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What Does It Mean To Be An Animal Person?

Renowned Ethologist Marc Bekoff Sounds Off On Grizzly Hunting And Science Focused on Animal Intelligence And Emotions

What does it mean to be an animal person? Dr. Marc Bekoff has an answer.

To him, animal people are those who respect the value and spirit intrinsic in non-human beings.

Bekoff has devoted his professional life to exploring the emotions and intelligence of other animals, including those who walk on two legs. If there’s a species that sometimes leaves him bewildered, it is Homo sapiens—in particular the stubborn unwillingness some of us have to recognize that sentience flows between us and other creatures.

What is sentience? Bekoff describes it as the ability to feel, sense and relate not only to other beings but to be in relationship with our surroundings. It is most poignantly visible, he says, in environments where species naturally evolve and where ecological systems are complex.

Advancements in science, he notes, are affirming what animal people have known for a long time. “The more that we look the more we discover about the cognitive and emotional lives of animals,” he said. “It’s not merely a matter of sentience being out there but that it is humbling to learn how it actually surrounds us in such rich abundance.”

Bekoff, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado-Boulder and a columnist for Psychology Today, has been an outspoken, sometimes controversial figure in pushing society out of its conventional comfort zone and challenging people to consider a more expanded view of the animal kingdom.

A prolific writer and provocative lecturer who has spent a lot of time in Greater Yellowstone, Bekoff earlier this year penned a new book with co-author Jessica Pierce titled The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age. The acclaimed work explores the right of animals to exist free, their survival not having to be justified or validated by humans.

Fundamentally, Bekoff and Pierce reject the many ways that humans compartmentalize animals in order to rationalize their abuse and exploitation.  They refuse to accept the lines of demarcation that some create in classifying animals as  “higher” or “lower”, more valuable or less, wild or tame; they dismiss as artificial constructs distinctions that some try to make, for example, between wolf and family dog, elk and black Angus, barnyard cat or cougar.

Not long ago, Mountain Journal had a conversation with Bekoff about the release of his book with Pierce. Our exchange comes at a time when the state of Wyoming is leading the charge to bring back a trophy hunt of Greater Yellowstone grizzly bears—a proposal Bekoff calls “barbaric”. 

"This move to recommence 'sport hunting' of grizzlies by Wyoming isolates the state and is out of step with what's happening globally," Bekoff says. "Consider Jackson Hole Mother Grizzly 399. The attraction and affection people feel for her show how they resonate with her as a wild being. And, Wyoming will shoot itself in the foot, so to speak, by beginning to kill grizzlies once again." 

While he faults neither predators for eating prey, nor some people who hunt for subsistence to put food on the table, Bekoff, himself a committed vegan, condemns people “who kill animals for fun, pleasure and sport.”
If Americans are horrified at the thought of people felling elephants, rhinos, and African lions for trophies, Bekoff says there should be equal outrage over those wishing to kill wolves and grizzlies for sport in the West.
If Americans are horrified at the thought of people felling elephants, rhinos, and African lions for trophies, he says there should be equal outrage over those wishing to kill wolves and grizzlies for sport in the West. However, he reserves his harshest rebukes for the organizers of “hunting derbies” in which prizes and money are offered to those who shoot the most predators.  Equally repulsive, he says, are those who blast prairie dogs and film the blood-letting for hunting shows.

Years ago, Bekoff conducted studies of coyotes that grew out of pioneering work done by Jackson Hole biologist (and Mountain Journal columnist) Dr. Franz Camenzind, who studied coyote packs in Wyoming and documented complex social behavior. Those studies were foundational in engendering more appreciation for the family values present in canid packs.

In Mountain Journal’s conversation with Bekoff, the topics were wide ranging.

MOUNTAIN JOURNAL:  Why do you think animal rights doesn’t possess political/social traction in the rural West?

