NOTICED ANIMAL BEHAVIOR AND AUTISM ADVOCATE
DR. TEMPLE GRANDIN ON ADVANCEMENTS IN ANIMAL CARE
Few people have had a more significant impact on our collective understanding of animals than Dr. Temple Grandin: scientist, behaviorist, educator, author and advocate. In her more than three decades as a professor and animal science researcher at Colorado State University, she has published more than 60 scientific papers on animal behavior and was a tireless champion of the humane treatment of domestic livestock.
Dr. Grandin’s work in these two areas in particular has had far-reaching effects that affect several industries, including our own. Recently, the Denver Zoo had the honor of speaking briefly with her about how her experience living on the autism spectrum has informed her empathy for animals…how those insights have affected animal care here at the zoo. of Denver…and why she believes zoos are important to future generations.
DZ: During your early years at CSU, you worked with the Denver Zoo on a revolutionary method, operant conditioning, to reduce the stress of veterinary procedures. Can you tell us about that?
GE: The idea of being able to train very fearful flying animals to cooperate with veterinary procedures was new when I started working on it 25 years ago. At the time, Denver Zoo’s contract nutritionist, Dr. Nancy Irlbeck, wanted to do a study to determine how much vitamin E the zoo’s four nyalas (a small South African antelope) had in their blood, in as part of a larger study of their nutritional health. The problem was that stress suppresses vitamin E levels, so if you stress the animal, it’s impossible to get an accurate reading.
Nancy called me and asked, “How can we get a stress-free blood sample from an antelope?” I told him that there was only one way: you have to train the animal to voluntarily cooperate during the blood test. There is no other way to do it. People thought it was crazy! Nyalas are super shy, and people who knew how they were would say, “No, no, no, there’s no way to train these animals.
One of the things we learned is that because nyalas are so a fickle animalyou to have to do a very long phase of habituation before being able to do an operant conditioning. It took 10 days to train the animals to tolerate the opening of the sliding door. At this point, we could begin a combination of training and habituation. We used special yummy treats to attract antelopes [into the treatment area], and we stopped working each time they moved on to some aspect of training. In the end, we spent fifteen minutes a day for weeks training them to walk into the treatment area, keep their legs still, and let us take a blood sample from their legs. We did not use any sedatives or medications of any kind.
DZ: It must have been such a revolutionary idea at the time! What was the result ?
GE: People were amazed! The zoo was happy with our results, so we then decided to train their bongo antelopes to volunteer for blood tests – and from this experiment we got a very important discovery. Glucose, CPK and cortisol are all related to stress, so I decided to do a bongo blood cortisol test. The levels came back incredibly low, almost to the level of sleeping cattle, even though each animal had been in the blood test box for 20 minutes.
At the time, most of the scientific literature had net or dart animal values that were three and four times higher than what I got in our trained animals at the Denver Zoo. The researchers called these high values ”normal” because everybody obtained these values when they took blood from captive antelopes. It was because they were drawing on terrified animals. The study-an important advance in the understanding of animal care professionals in zoos – has finally been published in Zoo biology.
DZ: You are a leading speaker and advocate for neurodiverse people. How can zoos be a safe and welcoming place for people with autism?
GE: In my experience, kids on the spectrum are usually interested in animals, but that takes a while. The Denver Zoo is a fairly quiet place, ideal for children with autism. Parents who can let their children view the website, be prepared for what they will see is really important. The more they know before arriving at the Zoo, the better!
DZ: You said your autism gave you sensory empathy with animals. What can neurotypical people learn, especially those working in animal care, neurodiversity?
GE: Autism has helped me understand animals because I think in pictures. As animals do not have [spoken] language, their memories should be based on senses rather than words. In this way, animal cognition bears similarities to autism cognition. People with autism excel at work involving detail, just as animals are acutely aware of small sensory details in the environment.
DZ: Why are zoos important for connecting younger generations to nature?
XL: I think there is a hunger that children have… when they hang up the phone! There’s a whole world out there, animals and all sorts of other real things they can get involved in – and to do that, kids have to actually see animals in places like the zoo.
To learn more about the incredible work of Temple Grandin, check out his website. For all the animal content you crave, follow us on Facebook, instagram, Twitter and ICT Tac.