February 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Holy Cow!: Sy Montgomery’s ‘Temple Grandin’ is an inspiring tale of cattle… and courage

When Temple Grandin was born, her parents didn’t know she had autism. In fact, her father thought she was retarded and wanted to send her to live in a mental hospital. Today, she’s a renowned scientist who designs humane environments for cattle and other animals we eat. What impact has she had on the industry?

Thirty-five million cattle are raised annually for beef in the U.S. Half of them spend their final minutes in buildings Temple designed, but her influence is not at all confined to that. She’s been influential in the recent decision by McDonald’s, for instance, to stop purchasing pork from farms that use gestation crates. She works with zoo animals and pets as well.

Why is she so good with animals, especially with cows?

People with autism often notice details that other people overlook. “Why won’t the cows enter that barn?” Temple can see instantly that it’s because that shadow on the floor looks like a hole. “Why won’t they walk past that gate?” Because someone left a shirt on the fence, and it’s flapping menacingly. She can instantly see what’s bothering the animals—and often the same thing is bothering her, too.

Temple says she has the nervous system of a prey animal. She knows what it’s like to be watching out for predators all the time.

She thinks that she’s successful because of autism, not in spite of it, right?

Yes, exactly. This is a book about appreciating the powers of other minds. Something that looks like a problem or a detriment might end up being a source of great strength.

In the book, you ask, “How can an animal lover work for an industry that raises cattle to be killed for food?” What’s Grandin’s response?

She says it would be great if we didn’t have to kill animals for food, but people are going to be doing it. And as long as we are going to be doing it, let’s treat these animals with respect.

She also makes a really interesting point about the difference between pain and fear—and this is an insight that her autism gives her. The worst thing in the world to an animal is not pain, but fear. So if you can remove the fear, you remove a great deal of the suffering.

You usually write about animals, rather than people. Care to share some of your more memorable experiences in the wild?

Swimming in a blue-water tributary of the Amazon with seven pink dolphins, who came every day to play with me. Hiking up 10,000 feet into the cloud forest of Papua New Guinea, in search of tree kangaroos among trees festooned with orchids. Holding my first wild tarantula. Nearly falling off cliffs while slipping on scree in the Altail Mountains of Mongolia, in search of snow leopards. Sitting in a pit surrounded by 18,000 slithering snakes in Manitoba. Oh goodness, the list goes on and on.

When you visit schools, what are kids most curious about?

Many kids want to know if I am ever afraid when I’m working in the field, especially with animals many people fear, like tigers or tarantulas. The answer is no. My fear comes when I try to write a book.

Rick Margolis About Rick Margolis

Rick Margolis was executive editor for SLJ.