Why would being autistic help someone work with animals?
Autistic people can think the way that animals think. Autism is a way station on the road that links humans to other animals. I can tell people why animals do the things they do. I am against anthropomorphising animals, but you have to think: if I was a cow, how would I react? I find that really easy to figure out. I am paid to see all the stuff that normal people cannot see.
What sort of stuff is that?
In order to understand animals, you need to get away from language. Animals don't think in language. As an autistic person, I don't think in language either. I'm a visual thinker. My mind works like Google for images. That has to be closer to how an animal's mind works--there is no other way that animals could possibly think. The problem with people is that they are too cerebral. An autistic person's brain works more like a child's brain, or an animal's. They don't have complex emotions such as shame or guilt.
Isn't that anthropomorphism?
I'm a hard-brained scientist first and foremost. Not everything about an animal is like an autistic person. But the big similarity is that both of them can think without language.
So have you used your autism in a "hardbrained" way in your career?
Yes. When I was a teenager I had terrible anxiety attacks. It felt like constant stage fright. Then I went out to my aunt's ranch and I noticed that when the cattle went into a restraining device called a squeeze chute, they relaxed. So I got into a squeeze chute, and it helped me calm down too. Many people with autism and Asperger's syndrome find pressure calming. This got me interested in cattle--I went to feed yards to see how the squeeze chutes worked, but I didn't like the way many of the places treated the cattle. They were way too rough, and that bothered me. This led me to start designing cattle-handling equipment.
You love animals, but your job involves slaughtering them ...
When I designed my first cattle-handling system for a meat-packing plant, I looked out over the cattle yard and got to thinking about what I had done. I started to cry. I thought that these cattle wouldn't be here if we hadn't raised them. But since we have brought them into existence, we owe them a decent life.
What about animal rights?
I'm not interested in talking about the philosophy of animal rights. An animal doesn't understand what rights are. As far as I'm concerned, if someone beats a donkey, it hurts the donkey. I don't really care why they did it. It still hurts the donkey whether you hit it because you're sadistic or because it wouldn't walk. Don't beat the donkey. It's that simple.
Is that why you can bear working at the blood-and-guts end of animal welfare?
I'm not into theory. I get satisfaction out of concrete accomplishments. Sometimes activists get legislation passed, but it doesn't make change happen. Half the plants in the US are using equipment I designed that makes the welfare of cattle better. The auditing system I designed assesses five things: the percentage of animals stunned on first attempt, the percentage insensible before being hoisted, the percentage vocalising, the percentage that fall down and the percentage moved with an electric prod. Each one is scored simple yes or no. It is used around the world. I get really turned on by that.
Can you work with big corporations?
Absolutely. There is an anti-corporation movement at the moment that thinks big is always bad. But corporations can bring about huge change. I'm a big believer in the power of the purse. For 25 years I thought about humane slaughter: if I could only design the perfect system, everything would be OK. But I found that a quarter of my clients still mistreated animals in the facilities I designed. I got so frustrated. But I saw more improvement in 1999, when I started working with McDonald's, than in my whole career.
Yes. I was employed to audit all the plants they were buying meat from. I used a critical-control-point approach, which measures a few really key things, such as whether animals moo or whether electric prods are used. I know about prods--I've used one on myself. There are many reasons why animals cry out, but instead of trying to measure all the reasons, you want to measure the important outcomes that tell you about animal distress.
What did companies do before your system?
Inspectors measured a huge number of things around the plant without actually making a difference to animal welfare. I've found that there are some really simple ways to improve how animals move through the plant. Most slaughterhouses can greatly improve welfare by installing non-slip flooring and making simple changes such as removing distractions that cause the animals to baulk, or installing shields to prevent animals seeing any people ahead of them. So cows and bulls can be out on the pasture, then go into a well-run slaughterhouse, and it is no more stressful than being restrained for veterinary treatment. Being autistic makes these changes really easy to figure out.
What do other scientists make of your ideas about animals and autistic minds?
The trouble is that these are two parallel disciplines, but the people who study autism and the people who study animal behaviour are different individuals.
There is evidence that new abilities emerge when language skills are switched off. The best work comes from Bruce Miller, a neurology professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who showed that when frontal-temporal lobe dementia destroys the language part of the brain, art and music talents come out. But most people don't make the connection between animals and autism.
What about the future?
The more we learn about the brain, the more we find there is no black and white divide between us and animals. It is a continuum. But as you go down the phylogenetic scale, there is a point where pain perception ceases. I'm not sure where that point is. I think also we're going to look back on the way we behaved towards animals and realise we treated them really badly.
What's the goal of your work?
If the aeroplane I'm on goes down, I hope that my knowledge will survive, because I think some of my ideas are valuable to improve life for animals and also for people with autism.