MARC BEKOFF: That's a great question that could take many books to answer. I don't think there's only one answer to this question. I'm honestly not sure, because I know some people who live in the rural West who do all they can do to protect other animals from human intrusions into their lives, intrusions that include harming and killing them.  

Among other possible reasons are included that (1) those who advocate for animal rights are mistakenly stereotyped as people who don't care about humans -- not true at all;  (2) animal rights activists are radicals who resort to violence against humans -- only a very few do; (3) those who choose to Iive away from other people don't want to be told what to do; (4) many people view nonhumans as valuable only if they can serve humans -- they only have what's called instrumental value based on their utility to humans -- rather than intrinsic value which simply means they're valuable because they're alive and deserve to be left alone; and (5) those who make their living off of nonhumans see animal rights activists as negatively influencing their incomes.

MOJO: Are those concerns and fears valid?
BEKOFF: No more so than the concerns of those who denied that the fundamental rights of decency, dignity, and moral and ethical respect were owed to fellow humans at the dawn of the civil rights movement.

Dr. Marc Bekoff (photo courtesy Marc Bekoff)
Dr. Marc Bekoff (photo courtesy Marc Bekoff)

MOJO: Do you care about other humans?
BEKOFF:  Of course I do. I’m human. But if humans aren’t going to stand up for others who have no voice and who desperately need advocates in this human-centric world, then who’s going to do it?

MOJO:  Having written several books about the inner lives of animals, what new ground are you treading with "The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age"?

BEKOFF: Our book took root out of a shared sense of frustration Jessica and I had with science—and with a particular kind of science. We had both assumed, earlier in our careers, that the scientific study of the emotional and cognitive lives of animals would lead to major changes in how humans treat other animals—how could it not? Once people see that animals are intelligent and feeling creatures, just like us, they won’t be able, in good conscience, to inflict suffering and deprivations that compromise the freedom to have the best lives possible.

MOJO: But you don’t believe that data alone are enough, right?

BEKOFF: Correct. Data take us only so far. The Animals’ Agenda was our attempt to figure out why science is failing animals. The answer, in brief, is that the study of animal emotions and cognition has been channeled into animal welfare science. And “welfare science” is not science in the service of animals, but rather science in the service of humans and industry. Indeed, as we delved into our research for the book, it became pretty clear that the word “welfare” is a dirty little lie: Whenever you see the word “welfare” in the literature, you can be pretty sure something unpleasant is being done to animals. The word “humane” is equally troublesome.

MOJO: How so?

BEKOFF: The science of animal well-being that we develop in The Animals’ Agenda focuses on individual animals and would not allow animals to be used and abused in the way that welfarism allows. Welfarism puts human needs first, and tries to accommodate animals within the “human needs first” framework. Well-being broadens the question of “what do animals want and need” beyond the welfare box, and tries to understand animal preferences from the animals’ point of view.

For example, welfarism asks whether mink on a fur farm would prefer taller or shorter cages; well-being challenges the idea mink should be in battery cages on a fur farm in the first place, because they cannot have true well-being or “good lives” under such conditions—no matter how many welfare modifications we make.

MOJO: But isn’t ‘animal welfare’ the watchword of the animal rights movement?

BEKOFF: It is to some extent. However, simply put, good animal welfare just isn’t good enough for the billions of nonhuman animals who are used in a wide variety of human-controlled venues, ranging from so-called factory farms, to laboratories, zoos and circuses, to pets, to wild animals and conservation efforts both in captivity and in more natural settings. 

MOJO: Is it that people are resistant to acknowledging a change in thinking about animal intelligence and animal emotions or just unaware?

BEKOFF: Jessica and I write about the knowledge translation gap, referring to the practice of ignoring tons of science showing that other animals are sentient beings and going ahead and causing intentional harm in human-oriented arenas. 

