For my continuing series with solutionaries and change makers, I recently interviewed my friend Marc Bekoff, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Marc has published more than 1000 popular essays, scientific articles, and book chapters, and 30 books, and he has edited three encyclopedias. His forthcoming book, with Jessica Pierce, focuses on how animals have a right to a good life, free from human harm.
Even with all his personal accomplishments, Marc is one of the humblest and most genuine people I’ve ever met. As always, it was a joy to talk with him. Below is a condensed version of my conversation with Marc.
HF: You’ve written an unbelievable number of books and articles about the cognitive and emotional lives of animals. What message do you think is most important to drill down for people?
MB: One message I really try to get out there is that when people care for nonhuman animals (animals), they are caring for themselves. Not necessarily in an egocentric kind of way. Working for nonhumans is working for humans – it creates an umbrella of compassion and empathy, something I wrote about in Minding Animals. The motivation, in the end, is to relieve pain and suffering – all pain and suffering.
The other is to bring home how the physical and psychological well-being of wild animals and non-domesticated animals relates to the dog or cat with whom people choose to live. I often ask: Why do you get upset when a dog or cat is treated in a certain way but ignore or dismiss when another animal – say a cow or pig – is treated in a disrespectful and harmful way?
What I really like is a real-world view toward a peaceful coexistence among nonhumans and humans. It’s not going to be a one-sided affair – we need to take care of humans and other animals. I think that’s got to be the future. That’s why I’m so attracted to compassionate conservation. Compassionate conservation focuses on nonhuman and human stakeholders.
HF: You helped launch the Compassionate Conservation movement, and this concept is featured in your 2013 book Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation. Tell me how this idea began to gel and evolve into a global movement.
MB: Well, compassionate conservation focuses on the well-being of individual animals. Its mantra bumper sticker is “First do no harm.”
Actually, it’s interesting to trace the history of compassionate conservation. In the 1990s, I wrote about this idea – what Dale Jamieson and I then called “reflective ethology” – highlighting the importance of studying animal behavior in non-invasive ways and using the data in ways that would be directly applied to improving their well-being.
These ideas were around for a while, and, in 2010, the first meeting on Compassionate Conservation was held at the University of Oxford. Then there were a few workshops and a gathering at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, where there is a Centre for Compassionate Conservation headed by Dr. Daniel Ramp. It’s the only one in the world. And now there is an upcoming meeting in July in Vancouver on Compassionate Conservation that has also generated worldwide interest.
Interest in compassionate conservation steadily grows. It has gained a lot of traction very fast. There’s so many people who are jumping on board – veterinarians, conservationists, researchers, policymakers, people from all over the world who are looking for a stepping-stone.
Compassionate conservation forces the discussion that the lives of individuals count. It calls into question the idea of trading off the lives of animals of one species for animals of the same species or another species. It calls into question, for example, trading off the life of one wolf so another four may live, or killing barred owls to save spotted owls.
It’s just not okay to kill otherwise healthy animals to save otherwise healthy animals.
HF: You are one of a few – but seemingly growing number – of scientists who also identify as an advocate. What do you think is responsible for this sea change, and do you think it is important?
MB: I think it’s enormously important and probably motivated by a number of things.
Young scientists have more access to information about sentience and the harms associated with certain types of research. Maybe they’re more empathic. People also realize the old paradigm – including the use of animals to model human disease – just doesn’t work. “Good welfare” simply cannot be “good enough,” and this is one of the major messages in the book Jessica Pierce and I are writing. We argue that we need to develop and implement what we call “the science of animal well-being” in which the life of every individual matters.
Still, there are numerous egregious examples of research in laboratories and in the field. I don’t like to fool myself into thinking things are peachy, but they are changing and it’s wonderful that people – including young researchers – realize that being compassionate or critical of the old paradigm isn’t just being sentimental. And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with being sentimental. Many people just don’t want to subscribe or contribute to the old killing paradigms of conservation biology and other areas of research in which nonhuman animals are at the mercy of humans.
HF: Tell me about how you first became interested in the lives of (nonhuman) animals.
MB: Really, it started when I was three or four years old. I always asked my parents what animals were thinking or feeling. When I came up with the phrase “minding animals,” my parents reminded me that I was always “minding animals.”
And, that inclination has persisted throughout my life. And I had a very compassionate mother. Minding animals is what I always wanted to do.
To avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War, I initially enrolled in a PhD/MD program at Cornell University Medical College. But because it involved vivisection I left this program to work with Michael Fox at Washington University in St. Louis. He was one of the few people who was watching animals rather than doing invasive experiments. He basically accepted me over the phone after I told him I’d had it with the practice of killing animals to learn about them. I knew there had to be another way to do research and respect animals.
