Dorothy's List: How Thinking In Pictures Brought Temple Grandin Success

Mar 3, 2014

Temple Grandin: How The Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism And Changed The World by Sy Montgomery tells the story of how Dr. Temple Grandin grew from a toddler who couldn’t communicate to a college professor and one of the world’s leading animal welfare experts.

Temple Grandin is best known for designing systems that ensure beef cattle are handled humanely throughout their lives, and especially as they’re being led to slaughter. Her work with farm animals is one of the things that make Grandin’s story so interesting to the fourth, fifth and sixth graders who are part of  Wolcott Elementary School's Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Club. Farm life is an experience some of them have in common.

Many of the students wanted to know more about Temple Grandin’s work with animals. Others were interested in author Sy Montgomery's writing process. We put the students' questions to Sy Montgomery, and here is some of what she had to say:

Elliott Bjerke: Do you know if Temple Grandin works with any other animals besides cattle?

Sy Montgomery: Oh, yes. Temple works with lots of other animals. In fact she even works with zoo animals. Because zoo animals, you know, they’re somebody who were made to be living in some forest or grassland, or swamp, or desert somewhere and then all of a sudden they’re in a zoo. And they have to have all kinds of weird things done to them. They have to have shots and they have to have physicals, and how do you do that without scaring them half to death? Well, she’s the one to figure that out. She’s also working increasingly with laying hens and chickens that are used for meat. Now birds, as you know, are very different from mammals and require a whole different set of things to make them feel happy and content and be healthy. But she’s taking that on. She’s also working with pigs quite a bit. She and I love pigs ... I think she’d take on just about anything, except probably oysters. She doesn’t like oysters.

Iva Demag: Is Temple Grandin a vegetarian?

Sy Montgomery: Good question. She actually was for a time, but she didn’t feel well being a vegetarian so she’s gone back to eating meat. She has a very special diet, though. She has a number of other health issues that she has to be super-careful with, which may be the problem that made vegetarianism not work for her.

Isabel Masi: What made Temple Grandin fall in love with animals so much to want to save them?

Sy Montgomery: Temple Grandin, like myself, always related to animals very well. Animals are accepting of differences. Animals don’t care if you talk funny. Animals don’t care if you have a limp or if you have ugly hair. You know, they just accept you for what you are ... So animals were always her friends as a child. And as she got older, animals are what actually saved her, as she says in the book.

Aliyah Cross: How long did it take you to get to know Temple and have her be used to you?

Sy Montgomery: We first spoke on the phone when she returned a phone call of mine. And when she first called me up, I was alone in the house and I was playing one of my favorite CDs which is the calls of frogs and toads. And I was playing it really loud. So, the phone rings and I pick it up. I have no idea that it’s Temple Grandin calling me. I thought it might be one of my friends. And in the background, really loud, they’re hearing these incredible croaking and creaking and singing frog sounds. And so, without knowing who it was I said, “Oh, hold on, I’ve got to turn down the frogs and toads.” So, more croaking and more creaking and more sounds, and then finally I say, “Hi. Who am I talking to?” She said, “It’s Temple Grandin.” Well, right then, I think, we became friends. Because a lot of people would be put off by that. Be she thought it really rocked.

Meghan Kimball: How did Temple inspire you?

Sy Montgomery: Temple really inspired me because she took on a job that many animal lovers would not want to touch with a ten foot pole. I care about farm animals, to the point that I quit eating meat almost 30 years ago. But I don’t have the talent or the mental tenacity to do what she has done and face their fear and pain and try and make their lives more comfortable and less scary. So, she’s deeply inspired me in that way. She’s also inspired me to further value the importance and the gifts of other minds. I think I automatically seek out people with different minds now, even more than I have in the past, because I know that we need all kinds of minds to solve the problems in this world.

One of the reasons Temple Grandin is able to make animals’ lives better is because she sees the world in the same say they do. She thinks in pictures. Fourth grader Tristan Love wanted to know if Sy Montgomery was able to think in the same way.

Tristan Love: Did Temple Grandin give you a picture in your mind when you were talking to her?

Sy Montgomery: When you’re talking to somebody who thinks in pictures, can you get on their wavelength? ... I think in words a lot. Being a writer, I often think in words. But when I’m around animals, I change the way I think. And I think, Tristan, there were times when talking with Temple that I was thinking in pictures along with her. That we were kind of in sync.

About The Book

When Temple Grandin was born, her parents knew that she was different. As a baby, she was silent and unresponsive; as a toddler, she threw violent temper tantrums but never spoke a word. It wasn’t until years later that she was diagnosed with autism, a brain disorder that makes communication difficult. Temple’s father wanted to put her in a mental institution. But her mother believed in her, so Temple went to school instead.

Today, Dr. Temple Grandin is a brilliant scientist and professor of animal science at Colorado State University. Her world-changing career has revolutionized the livestock industry—each year, half the cattle in the United States are handled in cruelty-free facilities she has designed. She is also a passionate advocate for autism, using her experience to prove that people with this disorder can have great lives.

To achieve this unprecedented success, Temple used one of the strengths of autism: she thinks visually, the same way most animals do. Because she thinks in pictures, she can see the world as a cow, or a dog, or a pig might see it. And so she knows that animals raised for food deserve good lives and should be treated with respect. Now she gives them a voice.

Temple has earned respect for herself as well. However, as we learn from Sy Montgomery's biography, things weren’t always so easy for Temple.

Next on Dorothy’s List

Join us during Vermont Edition Monday, April 7 at noon and 7 p.m. when we feature Vermont author Rebecca Rupp's After Eli. Dorothy's List is sponsored by the VPR Journalism Fund.