August 12, 2022

Talks with Temple



Few individuals have made 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 researcher of Animal Science at Colorado State University, she has published more than 60 scientific papers on animal behavior and been a tireless champion for the humane treatment of domestic livestock.  

Dr. Grandin's work in these two areas specifically has had far-reaching effects that span multiple industries—including our own. Recently, Denver Zoo was honored to talk briefly with her about how her experience living on the autism spectrum has informed her empathy for animals...how these insights have affected animal care here at Denver Zoo...and why she believes zoos are important to future generations.  

DZ: In your early years at CSU, you worked with Denver Zoo on a groundbreaking method—operant conditioning—to reduce the stress of veterinary procedures. Can you tell us about that?  

TG: The idea that you can train high-fear flight animals to cooperate with veterinary procedures was new when I first started working on it 25 years ago. At the time, the contract nutritionist for Denver Zoo, 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, as part of a larger study of their nutritional health. The trouble 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 do we get a no-stress blood sample out of an antelope?” I told her there’s only one way: you have to train the animal to voluntarily cooperate during the blood test. There’s no other way to do it. People thought that was crazy! Nyalas are super-shy, and people who knew what they were like were saying, “No, no, no, there’s no way to train these animals.” 

One of the things we learned is that because nyalas are such a flighty animal, you have to do a very long habituation phase before you can do any operant conditioning. It took 10 days to train the animals to tolerate the sliding door opening. At that point, we could begin a combination of training and habituation. We used special yummy treats to attract the antelopes [into the treatment area], and we stopped work whenever they oriented to some aspect of the training. In the end, we spent fifteen minutes a day for weeks training them to go in the treatment area, keep their legs still, and let us get a blood sample out of their legs. We used no sedation or drugs of any kind.  

DZ: That must have been such a revolutionary idea at the time! What was the result?

TG: People were amazed! The Zoo was happy with our results, so next, we decided to train their bongo antelopes to volunteer for blood tests—and out of that experience, we got a very important finding. Glucose, CPK, and cortisol are all related to stress, so I decided to do a cortisol test of the bongos’ blood. The levels came back incredibly low, almost at the level of cattle that are asleep, even though each animal had stood in the blood-testing box for 20 minutes.  

At the time, most of the scientific literature had values from netted or darted animals that were three and four times higher than what I got in our trained animals at Denver Zoo. Researchers were calling those elevated values “normal” because everyone got those values when they drew blood from captive antelopes. This was because they were drawing from terrified animals. The study—an important advance in understanding for animal care professionals in Zoos—was ultimately published in Zoo Biology.

DZ: You’re a prominent speaker and advocate for neurodiverse people. How can zoos be a safe and supportive place for individuals with autism? 

TG: In my experience, kids on the spectrum typically take to animals, but it takes some time. Denver Zoo is a mostly quiet place, which is good for kids with autism. Parents who can let their kids look at the website, prepare for what they’ll see, that’s really important. The more they know before they get to the Zoo, the better! 

DZ: You've said that your autism has given you a sensory based-empathy with animals. What can neurotypical people, especially those working in animal care, learn from the neurodiverse? 

TG: Autism helped me understand animals because I think in pictures. Since animals do not have [spoken] language, their memories have to be sensory-based instead of word-based. In this way, animal cognition has similarities to autism cognition. People on the autism spectrum excel at work involving details, just as animals are very aware of small, sensory details in the environment. 

DZ: Why are zoos important for younger generations to connect to nature? 

TG: I think there's a hunger that kids have...when they get off the phones! There's a whole world out there, of animals and all kinds of other real stuff that they can get involved in—and to do that, kids need to actually see animals at places like the Zoo. 

To learn more about Temple Grandin’s incredible body of work, check out her website. For all the animal content you crave, follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok. 


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