Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals

by Dr. Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY, 2009
ISBN 978-0-15101489-7

(In United Kingdom, book title is "Making Animals Happy" and ISBN is: 978-0-7475-9714-8)

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An Excerpt from Chapter 5: Cows

Improving cattle handling with better stockmanship, welfare, auditing, and teaching people the importance of animal behavior: Why People Keep Doing Things That Don’t Work?

During thirty years of work on livestock handling and the design of restraining devices for animals, I have seen that many people try to restrain animals using force instead of behavioral principles. Even when plants know they’re losing money by shocking and yelling at the animals, they still do it. In one slaughter plant I documented a $500 to $1,000 savings per day after I had trained employees to handle cattle quietly, but when I left, workers quickly went back to their old rough ways. Since rough handling doesn’t work very well and is terrible for the animals, why do people keep doing it?

Part of the answer is lack of knowledge. When I visited large farms, I was shocked to discover that the managers of many farms run by corporations were often not aware of most of the animal behavior research.

Even when managers do know something about animals, change is not easy. On websites about low-stress cattle handling you can find ranchers talking about how difficult it was to master the new methods and apply them consistently. When I’ve given talks at cattle conferences, I have had many ranchers’ wives say to me, “I wish I could get my husband to stop yelling at the cattle.” Replacing old bad habits is hard.

Another obstacle is that to be a good stockperson you have to recognize that an animal is a conscious being that has feelings, and some people don’t want to think of animals that way. This is true of researchers and veterinarians as well as stockpeople. I’ve found a certain percentage of veterinarians and physiologists who deny feeling and emotions in animals. An animal can be violently struggling and crying, but if its heart rate hasn’t gone up these professionals insist that the animal is not distressed. Would they say the same thing if they measured a low heart rate in a person screaming in pain because the dentist’s drill just hit a nerve? No. They would see the whole person as more important than some readings on an instrument.

Too many researchers today see an animal as a kind of living machine made up of a lot of little chemical parts. They’re looking at tissue under a microscope and they’re a zillion miles away from the cow. When I listen to long technical lectures about cow hormones at conferences I want to say, “There’s an animal attached to that ovary.” Researchers need to look at the whole animal.

People working in management often do not want to find out that a widely used agricultural practice is stressful or painful to an animal. Researchers have told me that funding for research whose results could force a change in agricultural practices can be difficult to get. Management’s policy is “See no evil.“

Another big factor is turnover in personnel. The normal quit rate in U.S. business is 15 percent per year, and it may be a lot higher on farms and ranches. Grahame Coleman found that 50 percent of new pig stockpeople on Australian farms quit over a six-month period, and he says that the U.S. rate is probably the same based on anecdotal reports. If half your work force quits every six months, you’re going to need a very strong training program for new hires, and you must have frequent auditing of performance on the job.

Last, very often people find positive handling methods harder to use than negative methods. The blue-ribbon emotions help us understand why. Handling untamed, untrained cattle is frustrating because they don’t do what you want them to do, and frustration is a mild form of RAGE. So, unless a person is an expert in quiet handling of cattle, the environment at a ranch, a dairy farm, or a slaughterhouse will naturally activate the RAGE system in his brain. That’s why it’s easy for people to blow up at farm animals (or at small children). Getting angry at frustrating situations is natural. To learn more about human and animal emotion systems, read chapter 1.

Individual personality and temperament determine how intensely a stockperson’s RAGE system gets activated by wild cattle. One study found that dairy cattle managed by stockpeople who were “introverted and confident” had higher milk yields.

Confident people have more positive emotions than depressed and insecure people, which might mean that their SEEKING system is activated. Since SEEKING inhibits RAGE, maybe confident stockpeople have a higher frustration tolerance. The reason why the first study found that introverted handlers had the most productive cattle is probably that introverted people are naturally quieter than extroverts. Cattle prefer quiet handling.

Managers should hire people with confident personalities whenever they can, and they should improve the working environment by building in as many rewards as possible for good treatment of the animals. This has been done in the poultry and pork industries in some cases, but it needs to be done for cattle, too. The reason incentive programs are less common in the cattle industry is that there is less vertical interaction when the same company owns the animals from birth to slaughter. The cattle industry should give workers financial incentives for reductions in bruises, injuries, and vocalizations during handling.

This would be easy to do in large feedlots and meat plants. The worst way to pay workers is on a piecework basis, which gives employees an incentive to vaccinate as many cattle as they can and always results in rough handling.

The other employee factor managers need to consider is fatigue. Unpublished data collected on chicken and pig truckloading crews showed that after about six hours of work, people became fatigued and injuries and death losses increased. Fatigue means reduced frontal lobe function, and reduced frontal lobe function means reduced ability to regulate emotions. I have observed on many farms and feedlots that tired workers blow up at the animals more than well-rested workers. The worst situation is an understaffed, fatigued crew.

People Manage What They Measure

In 1990 I developed a conveyorized handling system for cattle in slaughter plants called the center-track restrainer that is much more humane for the cows than the old system. Everyplace I was hired to install it, I also trained the workers in how to handle the cattle gently. One of the biggest frustrations in my career has been that I’d do an installation at a plant and train the workers and get the handling real super-good, only to return a year later and find they’d reverted to using the electric prod and screaming at the cattle. This is true everywhere — ranches, feed- lots, slaughterhouses. People don’t maintain the improvements they make. Often they do not realize that they have gradually reverted to their old bad ways. I call that bad becoming normal.

