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:

The quoted article from Animal (abstract only) can be found here:

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:

Other Temple Grandin quotations are taken from articles posted on her ‘Humane Slaughter’ web-site,

Sue Coe is quoted from an interview posted at For more about Sue Coe in this blog, see

The BSAS conference presentation on density of pigs is at

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.










The Vegan Animals’ Manifesto by Sue Coe

Picture 59 in Sue Coe’s new book shows a city at night, where men with clubs beat an

56. cow escapes city

Cow escapes city © Sue Coe

escaped cow, coercing it back to be slaughtered. The incident is illuminated by a stark white light, as by a flash of lightning. The buildings jerk and sway in this electric charge, their windows momentary witnesses to the savagery which belongs to the city’s way of life but which  it prefers to keep as a secret from itself. Silhouetted, another cow (or the same cow?) seems to curvet into the white distance. Perhaps it’s the cow Freddie “who escaped from a slaughterhouse twice”, and to whom, now enjoying a sanctuary in New Jersey, The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto is dedicated.

This is a woodcut, like all the more than a hundred other pictures in the book. That’s the oldest form of print-making and the simplest: a piece of fruit-wood, a gouge or other sharp edge, ink and paper. (The wood in the present case is wild cherry from trees cut down to make way for the Millennium Pipeline, so the medium really is part of the message here.) The unsophisticated technology is visible in the coarse textures and stark contrasts of its results, apt for drastic events and elementary passions: for instance, war, bereavement, torment, fear, shame, and that particular composite of them all which characterises what we do to the other animals.

It helps to remember that a woodcut is a relief print, so the cutting works from black to white; the knife cuts light into the scene. These woodcuts report places and practices which are normally out of view, metaphorically in darkness. But Sue Coe has been present at them, sketching them from life. In an interview, she mentions Goya, who wrote in his sketch books of inquisition torture, “I saw this.” She has seen these modern horrors, and her woodcuts now bring them out of their darkness, and shed bright light upon them so that all may see.

The style plainly belongs to the expressionist tradition, especially as raised to its highest possibilities by the German artists of the early twentieth century (including Max Beckmann, whose terrifying Night is referenced in the previous post). Expressionism is often described as a mode of art that distorts appearances “in order to express the artist’s emotions or inner vision”: that’s how my Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Art and Artists describes it, for instance. So the art is about the artist, a personality-tour, which is indeed what is very commonly looked for and talked about in art. With such aesthetics Sue Coe has nothing to do: “It’s not about me and my emotional reactions. It’s about the chick being ground up or a calf being punched and kicked.” In her woodcuts, the distortions, rough finishes, and directness of appeal express not inner vision but the true and objective urgency of the subject. That flash of light, and the lives which it shows being grasped or struck or thrown: they may last a moment only. There isn’t time for fine art. In fact Sue Coe prefers to speak of “reportage” or “propaganda”. But all the same, there is woodcut art of the very highest character in this book.

The men at work or other exertion in these scenes of manifold predation – reaching for

45. abattoir

Abattoir © Sue Coe

the doomed calf in the dairy cow’s womb, injecting the piglet with Ractopamine, slaughtering, hunting, eating – are portrayed as such actions truly and tragically make them (the expressionist truth): that is, coarse, ill-formed, gross of prehensile hand and mouth. But these are only the instruments after all, half-victims  themselves. The directing power is glimpsed in the men in suits, the businessmen and financiers – the grinning one shown feeding a pig to a fat child while another child (African?) correspondingly starves, the ranting politicians of the ‘Humans Only Party’, the money-men on Capitol Hill standing on heaped dead animals and picking each others’ pockets. “The crime is economics,” Sue Coe says. And in fact the cost, to all except those to whom this wealth-at-all-costs accrues, is shown even in the faces of the thuggish agents, which grimace equivocally with ferocity and horror.

As Sue Coe has said, “Our unique contradiction as animal activists is that the most

53. glimpse of freedom

Glimpse of freedom © Sue Coe

oppressed are not leading their own resistance.” Art has to lend them the acts of resistance which in real life only the very few, such as the cow Freddie, can convert their passive suffering into (though we can know that all of them would). And gradually in this book, subversively, the animal-dreams of nature and freedom do turn into acts: a lobster, a cow, a goat, each in turn snips the barbed wire; a pig bursts its chains; four species co-operate to see over a prison wall. And now the light which the artist has been blazing upon scenes of violence and cruelty becomes a life-promising sunburst, glorifying the later images as the book moves towards the manifesto itself. That’s the story in the book, an expressionist story, for it acts out the inner urge of the animals, and it acts out also the sympathetic urge of all who remember (as Sue Coe makes us remember from the start) what razor wire, bars, poison gas, and systematized slaughter, have meant in our human history, and who now see that incomprehensible wrong perpetuated upon these other innocents.

Although The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto touches also on the plight of zoo and circus animals, it doesn’t picture the ones in laboratories. To those, Sue Coe has already devoted a whole remarkable book, Pit’s Letter (2000). It records the experiences of a dog adopted from the street, abandoned again, captured for laboratory use, and then tragically re-united with its human in that fright-filled setting. The illustrations are not woodcuts, but part-coloured images in (I think) charcoal, crayon, and wash. They are even more astonishing and hellish, as a collection, than those in the Manifesto, being unrelieved by any of the Manifesto’s positive and delightful images of free animal life. But like the woodcuts of the Manifesto, they show with brilliant insight what our part in the living world looks like when it appears as it truthfully is, inside and out.


Notes and references:

I apologise for oddities of layout/paragraphing in this post, which I’ve been unable to Vegan Manifestocorrect.

The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto is published by OR Books, New York and London,  The illustrations above are used by courtesy of OR Books. In the book itself, the pictures are untitled.

Images from Pit’s Letter, as well as many other art-works by Sue Coe, can be seen on the Graphic Witness web-site at

The quotations from Sue Coe are taken from an interview which she gave earlier this year to Animal Liberation Currents, at Other interviews which she has given are linked on the Graphic Witness page referenced above.