On the broad scale, it means that what we now know about animal cognition and emotion has not yet been translated into an evolution in human attitudes and practices. A great example of the knowledge translation gap is found in the wording of the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which explicitly excludes rats and mice from kingdom Animalia (even though a first grader knows that rats and mice are animals). In post-election parlance, we could also call the AWA’s slip up an “alternative fact.” 
Longtime friends Bekoff and Dr. Jane Goodall in 1998. Together they founded Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Bekoff also co-edited a book, "The Jane Effect" about Goodall's global role in inspiring young people to get involved with conservation.
Longtime friends Bekoff and Dr. Jane Goodall in 1998. Together they founded Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Bekoff also co-edited a book, "The Jane Effect" about Goodall's global role in inspiring young people to get involved with conservation.
: You recently wrote a piece in Psychology Today about controversy that erupted in the United Kingdom. Tell us about that.

BEKOFF: In mid November, the Tories in the UK voted that nonhumans aren’t sentient and don’t feel pain. This is singularly absurd and anti-science. We need to stop pretending that other animals are unfeeling objects with whom we can do whatever we like. 

MOJO: How is biological research failing wildlife?  As you well know, what sets Greater Yellowstone apart from every other ecosystem in the Lower 48 and much of the world is its diversity of mostly free-ranging animals. In order for it to persist, what needs to change?

BEKOFF: I'm a hands-off ethologist/conservationist and I’m pretty much willing to let "nature take its course." Yes, nonhumans do harm and kill one another on occasion, and yes, they can become a "problem" when they come into conflict with humans in an increasingly human-dominated world, but it's pretty clear that many programs that are centered on killing sprees don't work. I fully realize that people want "quick fixes" to "problems" at hand, but they rarely work. 

Allowing nature to take its course and taking a long-range perspective needs to be given a chance, although there may be situations that arise for short or longer periods of time that we don't like. We are living in a epoch called the Anthropocene, also called "the age of humanity." I prefer to call it "the rage of inhumanity," and Jessica and I write about this in The Animals' Agenda.

MOJO:  Let’s talk about proposals to sport hunt grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  What are your thoughts on why states would proceed with advancing such a widely unpopular idea?  How does the proposed sport hunting of grizzlies fit within the larger context of 21st century sport hunting and, moreover, and why has answering the question of whether we should sport hunt been left out of the conversation of what ESA recovery means?

BEKOFF: I am 100 percent against all sport/trophy hunting. I think that the drive to kill grizzlies and many other nonhuman animals stems from misinformed ideas that hunting is good for conservation and that some people simply like to kill other animals for a wide variety of reasons. Allowing hunting and fishing on so-called refuges is an egregious error which I address in Hunting for Fun on National Refuges is Just Fine, Says USFWS.  

If other animals can't feel safe on refuges, there is no place where they can. Readers can find more information in these essays and many links therein, all available for free online.  Two other pieces I’ve penned are Why People Hunt: The Psychology of Killing Other Animals and Why Men Trophy Hunt: Showing Off and the Psychology of Shame.

MOJO: State game agencies claim they need to sell hunting licenses, including those of grizzlies, to stay in business?  What do you say?

BEKOFF: I say they should raise the money but advocating by non-lethal means. They also claim that they have to sell the licenses “in the name of conservation," but of course there aren't data that support this point of view. If they changed their ways and asked for money by having people go "out into nature" without harming or killing other beings in the long run this would result in people having more respect for other nature for what and who "other nature" truly are, not for their "value" in terms of how they serve us by activities such as killing them. I would like to see a moratorium on selling hunting and fishing licenses to see how alternative non-killing campaigns could work. 

Ecologist Marc Bekoff looking for dingoes in Australia. Photo courtesy  Marc Bekoff
Ecologist Marc Bekoff looking for dingoes in Australia. Photo courtesy Marc Bekoff
:  You have seen moments arrive in people when they look upon animals with new appreciation and respect.  What are some of the catalysts for changing perspective?

