Animal welfare's "credible voice" unveils fund

When Dr. Joe Stookey thought about who would be the ideal person to launch a new animal welfare fund at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM), his friend Dr. Temple Grandin immediately came to mind.

Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, will speak at Saskatoon's TCU Place at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 11. In addition to supporting the fund's debut, Grandin will share her vision of animal behaviour, animal welfare and autism with the public.

"She has name recognition," says Stookey, a WCVM professor of animal behaviour. "A lot of people have heard of her; they know she's an autistic woman who has become an authority in the field of animal welfare."

As Stookey explains, the fund will advance and enhance the field of animal welfare among WCVM students, faculty and staff as well as among the general public. The fund's focus isn't solely on food animals, he adds. The welfare of companion animals such as dogs, cats and horses is also part of its mandate.
Tickets are $15 for Dr. Temple Grandin's talk on Wednesday, March 11. Purchase your tickets online.  

"This fund will give the public the opportunity to contribute to animal welfare research and it will give back to the public in the form of educational materials and conferences that would bring in speakers such as Dr. Grandin to address this important topic."

Grandin's directness allows her to speak very openly and honestly about animal welfare — and that has given her a lot of credibility, explains Stookey.

"She's able to be friends with livestock producers and the general public even when those two groups sometimes may be misaligned; both groups, all people, accept her as a very credible voice."

Animal insight

Grandin can't say exactly when she found that voice — when she realized that she has a special insight into the way animals think. But she knows it had something to do with time she spent at her aunt's Arizona ranch and at a New England boarding school that had horses and a small dairy.

"The thing is back when I was at boarding school, I didn't know that others did not think in pictures. I just assumed everybody thought the same way I thought," she says.

But when she asked people what they saw when they thought of a particular object, she learned that they were seeing a vague image while she could see a clearly-defined picture in her mind.

Grandin earned a degree in psychology from Franklin Pierce College, a master's degree in animal science from Arizona State University and a doctoral degree in animal science from the University of Illinois.

While working in Arizona feed yards, she noticed that cattle would often come to a halt in a facility and refuse to move. Her suggestion that objects such as a hanging chain or a coat on a fence could cause animals to be reluctant to move through a facility was met with surprise.

"Nobody had ever thought of that before."

Thinking in pictures is how an animal would think, explains Grandin. An animal's world is sensory based: they don't have words, but they do have emotions.

Putting what she had learned into action, Grandin designed systems for handling livestock that were more animal friendly, and as it turned out, not terribly expensive.

For example, she recommended non-slip flooring in high traffic areas such as ramps and chutes. Since pigs and cattle don't like going into the dark, she suggested that lights should shine on the entrance of a stun box or chute.

Employee training was important, too. She taught workers to move animals in smaller groups, to quit using electric prods and to stop yelling. Grandin also developed a scoring system for assessing the handling of cattle and pigs at meat plants based on various criteria.

"Fixing the slaughter plants was easy," Grandin says. "But now I see problems that we're going to have to fix at the farm."

On-farm concerns

From Grandin's perspective, one of the worst on-farm problems is dairy cows that have been kept in production until they're too thin and weak. Another issue is where the selection for rapid growth in swine has resulted in some conformation problems and lameness.

What other problems cause Grandin to worry? Her list includes Holstein breeding programs that are producing taller animals which can't fit in transport trailers, growth promoters that are linked to lameness issues, potential mistakes with the use of genomics, and the number of beef calves that fall ill because they're "weaned on the truck."

While there's plenty of bad news in the field of animal welfare, there's also good news, points out Grandin. "Cattle handling has gotten better — that is one of the good things that has gotten better."

For Stookey, the WCVM's new fund is another one of those positive stories. Its activities will help to focus more attention on critical issues in animal welfare and contribute potential solutions through ongoing research. Donations may support research on anything from wound healing that indirectly minimizes suffering all the way to animal management, housing and protocols for veterinary care.

"So many of the research studies conducted at the WCVM already touch on different aspects of animal welfare," says Stookey. "This fund will only help us to raise the profile of a very important field and connect with other researchers and organizations that are working to enhance animal welfare."

Shirley Byers is a writer and editor from Kelvington, Saskatchewan. She freelances for a variety of North American magazines and newspapers.
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