The Hearts and Minds of Animals: A Discussion with Dr. Marc Bekoff

Published: 22.05.2012
Updated: 30.07.2015

Forbes Magazine

Dr. Marc Bekoff enjoys the view with a stoic cormorant friend at the Everglades National Park, Florida, © Marc Bekoff

Marc Bekoff is a former professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He’s won various research awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship and has published numerous books and essays, including The Ten Trusts with Jane Goodall and The Emotional Lives of Animals. Two new works of Dr. Bekoff will appear in 2013, Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation and Rewilding our hearts.


Animal Rights in an Age of Climate Change

Michael Tobias:  Marc, not to be entirely rhetorical, but with every ecological system in utter flux, chaos, and unpredictable revolution, why should animal rights even rank as a priority for most people, recognizing that our species is, itself, under siege, economically beleaguered, hurting?

Marc Bekoff:  This is the sort of question that I’m often asked because some people think that if one cares passionately about nonhuman animals (hereafter animals) then they care less about human animals or think that humans are not as important as our animal kin. In my opinion, this simply is not so, as I point out in my book The Animal Manifesto. Many, some might argue most, people who work hard for animal protection and well-being also care very much about human well-being. While I work hard to protect animals of all stripes, shapes, and sizes, I prefer to say that I’m interested in animal protection rather than animal rights because the phrase “animal rights” turns so many people off mainly because they don’t understand what it means. It often serves as a conversation stopper, and then the door is closed for further useful dialogue. Nonetheless, I would like to see animals get legal and moral rights in the future and I’m thrilled there are a number of highly motivated and bright people working on their behalf. The phrase “Animal Rights in an Age of Climate Change” is really compelling because we see the same sort of denialism in both areas despite the fact that rigorous science has shown us that numerous animal species are in serious trouble and that climate change is real. I like to call our species Homo denialus. And, we’re in deep trouble if politicians and others continue to deny the havoc for which we’re responsible. We’re also letting down future generations that will follow in our wake.

Michael Tobias: And the notion of ecological reciprocity?

Marc Bekoff: I like to stress to people, many of whom don’t even realize it, that how we treat other animals has direct effects on how we feel about ourselves. I argue in many places that compassion begets compassion and that there is an ever-growing compassion umbrella that encompasses or embraces many different species including humans. So, when we’re nice to other animals and empathize compassionately with their physical and mental health we’re also spreading compassion to other people.

Marc Bekoff receives an eager greeting from an enthusiastic European gray wolf at a sanctuary outside of Budapest, Hungary, © Marc Bekoff

Michael Tobias: You’ve recently been a champion for the cause of compassionate conservation.

Marc Bekoff: The new field in which I’m a very active participant called “compassionate conservation” pays attention to animal and human well-being in many different cultures. I have a book coming out in 2013 from the University of Chicago Press called Ignoring Nature No More: The Case For Compassionate Conservation that shows clearly that being at war with other animals and nature simply has not and cannot work. In the end, we suffer the indignities to which we expose other animals. I’ve also been working on the notion of the compassion footprint and how simple it is to expand it each and every day.

The Book of Revelations
Michael Tobias:  In a career of zoosemiotics, interspecies observations, communications, and first-hand participation spanning many decades, what are a few of the greatest revelations you have personally experienced as a scientist, and an animal?

Marc Bekoff:  I’ve experienced many different revelations over the past four or so decades. Here are some, but not in order of importance. As a scientist I’ve learned that “good” people can do horrific things to other animals. While I don’t at all like much of what they do in invasive research, for example, they are passionate about their beliefs that what they are doing will help humans, and whether I like it or not, I and others must factor this in to our efforts to change them. I’ve also seen how people with different agendas can look at the same data set and come to radically different conclusions.

Michael Tobias: So few scientists ever speak of animal consciousness, inter-species empathy, deep ethology, the sentience that surrounds us….

Marc Bekoff: Absolutely. Given what we now know we can be sure that other animals are conscious and sentient beings. However, there are still some people who don’t agree and argue we need more data despite the fact that much research on animal consciousness, cognition, and emotions has been published in the most prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journals.  They continually up the ante to exclude other animals from the consciousness club. It’s so important for us to educate people about how we relentlessly harm other animals in a wide variety of venues each second of each and every day.

