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Oppenheimer Family Foundation lecture series: Temple Grandin

There was a lot of talk about this lecture being sold out at my alama mater. Arrive early! First come, first served! But when I got to the church near the Lake Forest College campus at 7pm it was what you see in the photos above. It did end up filling up somewhat, but I think the rainy weather maybe drove a few people away. (I also managed to grab a bite to eat at The Lantern, alums, and trust me nothing has changed there!)

For those of you who don't know Temple Grandin, I won't go over too much familiar territory that you can Google about her. I'll stick to the particulars of this event. I was especially intrigued to hear what she would talk about given that it was a general audience (even if a fairly well-educated one). 

The topic for the evening was, in theory, animal welfare. But Grandin's unique mind is cross-discipline, hands-on, specifically oriented towards systems and sensory issues, so she makes a great many off-topic comments. Especially as it relates to education. But she also cites science research and historical events with ease. A few of the post-lecture Q&A inquiries were asking her to make leaps to reforming the current school system. But Grandin was a bit confused about that application. She doesn't hold back about the need to have a place for visual learners and more skills/technical things like woodworking and engineering from a lived-rather-than-theoretical perspective (nothing is ever 100% perfect in the real world). I think the questioner trying to get her to respond on measuring student performance by standardized test was too vague to get the desired reply. It's certainly not a leap to say that current testing practices are measuring the wrong "control points" in Grandin-speak. She just didn't catch on that it was where the questioner wanted her to head.  

If there was one area I wish I'd taken notes, it was the animal welfare section. The main part of her presentation was about her career in two parts...developing infrastructure to improve quality at slaughter facilities AND then developing measurement tools to audit and prevent animal treatment from slipping back. If I could emphasize a few key Grandin talking points it would be the need to audit not just paperwork that can easily be fudged but an objective scale to physically watch over handling. In some followup she reiterated that handling is actually much easier to fix than housing. Housing is more expensive and mysterious to measure than animal stress at a few points later in the system. But she does approve of video monitoring and my mind went straight to cameras in barns recording farm environment. Though that maybe wasn't necessarily where she wanted to go. 

Grandin used transportation ("Yes!" thinks the transportation geek. Though I'd offer that she doesn't appreciate people interested in policy so much. She likes people who are into the real world.) as an example of how turn signal use is not a good way to affect traffic safety. If you could only pick 3 laws to enforce what would they be? Stop at stop signs/lights. Don't drink and drive. Don't speed. Maybe use a seatbelt? These are "critical control points." And if you apply that idea to animal handling there are a few items you can measure and know what you need to know about animal welfare. An example is lameness...if you know how many of your animals are lame you can tell about their health and well-being overall. 

Grandin is not a huge fan of outsider or government intervention and actually has seen the biggest reforms come from the industry itself. To her, the major changes in humane treatment from just McDonald's alone in the late 1990's is worth coming back to again and again. Where the error rates have gone from, frankly, unacceptable and horrible to near 99% today. Simple things like cleaning equipment, lighting barns, and using animal behavior to get them to do what you want rather than prodding. When things got around to lives--rather than other aspects--of animals she noted the importance of giving them a life worth living. But that is obviously harder to measure...and harder to fix. 

Finally, a last word about her interest in interdisciplinary communication, silo effects, and the need to be hands-on with life. Grandin definitely had some opinions about certain research being available for years about a few animal related topics but the lack of dialogue between different scientists and departments. You need neuroscience in the animal pens. 

I'm glad I spent the time to travel to the lecture. It was a good evening and Grandin has, frankly, some blunt and fun things to say about the world today. I also recommend reading some of her books if you haven't. She is a testament to the power one person can have in changing the status quo.