Mike Schwager, Editor-in-Chief of Enrichment.com, recently interviewed Marc Bekoff, Professor Emeritus of Biology at The University of Colorado, and Co-Founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Mr. Bekoff is author of The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy - and Why They Matter (New World Library) [See Enrichment Recommends in left column].
MS – I resonate so deeply with this subject because in my own small way I’ve been involved here locally in working to change the treatment of animals at the Animal Shelter in Ft. Lauderdale.
MB – Oh really?
MS - When did you begin to feel a sensibility and sensitivity towards animals?
MB - My folks told me that when I was really young – three, four years old – I’d always be asking them what animals were feeling and what they were thinking. And I wrote a book called Minding Animals. That’s what I used to do. I used to mind them – I would mind them and care for them. Another meaning of “minding” applied – that is, I attributed mind to them. I never doubted it. It’s funny how people are just born with certain proclivities and feelings. I never doubted mine. That’s how I came to it.
MS – As I’ve been conducting a campaign here in Ft. Lauderdale to encourage more humaneness towards animals here at the local shelter (www.CompassionateAnimalFriendsofBroward.org), my research led me to quotes on the treatment of animals by great humanitarians such as Albert Schweitzer and Gandhi. The one quote by Gandhi that stayed with me is, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
MB – One of my favorite quotes.
MS – How much progress as a culture and society here in the West do you think we’ve made towards the treatment of animals? Or do you think we’re way behind?
MB – I think we’re way behind other nations, but we are making progress…slowly, steadily – at the speed of a glacier. But we are making progress and I think it’s important to keep that in mind. People who want something that flies through are going to be very frustrated. However, most medical schools now have given up their dog labs, where they use dogs in physiology. A lot of veterinary schools have done the same. There has been a lot of movement in cleaning up labs, though there are still thousands of violations every year.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in California has banned foie gras. He also just signed some legislation concerning downer cows – cows that never make it to the slaughter house. And I think that’s progress.
[Editor’s note: Governor Schwarzenegger recently signed a measure into law that significantly strengthens the California Downed Animal Protection Act. The Humane Society of the United States praised Gov. Schwarzenegger for signing the legislation, which addresses the cruel treatment of downed cows documented by an undercover HSUS investigation at the Hallmark/Westland plant in Chino, Calif.
A.B. 2098, introduced by Assemblymember Paul Krekorian (D-43rd), prohibits slaughterhouses, stockyards, auctions or dealers from buying, selling or receiving downed animals and also prohibits slaughterhouses from butchering or processing any downed animals].
Some Kentucky Fried Chicken places in Canada are serving soy chicken substitutes. To be honest with you, I wish we’d never have to do this, but we do. I think we’re making progress. I’m a hopeful being.
MS – In Genesis, in the Old Testament, and other parts of the Bible, there seem to be references where God gives man the right to own and control the lives of animals, including the justification to slaughter them in order to sustain humanity. Do you think that kind of justification creates excessive cruelty in the treatment of animals?
MB – Yes. First of all I always start out by saying that animals often bring out the love in us, but a lot of the confusion. A lot of people say they love animals but do horrible things towards them. I always say, I’m glad they don’t love me. And I think it does create confusion because a lot of people do live according to certain religious codes. But I think it’s a misinterpretation.
I don’t think it says anywhere that animals have been created for us to use and/or abuse. I’m not a religious scholar but I’ve worked a lot with theologians and we often discuss that notion of dominion. It means being a guardian, that humans have dominion over animals. People often confuse “dominion” with “domination.”
Of course we’re their guardians. With our big brains and our being all over the place, we can basically do anything we want. We really can. So I think we just have to fess up to the fact that the fate of animals rests in our hands. And in our hearts.
MS – So you feel the word “dominion” can be interpreted to mean something more like “stewardship.”
MB – Exactly. Right. And a lot of religious scholars with whom I’ve interacted definitely agree to that. That we’re guardians. We’re stewards. I think it would just counter so much of human goodness if in fact it was meant that we would be dominating other animals in an instrumental way – that they only have value in terms of what they do for us. I don’t see that written anywhere in any religious doctrines I know. I think people are confused about that.
MS – You know, Marc, it’s interesting. I moved to Ft. Lauderdale seven years ago. I live on a lake where there are lots of ducks. Moving here from Manhattan, where my life was mentally busier – to live on a lake where I have a natural opportunity to quiet the mind – and then to encounter the wildlife on the lake, such as ducks and amphibians – it it put me in touch with the simplicity of beingness – my beingness and their beingness. There was a duck who had been partially mauled by a kid in this community. She really struggled hard to survive. You can still see some of her wounds. And I gave her a name. I called her Hazel. And I started to call her by that name, and would feed her regularly. Eventually she had babies and I would feed them as well. They’re now grown.
