As a visual thinker, Dr. Temple Grandin, can’t fathom not living and breathing what started as a calling and evolved to become a career with an indelible impact on the industry that has taken her and many others on an unprecedented journey. At 66 years of age, when the topic turns to how she sees her legacy being carried on and specifically retirement, she is at peace with the former, but struggles to visualize the latter. “I can’t imagine doing that; I don’t know what I would do – I’d be so bored,” she says dismissively.

Click here for profiles of animal welfare champions who are carrying on Temple Grandin's work.

A longtime professor of Animal Science at Colorado State Univ. and owner of Grandin Livestock Handling Systems, Grandin has had a profound impact on the careers and lives of hundreds of students who have sat in her classroom. She’s taught hundreds more outside the classroom, where workers in hard hats apply her knowledge in feedlots, holding pens and unloading areas at slaughtering plants around the world. Especially in the past 15 years, there has been a monumental shift in how animal handlers approach their jobs and how mega food companies have made humane animal treatment not only a priority, but a corporate mandate. Most agree there’s never been an agent of change that has more positively affected the treatment of food animals than Grandin. And no single person will ever match her expertise or passionate dedication. Along the way, she has empowered and inspired a flock of followers who are committed to living the legacy Grandin is leaving. And part of that unspoken covenant with her students includes teaching future generations.

“What I’ve always tried to do with the people I’ve worked with is combine the academic with what is practical,” she says, and applying research to an application in the field. These efforts have hardly been wasted as the throngs of academic disciples of Grandin’s stretch far and wide across many industry segments. They anxiously espouse Grandin’s philosophy and proudly reference how she has influenced their careers. Others have crossed paths with her in less-formal settings, where the musk of livestock wafts in the air and the “classroom” is dusty and held on non-slip flooring.

She is proud that so many now share her passion and are out spreading her logical approach as if it were gospel. Mark Deesing, Jennifer Woods, Kurt Vogel and Lily Edwards-Callaway are just a few of the champions of animal welfare who are carrying on Grandin’s life’s work. She feels confident the progress she’s made will maintain the momentum she established long after she is gone. Another beneficiary is Erika Voogd, who started her career as one of the original McDonald’s auditors and eventually founded Voogd Consulting Inc. in West Chicago, Ill., a consulting company specializing in animal handling and regulatory compliance for meat companies. Grandin, a successful entrepreneur herself, helped Voogd get her business started.

“I really want all of these people to do really well,” she says, adding that the challenge in continuing moving the ball forward is and always has been “figuring out practical ways to do stuff.”

As the importance of livestock handling has become a bigger priority for more companies, so, too, did the role of the equipment used to stun the animals. “When the audits first started, one of the biggest problems with stunners was that people never fixed them,” she says.

To address that, stunning equipment manufacturers developed test equipment and worked with processors to create maintenance programs. She says her work to help develop the original animal-handling guidelines in the late 90s forced the hands of plant operators to better maintain stunners and ensured suppliers would develop reliable equipment that did the job.

“If your stunning score was below 95 percent, you failed the McDonald’s audit,” she says. “You better believe that made them fix their equipment. I saw more change in 1999, than I’d seen in my 25 year career prior to that.”

She rattles off some of the requirements of the AMI Animal Welfare Guidelines as if she’d recited them a thousand times before…because she has: “Ninety-five percent on stunning, 3 percent on vocalization, 1 percent on falling – and if they didn’t make the numbers, they would fail the audit,” she says of the audits, which were adopted by fast-food giants such as McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s.

“When I first started in the 70s, I thought I could fix the world with equipment,” she says. “If I just had the right equipment, everything would work fine.” Then she learned the vital role of training employees, and then training the managers.

Part of facilitating progress is allowing the people directly responsible for animal welfare within the plants to continue to be visible and always out looking for new ideas and inspiration. Too often these people get “absorbed by the Borg,” she says, using a Star Trek reference to make a point. Once they are hired by one of the big processors, they frequently are never heard from again, outside their corporate walls. But progressive companies are committed to not allowing that to occur.

Fortunately, the pipeline of students interested in animal welfare is staying full, Grandin says. And as some of her former students would attest, Grandin has some advice for those pursuing a career like hers, teaching animal science. One mantra she espouses is, “You don’t want to be on the grant treadmill where you’re judged on how much money you can bring in by working on a bunch of stupid projects you don’t want to do.”

Meanwhile, outside the classroom, Grandin hasn’t slowed down much and logs more airline miles than a seasoned salesman as she consults at plants all over the globe and speaks at industry events (including the annual AMI Animal Handling and Care Conference), as well as speaking at scores of Autism-awareness events each year.

“I plan to continue doing AMI activities; I plan to keep teaching – teaching I wouldn’t give up; I’d have to be dead to do that.” She pauses, seemingly visualizing what she just said. “I hope the way my life ends is to one day just drop dead.” Starting up a new career somewhere else isn’t exactly appealing either, she says. “I can’t imagine doing that,” she says with the loud drone of an airport gate agent announcement in the background.