The only answer to this problem is to audit animal welfare. A stockperson’s job has enough frustrations built into it that there will always be emotional pressure on employees to revert to bad handling even after they’ve learned how to handle the animals nicely. The industry has to audit animal welfare continuously.

Ranchers need to start auditing welfare, too. At a grazing conference in Canada, I gave a talk for ranchers where one of the things I suggested they do was start measuring their cattle handling using a scoring system, similar to what I used for the McDonald’s audit of animal welfare inside meatpacking plants that I described in Animals in Translation.

For ranches and feedlots, I suggest:

Using Technology to Lower RAGE and FEAR in People when they are handling cattle and other livestock

I’ve spent a lot of my career designing handling facilities for farm animals, so I know what a difference good engineering makes. Cattle move easily through my curved chute designs because my designs take advantage of the natural behavior of cattle wanting to go back to where they came from. However, there is no technological substitute for understanding and working with an animal’s behavior. The equipment I design is all behaviorally based; it will work only if you’re handling the cattle properly.

This is a very difficult concept to get across. People adopt new handling equipment much more quickly than they adopt the behavioral principles they need to make a piece of equipment work. I can prove this with sales statistics from my website. I get twice as many orders for $55 books on how to build corrals and races as I do for $59 videotapes on the principles of good stockmanship. People think buying the technology is all they need to do.

This has been a constant problem in my plant installations. Equipment builders would build the parts of the design I created to control the cow physically but leave out the parts I designed to manage the cow mentally. They would actually edit and revise the blueprints as they went along. A lot of them would leave out the false floor I designed for the entrance to the conveyor belt so the cattle wouldn’t balk when they saw a “visual cliff” below the belt they were supposed to ride on. Or they would get rid of the roof I designed to go over the cattle’s heads to keep them from seeing an escape route until they were settled down and riding quietly on the conveyor belt. At one plant I persuaded the crew that the roof was necessary by laying a two- foot piece of cardboard across the system. That one piece of cardboard instantly made the cattle calm, and after that the crew built the roof the way the plans said to build it.

This kind of thing happened repeatedly because the crews didn’t understand the purely behavioral reason for having an extra piece of metal on an installation that would have to be maintained and cleaned. I went to the start-ups of the first seven systems to make sure all of the parts that were needed to behaviorally control cattle were put back on. Managing the Emotions of People when they handle and care for animals

When I started out in the 1970s I thought I could fix everything with engineering. I wasn’t thinking that much about managing the behavior and emotions of the people. It took me thirty-five years to learn that about 20 percent of employees can maintain good stockmanship on their own, but the rest have to have incentives because good stockmanship is so against their nature. Incentives work and they turn on a person’s SEEKING system. One plant gave prizes of $1oo to $200 each month to the two truck drivers who had the fewest dead pigs. The prizes, along with a big chart in the office showing every driver’s “dead score,” motivated the drivers to handle their pigs carefully and reduce death losses. My ultimate technological dream is electronic measurement of cattle handling with automatic payroll deductions or bonuses. The computer would make a deduction when an animal crashes into the front of the squeeze chute or runs out really fast. Crews that are able to handle cattle quietly would get a bonus. An automatic system of financial penalties and rewards is a techno-fix that would work. Today this is only a dream.

There are a couple of other technological aids to cattle welfare I’d like to see adopted by large feedlots that could automatically audit animal handling. Squeeze chutes with pressure sensors built in to monitor squeeze pressure and struggling would be a great innovation. The technology already exists for doing this. I’d also like to see radar cameras installed in feedlots to clock the speed of cattle as they exit the squeeze chute. Cattle that are handled calmly are less likely to run when they are released. The faster a cow moves, the more upset it is, and there is research showing that “speeders” and cattle that struggle violently gain less weight, which will help motivate plants to install this equipment if somebody develops it.

Preventing rough handling is like controlling speeding on the highways. You need constant measurement and enforcement. I have observed that some people enjoy abusing animals. Those people shouldn’t be working with animals at all. They’re like drunk drivers with multiple arrests who get their driver’s licenses taken away. But most employees who are handling the cattle roughly aren’t sadistic by nature. They just don’t have the training and practice they need to manage cattle well enough that their own RAGE system doesn’t get overactivated — and they don’t have a system of ongoing audits to make sure that they keep using good handling techniques after they’ve learned them.

The good news is that conditions in the plants are much better today than they were in the early ‘90s. The animal welfare audits required by McDonald’s, Whole Foods, and other companies have forced plant management to monitor, measure, and improve employee behavior. Plants are maintaining their equipment better and reassigning or firing employees who abuse animals. Some plants have installed video systems on the plant floor, which solves the problem of people behaving properly when they are being watched and reverting to old rough ways when nobody is around.

It is impossible to handle an animal that is too weak to stand or walk with good stockmanship. It is the responsibility of both dairy and beef cattle managers to euthanize on the farm cattle that are too weak to travel to another location, such as a meat plant or auction. Some of the worst animal abuses have occurred when “downer” cows that could not walk were dragged or beaten. When these abuses occur, I place the blame on the manager who supervises the stockpeople. Over the years, I have observed that severe abuses almost never occur in places with good management.

The stockpeople have to manage the cattle, and the plant and ranch managers have to manage the stockpeople. To manage employees, managers have to design good work environments, they have to provide training, and they have to audit performance.

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