Do you know where Hazel sleeps every night? Right outside my patio. And I came to the realization, in a deeper way, that animals have this emotional intelligence and they respond to kindness. Including wildlife. They respond to kindness. Hazel has actually become a friend as have her offspring. Is that the kind of insight or realization about animals, including wildlife, that we need to have more of?
MB – I think it is. I just finished a book called Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals – in which we argue that there’s a strong stream of cooperation and kindness among animals, within and between species. That’s not to say that animals don’t compete with one another, but I’m tired of the old paradigm, red in tooth and claw. The old Darwin survival of the fittest. It doesn’t really describe much of what happens in animals at all. And so sure animals can fight and compete. But they also can be very nice to one another, including mice, including rats, including fish.
And what’s exciting for me as a biologist, the more I study and the more I learn, the more I see this kind of cooperation – goodness if you will – among animals.
MS – Can you give me an example of interspecies kindness?
MB – There’s a whole lot. There’s one really nice story that came from the Sunami. The hippo and the tortoise. A one year-old hippo got stranded off the coast of Kenya and they brought him to a wildlife sanctuary where there was a hundred year-old tortoise. They became the best of friends. They hang out with one another. The hippo is lost in the absence of the tortoise.
There’s a wonderful recent story of a blind dog being led around by a cat who had vision. They lived with one another. When the dog became blind, the cat noticed the difference in his behavior. She would lead him around by taking him by the collar or nudging him.
There are a lot of these sorts of examples. So once again, I always say the plural of anecdote is data. The more stories we collect the more data we have. And science is also of course supporting these conclusions about the emotional and spiritual life of animals.
MS – Did I hear you say earlier that in places like factory farms things are improving?
MB – "Improving" in the sense that some people are trying to pass legislation to take better care of animals who get injured on the way to the slaughterhouse. Some people think it’s getting better but it depends on what you mean by getting better. It’s so bad that almost any improvement would be better.
MS – You know I recently became a vegetarian, Marc. It took a long time. And you know what did it for me? When I saw the tv news story about downer cows which you spoke of earlier. Sick cows being lifted on the fork lift and then taken to the slaughter. When I saw that, Marc, that was it. That did it for me.
Do you advocate vegetarianism?
MB – I advocate veganism. But I would like to see people just cutting back slowly. I always tell people you should never eat anything from a factory farm. Torture houses. And if you go to a restaurant and they can’t tell you the source of the food, then take a vegetarian alternative.
MS – I was at a cocktail party the other night, Marc, and I was speaking to a retired veterinarian. A gentleman in his late eighties. And he told me that he used to be an inspector at the USDA. And then he said to me, “You know pigs are the most intelligent creatures you would ever imagine; and they have real feelings.” So I said to him, “Knowing that how could you have done the work that you did?” And he replied, “They’re just food animals.” And I thought, the contradiction between the first statement and the second statement was so unimaginably absurd.
Is part of the problem with respect to the cruelty towards animals that we don’t want to grasp the fact that animals have feelings?
MB – Right. It’s easy for people to deny it. But I think people have this moral schizophrenia. On the one hand people will say pigs are smart, intelligent and emotional, but then…they’re just food animals. I think it’s the way people negotiate the world. They distance themselves from animals. They deny the very things that draw them to the animals. I don’t understand it.
MS – Do you think it’s the survival mind? We allow our blindspot to occur, even with some understanding, because we think it’s about our own survival?
MB – Yes I think so. I think it’s convenience too. Of course people say to me, “How can you travel around the world and be a vegetarian or a vegan. It must be hard.” But it’s not hard. Anywhere in the world you can get pasta and salad and bread and fruit. Seriously. For me it’s really easy.
MS – By the way, Marc, on Enrichment.com, we’ll be putting up vegetarian recipes. We have one there now for vegetarian chili.
MB – That’s great.
MS - And we don’t want to force people into these decisions, do we? Doesn’t it have to come from heart…the mind too intellectually, but isn’t the heart the place we can own these decisions?
MB – Absolutely. The heart is the seat of compassion. We can intellectualize this stuff until the cows come home, or the tofu comes home. But it’s the heart. You just have to get out of this kind of mentally with everything. Just ask people how they feel.
MS – Right. You know what concerns me Marc? As I look at society today, and I know there are exceptions to what I’m about to say, I see so much more fragmentation and disconnection among humans. And therefore animals seem to be in a lot of trouble, given the fact that we have so much disconnection of the heart and communication between humans.
MB – Yes.
MS – What about the fate of the animals?