BEKOFF: One catalyst is humans coming to see other animals as feeling and sentient beings who only want what we all want, namely to live in peace and safety. Another catalyst is people coming to realize that other animals have rich and deep emotional lives and suffer at our hands when we wantonly trespass into their lives for our, not their, benefits. In addition, many people realize that we're losing species at an unprecedented rate. They want their children and future generations to inherit a planet that is rich in biodiversity and they change their perspective when they realize that if we continue down the road we're on, their children and others will inherit a planet devoid of fascinating beings and landscapes.

MOJO:  When you think of the word sentience in wildlife, what examples come to mind?

BEKOFF: There are so many it's impossible to list them. All of the large charismatic megafauna including mammals and birds, fishes, amphibians, and reptiles of all varieties, and likely many insects. We’re learning more and more about the taxonomic distribution of sentience, so closing the door on membership in the "sentience club" should be strongly discouraged, because solid research is showing how many surprises there really are

MOJO: You're one of America's leading communicators on the subject of animal intelligence and you've been closely involved with your good friend, the conservationist and chimpanzee researcher Dr. Jane Goodall.  First of all, what is ethology and why does it matter?

BEKOFF: Ethology is the study of animal behavior. Most ethologists perform their research in the field, and many focus on one or more areas of study suggested by Nobel laureate Niki Tinbergen. These include evolution (Why did a behavior evolve? What is it good for?); adaptation (How does a particular behavior allow an individual to adapt to the immediate situation? How does it contribute to individual reproductive fitness?); causation (an overt cause is like a red light that causes you to put your foot on the brake of your car; an internal cause is like a hormonal or neural reaction that causes you to startle); and ontogeny (the development and the emergence of individual differences and the role of learning). 

Subsequently, University of Tennessee psychologist Gordon Burghardt added the question of personal experience to Tinbergen’s scheme. The wide-ranging importance of ethological investigations was highlighted in 1973 when Konrad Lorenz—along with Niko Tinbergen, who is often called the curious naturalist, and Karl von Frisch, for his work on bee language—jointly won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

MOJO: What new insights have you personally divined?

BEKOFF: In my studies, I take a strongly comparative, evolutionary, and ecological approach, which means I look for similarities and differences among different species; I try to understand why particular behavior patterns have evolved and why they are maintained in (selected for), or disappear from, a species’ repertoire. I also observe how behavior changes in different social and ecological venues. Of course, it’s rare that one or only a few studies can do all this, and that’s why it’s so important for researchers to share results and talk with one another. 

MOJO:  What are some of the most profound discoveries you've made with regard to animal sentience that you never expected.

BEKOFF: I'm not sure I can answer this with any single example. In my fieldwork with coyotes living around Blacktail Butte, observing the incredible variability among individuals with different personalities always fascinated me, as it did when I studied Adélie penguins in Antarctica. 

Even infant coyotes when they first emerge from their den and very young penguins hanging out around their nests of stones can be recognized by their unique personalities, some bold, some shy, and some very playful. Overall, I continue to be floored by how smart and emotional all sorts of nonhumans are, not only mammals and birds, but also fishes, reptiles, and amphibian, and some invertebrates as well. One repeated discovery is that just when you think you know all or most of what there is to know about specific individuals or species, you learn that you don't and there always is more to learn. 

MOJO: Finally, having just lost a beloved canine companion, how do we know that animals love us?

BEKOFF: I'm very sorry to hear about your loss. I know how hard it is. We know that other animals love us in the same way we might know that other people love us. While animals can't say "I love you" using any human language, they can tell us how they feel by seeking us out when we're gone -- looking for us and pacing about, missing us when we're gone, often displayed by moping around, refusing to eat or to play, and whining, and by preferring us to other humans when the animal is with a group of people. 

There's no doubt whatsoever that nonhuman animals have the ability to love other individuals, including humans, and we just need to observe them closely when they're with the individuals they love and see what they do when their nonhuman and human friends are gone. 

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