Animal expert offers advice

Professor, well-known for her understanding of how livestock think, coming to town to speak

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— Dr. Temple Grandin is coming to Steamboat Springs to talk to ranchers, horse owners and animal trainers about the way animals think.

In addition to being a designer of livestock handling facilities, Grandin is an assistant professor of animal science at Colorado State University who teaches courses on livestock behavior. She has designed animal chutes and restrainers that are used around the world. In North America, almost half of the cattle are handled in a center-track restrainer system that she designed for meat plants.

Grandin is an advocate for treating animals humanely.

"Seven percent of horses go to the slaughterhouse because they buck people off or they have behavior problems and that's caused by poor training," she said in a phone interview.

Grandin is trying to change the traditional ways of training horses and treating food animals. She believes a little extra time put into understanding how an animal thinks is worth it when it comes to decreasing stress.

Cattle and horses are very similar, Grandin said. There are animals that are calm and there are ones that are high-strung, she said.

More times than not, high-strung animals react in a negative way to a rough style of training. Horses, for example, can be traumatized if they aren't properly introduced to a new environment.

"First experiences are really important," Grandin said. "People who do a rough-them-up method say, 'Yea, it works.' But it only works on genuinely calm animals."

High-strung animals, on the other hand, need a slow, safe introduction to new places and experiences. If they have a bad first experience with riding in a trailer, for example, they can develop a "fear memory" that will return every time they are put in a trailer.

"Animals will judge a book on the first experience," Grandin said.

Animals remember dramatic events as if it's a picture in their head or a sound clip. When something resembles a picture or sound the animal associates with a bad experience, the fear memory will register and the animal will be spooked, Grandin said.

Grandin was diagnosed with autism at age 2. She said the positive aspects of the condition her increased abilities to think logically, observe and focus have enabled her to become an accomplished scientist. They also have allowed her to get into the minds of animals, so to speak.

Grandin said she started wondering how animals thought on an Arizona ranch when she was younger. She wanted to figure out why the cattle wanted to go into one chute instead of an identical chute next to it. Finally, she realized the chutes faced different directions and cast different shadows. The one with the larger shadow spooked the cattle.

That was the seed of a successful career that has led Grandin to become well-known for her knowledge of animal behavior.

Grandin has appeared on television shows such as "20/20," "48 Hours," "CNN Larry King Live," and has been featured in People magazine, The New York Times, Forbes, and U.S. News and World Report. She also has authored more than 300 articles in both scientific journals and livestock periodicals on animal handling, welfare, and facility design.

"She's a fascinating speaker and has incredible knowledge," Cathy Neeland said. Neeland is on the executive board of the Colorado Horse Development Authority, which is sponsoring Grandin's trip to Steamboat Springs.

"Her particular topic is applicable to this area," Neeland said.

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