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Activist talks straight about animal welfare

Legendary animal welfare expert and autism advocate Temple Grandin displayed her trademark straight-talking insight and wit before an appreciative crowd in Red Deer on Sunday.

Grandin’s talk at the 31st Horse Breeders and Owners Conference at the Sheraton Red Deer Hotel was billed as “Understanding Horse Behaviour,” but she delivered much more in her nearly hour-long talk before a crowd of several hundred that greeted her with standing ovations at the beginning and end of her appearance.

Growing up with autism, (Grandin didn’t speak until she was nearly four years old) she overcame her learning difficulties to become a recognized authority on animal welfare with a Phd in animal science from the University of Illinois.

Her work in designing corrals and creating less stressful environments for livestock on their way to slaughter has been so successful that Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development estimates that half the cattle in the U.S. and Canada are handled in equipment she has designed for meat plants.

She is also a best-selling author and was the subject of a 2010 HBO biopic starring Claire Danes.

Grandin said early on she realized how important it was to see what the animals see on their way to slaughter. So she would crouch down in handling chutes to get a cow’s-eye perspective of their surroundings.

Her autism has also given her insight into the way animals think.

People with autism often see the world through visual thinking, similar to the way animals perceive their surroundings.

“When you see in pictures, it’s very specific,” she said.

Grandin, who is a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University, provided many tips on how to identify when an animals is getting fearful or stressed, and how to change unwanted behaviour.

When training animals, first experiences with something new must be positive, she said. Animals have long memories when it comes to negative first experiences.

Grandin also lamented over-breeding that has left horses created for speed with “big muscles and matchstick legs” and so fragile they break their legs on a routine run.

Other animals, dogs, pigs and cattle are also being over bred and creating animals that suffer from lameness, weakness and shorter life spans.

“If you over-select for a single trait you wreck your animal. It doesn’t matter what kind of animal it is,” she said.

“Nature doesn’t give you anything free. There’s always a trade-off.”

In another case, pigs were bred specifically to provide leaner meat. What went unnoticed though was that the leaner breeds were also more aggressive, causing problems in the pens.

Grandin said animals that are clearly not of normal health should be removed from the gene pool.

Red Deer Mayor and avid horseman Morris Flewwelling came away impressed from her talk.

“When a speaker is introduced and gets a standing ovation and concludes a speech and gets a standing ovation you know that the audience has been moved.”

Kyla Pollard said she appreciated Grandin’s style of “telling it like it is.

“I was really enthused and excited and intrigued to be here to listen to her because she has done so much with the slaughter industry to improve animal welfare,” said Pollard, who is from B.C. and rides horses for a living and provides horsemanship services through Khas T’an Outdoor Adventure.

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