HF: Did you always have an affinity for nonviolence?
MB: I think that’s really where a lot of my interest in animals came from – the pacifistic and empathic environment in which I grew up. It wasn’t like my folks sat around complaining about wars and violence. But we lived in a general atmosphere of nonviolence. And my grandparents all came from an environment in which they faced political persecution. They were Jewish immigrants from Russia who came to the United States in the early 1900s.
I remember being told over and over again that you weren’t supposed to harm people – I just extended it to animals. And nobody in my family ever said, “You’re working so hard for nonhuman animals, what about human animals?”
HF: Were you encouraged to express dissent when you were younger?
MB: Yes. My father was a man who always questioned a lot of things. He was really smart and inquisitive – he was a Mensa member. He asked difficult questions and appreciated solid answers. He grew up in Brooklyn, got into City College when he was 15 or 16 years old, but ultimately had to quit to support his family. I think that lingered in him – and he just about always supported me for what I wanted to do. And, he was the most optimistic person I’ve ever known, even in the darkest of times. That’s where I got my own positive view so that I could forever keep my dreams alive.
When I talked with my family – particularly my paternal grandfather – about political dissension or anything that was counter-culture, I was very much supported. They didn’t necessarily want me to protest the war or the draft, because they didn’t want me to get arrested. But they didn’t try to stop me.
I think the important thing was that I wasn’t thwarted. I wasn’t always actively supported, and early in life I was told that I was responsible for the consequences of my behavior – the “good” and the “bad.”
HF: When you look to the future, what do you think the world will look like – for humans and other animals?
MB: We’re going to have losses. There’s no doubt about that. But we’re also going to make gains because of all of the wonderful people worldwide who really care about all animals and their homes.
And, I’m hoping in the future there will be more people who truly and deeply assess what they are doing and realize we can’t continue to live the way we are, exploiting other species and their homes, and running amok over other humans. We need to stop marginalizing, exploiting, and harming and killing vulnerable beings. And, we need to stop it right now!
We need to figure out how to factor people into the work we do on behalf of nonhumans. We need to realize working for nonhumans is working for humans – that there is a mutual relationship and it’s a win-win for all.
HF: Despite having a very realistic view, you are also a very optimistic person. How do you stay hopeful and optimistic about the future?
MB: I think there are a number of ways.
I really trace it back to my dad and what people call “immigrant psychology.” I watched my dad and others work their ways up from nothing, facing difficult challenges and always being positive.
My dad was an unfailing optimist – through really hard times, quitting school, supporting my mom when she was really sick for a decade – never flinching.
I grew up in a house in which I was told there was nothing I couldn’t do.
Meeting people who do amazing things all over the world helps. Meeting people working against dissection in Iran or saving moon bears in China is a lot different than meeting people working on similar issues in Boulder or Berkeley. There are many people who truly put their lives on the line and they are wonderful models for all of us.
Negativity and pessimism are really time and energy bandits. They just rip everything away from you.
I don’t fool myself into thinking everything is peachy. And, I don’t want to spend time thinking about what doesn’t work unless it helps me figure out what does work.
We’re not going back to the world we had – we won’t recover certain species nor nonhuman lives that were lost just because they were seen as mere objects for human exploitation. But we can change things. And that’s why I work so much with kids – especially on the idea of rewilding our hearts and rewilding education, topics about which I write in a recent book.
There are plenty of reasons for hope – and kids are an especially great source of hope and for keeping our dreams alive. In Rewilding our Hearts I offer what I call the 8 p’s of rewilding and I try to incorporate them into my own life and show others – especially youngsters – how to incorporate them into theirs. They include being proactive, positive, persistent, patient, peaceful, practical, powerful and passionate. I recently added being playful and present. It’s essential to take care of yourself so you don’t suffer from secondary trauma and burnout. You can’t run on empty and taking care of yourself means you can continue to do more and more in the future. I have my own ways of “walking away from my brain” from time to time so I can refuel.
There still is a lot of work to be done but there is no doubt in my mind and heart that we can make the world a much better place – a more compassionate home — for nonhumans and humans. It isn’t going to be easy but that’s just the way it is. Every one who can do something positive must do what they can do. We need to be activists, not slacktivists. We all must walk the talk and not expect others to do what we can and should do. I remain optimistic because of all the wonderful people who are out there working for all animals and their homes. We must remember that compassion begets compassion and violence begets violence. I love the saying, “The world becomes what you teach,” espoused by the Institute for Humane Education.”
Thank you Hope for being interested in what I do and for allowing me to speak my heart.