Fitting Them for Slaughter: the Work of Temple Grandin and Others

The planning application presently before Canterbury Town Council (in the UK) to set up a research business specializing in farmed animals is a reminder that modern livestock farming is continuously serviced and promoted by laboratory-style science. In fact sheep and chickens are two species whose numbers showed an increase in the most recent Home Office statistics (for 2016): 3% and 9% respectively, compared to the general decrease in numbers of 5%, though of course not all the procedures in these cases were for agricultural purposes. The Canterbury research business uses the go-ahead name ‘VetQuest’ – for yes, vets continue to play their especially treacherous part in streamlining the movement of farm animals from birth to plate.

Among the institutions playing their part is the British Society of Animal Science, with its journal Animal. That’s a very suitable title, equivocally ‘animal’ as an Goat meat boardindividual or ‘animal’ as collective matter like water or wood. Turning the individual ever more efficiently and profitably into matter is the Society’s aim, and it’s not squeamish about the process. The most recent of the BSAS conferences, ‘Bull Fertility: theory to practice’, makes that very clear, with its sessions on ‘Optimizing semen procedures’ and ‘Pathophysiology of bull sub-fertility’. After all, “the reproductive performance of cattle is critical to farm productivity.”

That very ugly word ‘performance’, astonishingly callous when applied to fertility and the mutilated sex-lives of animals on farms, is always the crucial term for the BSAS and its kindred. ‘Performance’ is their jargon word for profitability: the end-value of an animal, less all the trouble and expense involved in hustling it there. And “there” is not just the supermarket shelf, but right into the human chops. Thus a recent article in Animal, asking and answering the question ‘How does barley supplementation in lambs grazing alfalfa affect meat sensory quality and authentication?’ (note how the animals turn from life into food even in the space of the one title), studies the problem of “excessive odour/flavour in the meat” and the consequent “purchase resistance”. You’ll be interested to know that barley supplementation doesn’t solve this serious performance failure: something for VetQuest to look into, perhaps, if it gets planning permission.

The most famous example of animal science as applied to meat-producing is the work of Dr Temple Grandin (“the world knows her”, it says on her web-site). For many years she has been a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, specializing in the behaviour and management of farm animals. This is a remarkable woman, someone who evidently does have an understanding of non-human minds far beyond the strictly scientific. She attributes that to her autism, a subject on which she likewise lectures and writes with authority: as she says in her book Animals in Translation (2005) “Autistic people are closer to animals than normal people are.” [57] Specifically she believes that autistic people make much more use of the older “animal” parts of the brain, and therefore think as animals do, in pictures and details. The more lately developing neo-cortex of the brain has enabled most modern humans to think in concepts and generalisations, and indeed has strongly biased them toward doing that.

The insight which Dr Grandin claims to have gained in this way isn’t just a matter of understanding, or even of the highly-developed sympathy which she clearly does feel for animals, especially cows (“Cows are the animals I love best.” [307]). She argues, or believes she does, for animals to be more valued and more highly respected in our lives:

“I hope we’ll start to think more about what animals can do, and less about what they can’t. It’s important, because we’ve gotten too far away from the animals who should be our partners in life, not just pets or objects of study.” [303]

I say “believes she does” because although “partners in life” is a strong phrase, it’s attached here and more generally to claims about their concealed talents (concealed from us, that is). “Are animals as smart as people?” is one of the sub-headings in Animals in Translation [248]. The answer ought not simply to be “I can’t answer that question, and neither can anyone else”, which is the one she gives (and an excellent one as far as it goes), but rather ‘why should it matter?’ We need to respect animal lives as such, not just their capacities, still less the tricks we can get out of them, however intriguing these may be. This is something which Dr Grandin does not compass. In fact when she does speak deliberately about the value of “more primitive living organisms such as oysters or insects”, in her paper ‘Animals are not Things’ (2002), all her examples turn out to be value for human consumption: “bees pollinating flowers . . . a species that becomes extinct might have provided a cure for cancer . . . natural ecosystems are beautiful . . . ” and so on.

But of course a much more conspicuous instance of this compromised sympathy with animals is the use to which Temple Grandin’s knowledge of them has most profitably been put. Her fame and success in animal science arise mainly from the equipment and advice which she provides to slaughterhouses: “Half the cattle in the United States and Canada are handled in humane slaughter systems I’ve designed.” [7]

The main aim of these systems (a term which includes equipment, handling techniques, and monitoring methods) has been to reduce the fear felt by the animals. Dr Grandin writes extensively and very well about fear in animals: “The single worst thing you can do to an animal emotionally is to make it feel afraid. Fear is so bad for animals, I think it’s worse than pain.” [189] She is familiar with the research in the subject, of course. In fact she refers with surprising insouciance, even enthusiasm, to experiments which ought to arouse disgust and indignation (one “terrific study on fear and survival”, for instance, “put a bunch of guppies in with a piranha in a fish tank”, and showed how the more fearless ones got eaten first, the more nervous progressively later [196]). However, she also, again, uses personal experience to illuminate this subject: “I’m sure that’s why I relate to prey animals like cattle as strongly as I do: because my emotional make-up is similar. Fear is a horrible problem for people with autism.” [191]

For herself, the solution has been partly force of character, partly medication: “I take anti-depressants, and they’ve gotten rid of my fear.” I would guess that this success has been possible for her because her fears are mostly mind-created or at least mind-enhanced, and to that extent insubstantial. After all, Temple Grandin herself isn’t a prey animal. But cattle are, blatantly so in slaughterhouses. Their fear is wholly rational, for as she says on her web-site, “animals use their emotions . . . to predict the future” and the future in this case is quite properly terrifying. How, then, to get rid of their fear?

