If you didn't watch the Emmy Awards show this year, you missed a good one. The HBO film about animal-welfare pioneer Temple Grandin won an astounding seven awards. This is not just a tribute to Claire Danes's gripping portrayal. It also speaks volumes about Grandin's important contributions to the science of farm animal care. She helped improve rural Americans' commitment to animal welfare more than anyone else in modern history.
But not everyone is happy with her. Take the animal rights movement, for instance.
There's a reason why PETA, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), and other like-minded groups don't always see eye-to-eye with Temple Grandin: She's in favor of reforming slaughterhouses, and they'd prefer to eliminate them entirely.
Animal welfare, in Grandin's view, means that we should treat cows as humanely as possible before we turn them into strip steaks and burgers.
The animal rights philosophy, on the other hand, demands that the conversion of cows to food be stopped forever. That's too great a stretch for most Americans to embrace.
Grandin famously designed the single-file chutes that help cows experience less stress as they go to slaughter. Ironically, animal-rights believers consider such advances counterproductive because they focus on improving how we put meat on our tables-instead of converting everyone to vegetarian diets.
The latest major development in the philosophy of animal rights is the notion that animals should be granted legal standing (the right to sue people in court with animal activists as their advocates). This, too, is an idea that leaves pioneers like Grandin on the sidelines. After all, why would a cow agree to be slaughtered – regardless of how comfortably – if it could file a civil suit instead?
And why would egg-laying chickens let their offspring become omelets if the courts gave them a way out?
HSUS bankrolled the passage of "Proposition 2" in California two years ago. This law will soon require egg farmers to give chickens more wing-flapping room, which is something that Dr. Grandin supports. But she's in favor of "enriched" (read: larger) cages for hens. HSUS wants cages to be eliminated entirely.
Going "cage-free" may have some advantages, but the "Humane Certified" program run by the American Humane Association (no relation to HSUS) gives its stamp of approval to enriched cages. Grandin says these new cages can be just as humane as letting chickens roam free.
Installing enriched cages, she says, "is the direction that producers need to take, as they have successfully already done in Europe."
So who's right? The animal behaviorist whose empathetic connection with livestock is the stuff of legend? Or the animal rights groups that seemingly have a monopoly on the word "humane"?
Replacing older hen housing with enriched cages will be expensive enough for most farmers. Going cage-free could bankrupt many of them – which just might be the result the animal rights movement's vegan leaders have in mind. When you don't eat eggs, you don't tend to care about their availability or cost.
Grandin is more matter-of-fact about the realities of where our food comes from. In the HBO movie, she places herself firmly in the animal welfare camp: "Well, of course they're gonna get slaughtered. Do you think we'd have cattle if people didn't eat them every day? They'd just be funny – looking animals at the zoo. No, we raise them for us. That means we owe them some respect. Nature is cruel, but we don't have to be. I wouldn't want to have my guts ripped out by a lion. I'd much rather die in a slaughterhouse if it was done right!"
Half of all cows in today's U.S. meat supply pass through equipment that she designed. But to animal rights radicals, Grandin's genius has been misapplied. They view animal agriculture-no matter how modern and humane-as an atrocity.
Temple Grandin views it as her life's calling. We should thank her for it.
We should also understand that the leaders of today's animal rights movement stand against everything she has accomplished. To them, livestock are a symptom of collective moral failing. But to Temple Grandin, they represent a responsibility to which we can – and should – be faithful.