MB – Yes. Well a lot of people say, “How can you care so much about animals? What about humans?” But personally I work with prisoners. I work with senior citizens. And I’ve worked with kids. And caring more about animals doesn’t mean caring less about humans. I always say that. But I think you hit something really, really on the head – and that is, we’re so disconnected from ourselves, how can we possibly connect with animals?
MS – And yet paradoxically, Marc, do you think that may be in part the way out? As we come to realize that animals have a contribution to give to us, to connect with our own hearts simply because of their deep-rooted connection to nature and to the source of Being?
MB – Yes. I think animals draw us back to nature. There’s no doubt about it. Is that what you mean?
MS – Yes. For example, here at a nursing home there is a program where animals are brought to the elderly. You see these stories around. Elderly, often depressed people holding a cat purring in their laps, or a little puppy. And it’s a source of great comfort and joy that most humans can’t give them.
MB – Right. Those sorts of programs exist all over the world.
MS – Right.
MB – I work out here in one, and I work in China. Yes. Animals are great in bringing out senior citizens, young kids. They’ve been used with autistic kids as well. It’s very important.
MS – I was reading your talking about problems with zoos. Especially with respect to elephants. Is that a major problem, elephants at zoos?
MB – Elephants at zoos is a major problem. That’s why at least five or six zoos in America are phasing out their elephant exhibit. You just can’t meet the social and physical needs of these animals.
MS – So you think there’s more consciousness emerging with respect to that problem?
MB – Well I think so. I mean what I see among a lot of people when I travel, is there’s this raising of consciousness. People are beginning to ask the more difficult questions. “Why is that animal in that zoo?” You know kids ask these questions all the time. Concerning elephants and predators at zoos, there’s more consciousness – that these animals should not be there.
MS – And the elephant is an extraordinary creature, isn’t it?
MB – Yes.
MS – I was reading that little story in your book about Suma, the elephant that had lost its partner. And how the playing of music by Mozart comforted it.
MB – Suma lost her mate, her really good friend. And was really distressed. And so they started playing Mozart and Suma became relaxed. And her tension went away.
MS – Wow.
MB – It shouldn’t surprise us. We find music comforting. Why shouldn’t animals?
MS – Exactly. One of the terrific things about your book is that you’ve investigated the emotional lives of animals scientifically so that for those who need the validation, it’s there. Do you think that that intellectual scientific corroboration will help in acknowledging the sanctity of animal life?
MB – I do. I think that as we move on people will begin to realize that other animals are not only different from us, but are very very similar. And that they have a right to live. That there is a sanctity to their lives as we hold for our lives. We’re just granting them what they deserve. Some people say, you’re making special cases around the lives of animals. Well…no I’m not. I think you deserve to live. I think I deserve to live. I think animals deserve to live; and I don’t think animals should be tortured for our benefit.
MS – On the Enrichment.com site, Marc, in the upper right hand column, there’s a section called “Documents.” We simply give people some of humanity’s great documents, like The Declaration of Independence and The Declaration of Universal Human Rights. And we have The Universal Declaration of Animal Rights there too.
MB – Oh really?
MS – Because as you’ve just said, animals have an innate right to be, just as humans.
MB – We call that intrinsic or inherent value. You don’t even have to use the word “right” – but you should be allowed to live because you’re valuable as a being. You’re not valuable because you can do something for me. You can fix my house, drive my car or be a meal. You’re valuable because you’re alive.
MS – Is there anything we haven’t discussed Marc, that you’d like to bring up?
MB – The first thing that I always point out is that I’m working on this notion called The Compassion Footprint. People want to know, how can they make the world a better place? And the easiest way is to look at the choices we make, in terms of what we eat, what we wear, do we go to rodeos, circuses or zoos? I would say to people, you can make the world a more compassionate place by making more humane and ethical choices.
The second thing, because of what I do for a living, is that we’re always surprised when we discover the cognitive and emotional capacities of animals. What that means is that we’re always surprised to see how smart animals are, and how emotional they are.
MS – And we’re all connected.
MB – Yes. We’re One. I oftentimes laugh but I oftentimes go to that song, “I Am You, You Are Me, We Are One.” It’s true.
I write in my book, Minding Animals, and in this book I’m writing now, I talk about Unity and Oneness. I call it “The Tapestry of Unity.”
People think that’s so mystical. No, no, no. It’s really true. It really is.
MS - You’re working on that book now?
New World Library will publish it. It’s called The Animals’ Manifesto. And I have a book coming out next year called Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals.
MS – I look forward to reading those books, and we’ll be happy to report about them on Enrichment.com. Marc, you’re terrific. Thank you for your time and thank you for what you’re doing in the world.
MB – Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.