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ELKO — As a leading animal welfare expert, Temple Grandin has helped revolutionize the way cattle are understood and treated in the livestock industry.

Grandin, who is also well known for raising autism awareness, was selected as the keynote speaker for the 2014 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, in large part because of the lasting contributions she’s made in ranching and livestock plants.

Grandin-designed livestock facilities, which can be found worldwide, are intended to reduce stress for cattle.

“We have wanted to have Temple speak at the Gathering for several years, but the stars and our schedules never aligned. This year they did, and we’re really excited to have her,” said Charlie Seemann, Western Folklife Center executive director. “It’s not only that she’s known for animal welfare. What she’s done is develop a completely new perspective on handling animals and cattle in particular.”

The Gathering, which is about ranching and the cowboy life as much as it is about poetry, will recognize and hear from a person this year who was instrumental in improving the design of livestock butcher plants.

“Being a person with mild autism, she’s able to better sense things that animals do,” Seemann said.

Grandin said livestock at one time were viewed as only a commodity and not a living thing. That perception has shifted in the last several decades.

There’s a difference between shipping cattle and grain, she said in a phone interview with the Free Press.

“But the handling of cattle has got a whole lot better,” she added.

In a video clip available online, Grandin reports from a slaughterhouse in Colorado. She takes viewers through the facility to show how cattle are killed in a way that ensures the process is done humanely.

Grandin made the video to point out and recognize good practices that aren’t often seen by the public at large, particularly in video surreptitiously filmed by other animal rights activists who vilify the entire operation.

Grandin won’t only be talking about animals, she said.

The theme of this year’s Gathering is “Expressing the Rural West — Into the Future!” Young people often are stuck with labels that highlight their weaknesses. Grandin said the focus needs to shift to help youth develop and bolster their strengths.

“I see a lot of kids that get labeled — that could be dyslexic, ADHD, any number of things, but it’s really important that we focus on things they’re good at. … Too much attention is given to deficits,” she said.

Autism has become nearly synonymous with “the spectrum,” which represents a span of abilities for people with autism. But in many ways, she said, a focus on the spectrum broadly lumps together people who need help in specific areas.

“It’s a huge spectrum. You’ve got geeky, awkward people on one end who are brilliant mathematicians making lots of money in Silicon Valley and you’ve got people on the other end who are really struggling,” she said.

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As a high school student, Grandin was bullied, she said. She found it difficult to make friends and fit in. So she allowed herself to gravitate toward activities she loved — horseback riding and electronics — and made friends with people who shared common hobbies.

Grandin said she will also discuss the different ways in which people learn. She considers herself more visually minded.

Grandin has never been to the Gathering nor Elko, but she will have an opportunity to listen to performers while she’s here.

“I’ll be there the entire day, and I’ll definitely listen to some of them,” she said.

Grandin is an animal science professor at Colorado State University. She earned a Ph.D. in animal science from the University of Illinois in 1989.

Grandin is the author of multiple best-selling books, and has delivered speeches in venues across the country. She was also the subject of a self-titled HBO movie that won a Golden Globe for actress Claire Daines in 2011.

The keynote speech will be given 9:45 a.m. - 11 a.m. Thursday at the Elko High School gym. The address will be followed by a 30-minute autograph session.

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