Relaxing in the sun with Bessie, a rescued dairy cow at Farm Sanctuary, Orland, California, © Marc Bekoff

Michael Tobias: Where have the myriad of interpretations of Darwin led many researchers down blind alleys in terms of outright denial of a rich history of ecological revelations?

Marc Bekoff: As an animal, the revelations I’ve experienced are far too numerous to list but among the most important is that when someone says “Oh, you’re acting like an animal” to insult me I say “Thanks for the compliment.” That’s because rapidly accumulating data are showing that both nonhuman and human animals are by nature compassionate, kind, and empathic and we’ve been radically mislead by misreadings of Charles Darwin’s ideas about the role of competition in the evolution of social behavior and by mass media for whom blood sells. In Jessica Pierce’s and my book, Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals (see also) we show that nature read in tooth and claw is a misrepresentation of what’s really going on “out there.” Indeed, there are more and more scientists who now see how we’ve been misled and also fewer skeptics about the nature of animal minds and consciousness.


I Am An Animal

Michael Tobias:  People forget, too frequently, that they, we, all of us are animals. As a leading scientist in the fast changing world of animal rights, animal legislation, animal research, what does it mean to you to be a mammal, a vertebrate, a primate, a member of the Genus Homo, in terms of our obligations, and special permits, if any, as members of planet Earth?

Marc Bekoff: I know that as a mammal I’m a member of a group of big-brained, big-footed, over-producing, over-consuming, invasive, and often arrogant and self-centered individuals. But I also know that there are many good human mammals all over the globe who are doing wonderful things for animals and their homes. As a human mammal we are obliged to provide the best life possible to all individuals of all species and also to protect their living rooms, their homes and habitats. I like to say that we are special and so, too, are other animals, but that as individuals of a dominant species who can do whatever we want whenever we want wherever we want - and don’t hesitate to do so - we have special obligations to animals and to Earth.  It bothers me a great deal when people say they love other animals and then harm them. I’m glad they don’t love me.

Michael Tobias: Tell me some of the ways in which these obligations can be met?

Marc Bekoff: I like to say that our universal moral imperative is to do no harm and to take responsibility for our actions. We are wounding the world at an unprecedented rate because we act myopically and selfishly, and this is not only harming other animals but also ourselves. For a book I’m writing called Rewilding Our Hearts, I show people how easy it is to connect with other animals and that accepting them for who they are is crucial. I also explain how data collected across different animal species and different human cultures show that we are much more cooperative, compassionate, and empathic than we previously thought or have been led to believe.

Playtime with Zeke, © Marc Bekoff

So What Has To Happen?
Michael Tobias: 
Where are the biggest gaps in animal protection, from your point of view, both in the U.S. and globally?

Marc Bekoff:  Nonhuman animals are amazing beings. Daily we’re learning more and more about their fascinating cognitive abilities, emotional capacities, and moral lives. We know that fish are conscious and sentient, rats, mice, and chickens display empathy and feel not only their own pain but also that of other individuals, and that New Caledonian crows outdo chimpanzees in their ability to make and use complex tools.

Michael Tobias: Key question: What are the most appalling omissions that you see in terms of the sweeping human abnegation of animals’ rights?

Marc Bekoff: Among the largest gaps is the failure to incorporate what we know about other animals into legislation that will protect them from reprehensible and wide-ranging abuse, whether in laboratories, circuses, zoos, or rodeos or on factory farms. Knowledge about nonhuman empathy, for example, has not been factored into the Federal Animal Welfare Act in the United States.

Michael Tobias: This enormous abyss between what we, as children, inherently understand about all of our animal friends; and as adults strive to marvel at - the beauty, mystery, dignity and sheer loveliness of animals - remains absent from almost every piece of focused legislation. This animal rights schizophrenia does not really bode all that well, in my opinion, for the future of life on earth. What we do to others is increasingly, fundamentally a question of reciprocity.

Marc Bekoff: Yes. There is an egregious oversight, one example after another of how legislation greatly lags behind “the science.” Furthermore, there is a rather widespread lack of enforcement of the pretty weak legislation that exists to protect other animals. Numerous laboratories routinely violate federal regulations and get away with it, and the many ways in which animals are horrifically mistreated in the food, clothing, and entertainment industries just blows my mind. It continues because people know they can get away with it. While this is slowly changing we need to be much more vigilant about animal abuse and punish the abusers.