That Dr Grandin has indeed been able to relieve billions of animals in slaughterhouses of at least some portion of their fear is evident, and it’s surely been of real service to animal welfare. She has done nothing, of course, to relieve them of the grounds of fear. All her calming devices – the curving approach-passage which makes them feel that they’re returning “home”, the graduated lighting which makes each stage of the fatal journey turn smoothly into the next, the ‘double-rail’ conveyer giving them confidence in their uprightness – are ways of concealing the truth from the animals. In this sense they’re elaborate euphemisms, of a piece with the all-inclusive euphemism “humane slaughter” – which phrase Dr Grandin happily uses. And of course, as that phrase shows, the whole array of euphemisms works as unfounded reassurance for humans as well as for the animals. Indeed, Dr Grandin has the astonishing expression “stairway to heaven” for the ramp which cattle walk up towards the ‘slaughter hold’. It’s not a heartless joke: she means it. And the brief discussion of it on her web-site shows that even this fantastical euphemism works, for her and for others: works, that is, in reconciling otherwise decent people to their participation in the mass destruction of innocent youthful life.

Meanwhile, in making slaughter a smoother, less frenzied business, Temple Grandin has promoted its efficiency and success. For she too is in the ‘performance’ game, as her science publications clearly show. On ‘PSE’, for instance (PSE stands for “pale, soft, exudative pork”, another product which encounters “purchase resistance”), she advises slaughterhouses, “PSE increases if pigs are handled roughly at the plant, because excited pigs become over-heated . . . Rough handling, electric prods, and jamming raise lactate levels which damages meat quality.” A conference paper from 1994 advises how to prevent ‘bloodsplash’ (“a severe cosmetic defect that affects the appearance of the meat”). In fact she has produced a huge corpus of research work aimed at helping the meat industry satisfy what she calls “the needs of today’s customers”. She herself, of course, is among those customers.

Another woman who has spent long hours in slaughterhouses, the artist Sue Coe, speaks of Temple Grandin as “a sort of ‘fix-it’ person”, dealing with a fundamental wrong by putting right its symptoms. And that’s what animal science of the sort practised by the BSAS and by countless other scientists and science institutions characteristically does: for instance by devising more docile breeds of animal, finding new ways of keeping factory-farmed animals ‘healthy’ (one of VetQuest’s aims is a feed which makes antibiotics unnecessary), or demonstrating that farmers can stock pigs at higher densities with “no difference to animal welfare” and “without impacting on performance” (a recent BSAS conference highlight).

Apologists for animal research habitually argue that the animals they use are both far fewer in number and much better treated than farmed animals. But in fact modern farming methods would not exist without the constant aid and attention of laboratory-style research: the two are not separable. The campaigning organisation PETA quite rightly ran a petition against the Canterbury planning application. It’s a very small operation that’s being proposed there, but it’s one instance of a giant-scale misuse of science and of animals.

 

Notes and references:

Other treatments of this theme in the VERO blog can be found in the ‘category’ list under ‘Farming Connections’.

The BSAS bull fertility conference is reported here: https://bsas.org.uk/about-bsas/news/future-of-cattle-production-revealed-at-bsas-bull-fertility-event

The quoted article from Animal (abstract only) can be found here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/animal/article/how-does-barley-supplementation-in-lambs-grazing-alfalfa-affect-meat-sensory-quality-and-authentication/4F480D4F24ABB4AD4E747AD1198D9D48

Quotations from Animals in Translation are taken from the paperback edition (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006), page numbers in square brackets. The paper titled ‘Animals are not Things’ can be read here: http://www.grandin.com/welfare/animals.are.not.things.html

Other Temple Grandin quotations are taken from articles posted on her ‘Humane Slaughter’ web-site, http://www.grandin.com/

Sue Coe is quoted from an interview posted at https://responsibleeatingandliving.com/favorites/gary-steiner-and-sue-coe-the-vegan-imperative/ For more about Sue Coe in this blog, see https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/09/25/the-vegan-animals-manifesto-by-sue-coe/

The BSAS conference presentation on density of pigs is at https://bsas.org.uk/articles/animal-bytes/pig-performance-not-affected-by-higher-stocking-rates

The photograph above is of a noticeboard in Witney, Oxfordshire, a mile or so from the large Muchmeats Slaughterhouse. Oxfordshire Animal Save holds vigils on the access road to this animal save 1slaughterhouse from time to time, and the photo on the left is from one such occasion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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