure brutality, so they could figure out how to fix it.

Remember, McDonald's built its empire on measurements—they know if employees do a good job or not based on how many seconds they take to make a Big Mac. Langert says Temple Grandin's inspection system brings that same kind of science to the slaughterhouse.

Don't Scare the Animals

"Now we're walking up to a pen of cattle," describes Grandin.

By now, the latest batch of cattle has come off the truck, and Grandin tackles the next item on her inspection list: how often do workers shock the cattle with electric prods?

"Oh, I can remember watching a guy taking an electric prod and shoving it down a cow's throat," recalls Grandin. "That was absolutely horrible."

Grandin says most slaughterhouses rely on electric prods to make the animals walk through the pens, until they actually get to the plant. Her scorecard flunks a plant if more than a quarter of the cattle get shocked.

"One of the things that's been difficult for a lot of people to understand has been that you can use behavior to move your animal rather than force," explains Grandin. "If cattle or pigs are backing up in the chute all the time, and backing up and backing up, get rid of the things that scare them. Don't get out more electric prods!"

Growing Up Autistic

Temple Grandin says when animals get scared, she relates to them — that's how she experienced the world growing up autistic. A blackboard pointer made her panic. But she couldn't say what bothered her; she didn't speak a word until she was three.

"Well, I can remember the frustration of not being able to talk," recalls Grandin. "And I was at the school speech therapist at the time and when it was another child's turn, she' d point the pointer at me. I remember what the pointer looked like. It was one of those wooden pointers that was about 2 ½ feet long with a rubber tip on it so it looks like a bullet on the end. And she would point that at me and I would just scream. The school bell going off — that hurt my ears. Like a dentist drill going down my ears. I would scream and throw myself on the floor. It's like I still have the old animal predator circuits that all the animals have. It's like that old animal nervous system is more prevalent in me than it is in other people."

But as Grandin got older, she slowly climbed out of her hell. She went to college and got good grades. She worked at a farming magazine and a stockyards. She got a PhD in animal science, started writing landmark studies on animal behavior, and began designing machinery for slaughterhouses across the country. Then, around ten years ago, Grandin says she had a revelation and it crystallized her calling. A slaughterhouse in Alabama called her, and said they urgently needed help, so she flew down to their plant.

"That plant was an absolute nightmare," says Grandin. "They would run the cattle up a single-file chute and then run them up into a box that had a floor at a 45-degree angle. The poor cattle would just fall down. They'd then loop a chain around the back foot and drag the beast across the floor and hang him up. He'd be bellowing. I thought, 'This is absolutely the most gruesome thing I ever saw.' I started to get mad. But I've learned I can't just have a tantrum. But when I get mad, I get spurred into action."

Grandin ripped out the machinery, and she built a new kind of squeeze chute to hold the animals gently. In fact, she modeled the controls on the ones she built for her own squeeze machine, back in her bedroom in Colorado. The day she tried out her new system, Grandin herself took the controls and when the cattle stepped forward, and they slit the animals' throats, she realized that everything she'd been working toward her whole life really did make a difference. Grandin made a difference in those animals' lives at the final moment when it counts.

"And I did not look at the controls," recalls Grandin. "It was sort of like the box became an extension of my hands, it was almost like you could reach through the machine and hold the animal. The thing that amazed me was that you could take the two parts of the head restrainer, and if the animal's head was not in the right place, you could just reach out through the machine and move his head around. He just let me do it! You could keep the animal completely calm. It was extremely hot in Alabama and I had no feeling of the heat. I would get so relaxed doing this, it was a calmness like what people get when they are doing meditation."

Back At the Slaughterhouse

Back at the Excel slaughterhouse, Grandin has almost finished her inspection. She says this plant's improved tremendously since the first time she checked it. The plant manager, Mike Chabot, says Grandin has changed too.

"She's really grown," explains Chabot. "I've got to say that. When I first started working with her in 1988, she would not let a male that she did not know very, very well within about three feet of her. Human beings scared Temple. But you look at what she does now for a living, she travels the world, she speaks to groups of people, she's opened up her life so much."

Now, Grandin heads up a ramp to check the most important place in the slaughterhouse: she's going to the killing platform. And the executive from McDonald's says they will not allow me to record it. He says if listeners hear cattle dying, they might get upset at McDonald's. He says I can stand with Grandin on the killing platform, and just watch. It turns out that he doesn't need to worry: on this day, the cattle die without making a sound.

Grandin designed this system herself. The cows walk into the plant single file, up a curved ramp—she says curves comfort cattle, it makes them think they're going back home. Then, as they're moseying along, the animals ease onto a conveyor (they don't even seem to notice), a moving harness cradles their stomachs and ribs, and lifts them gently off the floor. Suddenly, a man presses a machine between the next cow's eyes, there's a pop, and a retractable bolt shoots into the steer's brain; and the animal slumps, silently. Grandin says when she started these audits a few years ago; the workers who shoot the bolts were missing, a lot. In fact, federal inspectors cited this slaughterhouse for skinning animals that were still alive, although Excel executives disputed the charges. On this day, the slaughterhouse gets a perfect score.

More Peaceful Than Nature

As Temple Grandin drives home from the plant, we're heading straight for the Rocky Mountains. The sun is melting on the peaks, and they're turning from gold to red to pink.

"You know,' says Grandin, "when an animal dies in a well-run slaughter plant, it's much more peaceful than out in nature. People forget that it is a harsh world out there. Animals could die in a snowstorm. There could be a drought and they could starve to death, or get eaten up by predators. If I was an animal, I'd rather go to a slaughter plant than have my guts dined on while I was still alive."

And Grandin says most of the slaughterhouses that she has been inspecting treat animals much better today than they did when McDonald's started the program. She says industry executives are finally realizing that killing animals humanely can be good for business — literally. McDonald's dumped at least one supplier that flunked Grandin's inspection; the company has warned others they better improve. And studies show that if animals are calm when they're slaughtered, they produce fewer hormones, so they produce better quality meat.

Grandin says she's not a religious person, exactly, but she's come to feel that killing animals is a sacred act — she says they're not factory parts, they're living beings.

"And another reason to make sure we're not doing atrocious things at the slaughter plant is that if it is too easy to do something really atrocious to an animal—with the poor animal screaming and everything—the person who could do that might not have any problem torturing people," says Grandin. "I remember one of the reasons that St. Thomas Aquinas said that we have to treat animals right is so that people themselves don't get corrupted."

When Grandin designed the ramp that takes the cattle to their deaths, she gave it a nickname, and now people all over the industry use it—"the stairway to heaven."

She got the name from one of her favorite songs; by the rock group Led Zeppelin. She takes a cassette out from the bin between the seats, pops it in and sings along.

"There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold, and she's buying a stairway to heaven," Grandin sings, driving home from the Excel slaughterhouse on the plains of Colorado.