Michael Tobias:  I was extremely pleased to hear your speech at the recent University of London School of Oriental and African Studies Biodiversity Conservation and Animal Rights and Religions conference. You injected very appreciative, insightful and upbeat science, optimism, even humor, into a realm more usually cast in a dark pall of end-of-days horror, and irrevocable Apocalypse. Is there, in fact, evidence for some light at the end of the tunnel, or tunnels?’

Marc Bekoff:  Thanks, Michael. I am by nature a dreamer and an optimist and believe in the inherent goodness of nonhuman animals and that we are basically cooperative and compassionate beings. (In your review of my book Minding Animals you called me Jain-like and I was thrilled to see this.) I see a lot of light at the end of a very long tunnel, if you will, because significant changes in how we treat other animals and wantonly redecorate their homes is going to take time, a lot of time. People who are working on these matters now - and likely those who work on them after I’m long gone - will not get gold stars on their foreheads because there’s going to be a lag between what we do and seeing positive and enduring effects that really make a difference across species.

Michael Tobias: But you feel a change is occurring?

Sharing a photo-op at the Bergin University of Canine Studies, Santa Rosa, California, © Marc Bekoff

Marc Bekoff:  Rest assured that we are indeed making positive differences even if we don’t see them now. I also travel a lot, like you, and meet incredibly passionate and committed people all over the world who are dedicated to making the lives of other animals much better than they are. So, there is light, it sometimes seems very dark, but there is that ever-present glow that keeps me and many others going. I like to say we must get rid of all negativity, focus on what works, keep the faith, be nice to everyone including our opponents, and never say never - ever. We also need to “pick our battles” and accept that some people will never change, and that’s the way it is.

Michael Tobias: But there are good people out there.

Marc Bekoff: Definitely. And many, many people who can and will change, and that’s where we need to focus. And, of course, we need to focus on children, ambassadors for the future. To this end I do a lot of work with Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots programs, mainly with kids, prisoners, and senior citizens. We always need to show kids that what we and what they are doing will work! We must always stress the importance of humane education and conservation for youngsters.

How Do You Get Up in the Morning?
Michael Tobias:  Knowing what you do about canids, penguins, birds, and nearly every other major animal group, and also recognizing that you belong to a certain species notorious for outrageous behavior throughout the rest of the animal kingdom, what specifics motivate you to get up in the morning?

Marc Bekoff: I wake up each and every morning thanking my house for taking care of me and thanking all of the amazing animals with whom I share my home and home range for being there. I also think about how lucky I am to do what I do each and every day. I really do. I wake up full of energy after a few hours of sleep and really look forward to each and every day, no matter what lies ahead. I also know there are many people all over the world who are working hard for animals and Earth and can’t wait to work with them as a member of a compassionate community working for common goals.

Another warm wolf welcome at a research center outside of Vienna, Austria, © Marc Bekoff

Michael Tobias: You once told me about your parents in this context?

Marc Bekoff: My father was one of the most optimistic people I’ve ever known, and I’m sure my mother was instrumental in showing me how important rampant compassion really is. I know that we are making a difference and that proactive and compassionate activism will win the day. I also often think of what I call “the animal manifesto:” treat us better or leave us alone.

Michael Tobias: And if our species should fail to heed your deeply virtuous and pragmatic wake-up call?

Marc Bekoff: The stakes are huge if we fail to take care of other animals and Earth because we are on the brink of numerous irreversible losses to magnificent webs of nature. Our wholeness and that of the world at large is in peril. We must stop ignoring nature and rewild our hearts now, not when it’s more convenient. I remain optimistic, but time is not on our side, nor on the side of numerous magnificent species who depend on our goodwill and best efforts to keep them alive and thriving.

Copyright Michael Charles Tobias/Jane Gray Morrison/Dancing Star Foundation, 2012. Special Thanks, Ms. Jane Delson.

Sharing a warm moment with a rescued assistance dog in Chengdu, China, © Jill Robinson, Doctor Dog, Animals Asia

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