Animal Writes
25 March 2000 Issue
An Interview with Marc Bekoff, PhD

Dr. Marc Bekoff is Professor of Organismic Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and is Fellow of the Animal Behavior Society and a former Guggenheim Fellow. He has done extensive research in the area of animal behavior, cognitive ethology, and behavioral ecology and has published over 150 papers and 12 books, including Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare (1998, Greenwood) and Strolling With Our Kin: Speaking For and Respecting Voiceless Animals (American Anti-Vivisection Society, 2000). His work has been featured on 48 Hours, in Time Magazine, Life Magazine, U.S. News and World Report, the New York Times, on NPR, and in a National Geographic Society television special. The AVAR interviewed Dr. Bekoff about his work, including his opinions on various topics related to human interaction with nonhuman beings.

AVAR: Was there any particular event in your life which compelled you to study the emotions and behavior of nonhuman animals?

Bekoff: There were a number of events, but I feel I was predisposed to do this sort of work before they occurred. I never really deeply thought about these issues but rather always had deep feelings about them. My parents, although to some extent they still can't figure out how I came to the profession that I'm pursuing, tell me that I have always "minded" animals. Although I was not raised with animals, I used to ask about what they might be thinking or feeling as they went about their daily activities. I feel that I have been blessed with a keen sensitivity of the plight of other animals and all other "beings" in the world. I am a vitalist and see and feel life in everything, animate and inanimate. I hated doing dissection and vivisection in high school and college, and much preferred watching animals. I refused to participate in dissection labs; these types of labs offended me, and especially the ones in medical school.

AVAR: What would you characterize as the main differences between animal welfarists and animal rightists?

Bekoff: People who believe that it's permissible to cause pain to nonhuman animals, but not unnecessary pain, argue that if we consider the animals' welfare or well-being -- their quality of life -- that's all we need to do. These people are called "welfarists" and they practice "welfarism." Welfarists believe that, while people should not wantonly exploit nonhuman animals, as long as we make their lives comfortable, physically and psychologically, we're respecting their welfare. If animals experience comfort and some of life's pleasures, appear happy, and are free from prolonged or intense pain, fear, hunger and other unpleasant states, they're doing fine. But welfarists don't believe that nonhuman animals' lives have inherent value. Their lives are valuable merely because of their utility or use -- value to humans. Basically, welfarists are utilitarians who believe that dogs, cats, prairie dogs, or any other animals can be exploited as long as the pain and suffering that the animals experience -- the costs of using the animals to the animals -- are less important than the benefits to humans that are gained by using the animals. Rightists also are concerned with animals' quality of life. However, they argue it's wrong to abuse or exploit them, to cause them any pain and suffering, and that nonhuman animals shouldn't be used by humans. They believe animals have certain moral and legal rights including the right to life and the right not to be harmed. According to Gary Francione, a professor of law at Rutgers University, to say an animal has a "right" to have an interest protected means the animal is entitled to have that interest protected even if it would benefit us to do otherwise. Rightists also stress that animals' lives are inherently valuable; their lives aren't valuable because of their utility to humans. Animals aren't "less valuable" than humans. Also, animals are neither property nor "things," but rather living organisms, subjects of a dignified life, who are worthy of our support, friendship, compassion, and respect. Any amount of pain and death is unnecessary and unacceptable.

AVAR: Those who aspire to perpetuate the use of nonhuman beings for human purposes often use intellectual differences as a justification for doing so. Could you expound upon the reasons why this position has little merit?

Bekoff: Almost all nonhuman animals are "smart" in their own ways. "Smart" and "intelligent" are words that are often misused: dogs do what they need to do to be dogs -- they are dog-smart in their own ways. And monkeys do what they need to do to be monkeys -- they are monkey-smart in their own ways. Neither is necessarily smarter than the other. It's important to stress that "smart" and "intelligent" are loaded words and often are misused. The misunderstanding and misapplication of the notions of smartness and intelligence can have significant and serious consequences for nonhuman animals, especially if they're thought to be dumb and insensitive to pain and suffering. Many people are always trying to up the ante in attempts to separate humans from other animals. They discover activities in which humans engage but in which no other animals are known to engage, and then use these examples to claim that humans are not only special and much smarter than other animals, but also unique. Tool-using was one such criterion for separating humans from other animals until Jane Goodall discovered tool use in chimpanzees. Language was another until it became clear that some animals have sophisticated communication systems that share various features of human languages. And, animals do things that we can't do. Is a dog who can sniff other dogs from a distance, or a bat who can use high-pitched sounds to find prey, special to the point that they're better or worth more than humans who can't perform these behaviors? Of course not. And neither are humans who can play chess, build and program computers, or anticipate paying taxes in the United States on April 15 or worry about Y2K better or worth more than other animals.

AVAR: Could you share some of the important findings from your studies of the emotions of some of the other living beings who share this planet with us and how these findings should shape human behavior?

Bekoff: Basically, I and some of my colleagues have discovered that many animals experience fear, joy, happiness, shame, embarrassment, resentment, jealousy, rage, anger, various forms of anxiety, love, pleasure, compassion, respect, relief, disgust, sadness, despair, grief, and surprise. They may even have senses of humor. Their emotional states are easily recognizable. Just look at their faces, their eyes, and the way they carry themselves. Even people with little or no experience observing other animals usually agree with one another on what an animal is most likely feeling. And their intuitions are borne out because they use their characterization of animal emotional states to predict future behavior rather accurately. Knowing that many animals have rich and deep emotional lives, and also that many animals suffer and feel pain, should make it even more clear that humans just can't march about and harm and kill other animals whenever they want to do it, not even for supposed human benefits.

AVAR: Where do you see the animal rights movement in ten years?

Bekoff: I am a down-home optimist. I have a vision of a world in which animals will not be harmed and killed by humans for purely anthropocentric ends. I advocate patience, although I surely get very impatient with animal abusers. However, telling others what to do doesn't work. Long-lasting changes are more productive than short-term changes. The changes must be changes of the heart -- deep changes -- and not superficial changes that are short-lived. Animal abuse is particularly upsetting but I also ache when I feel trees being felled, water ways being changed, and inanimate landscapes being decimated. My vitalistic sense is offended by all destruction. I am a dreamer and have visions of many better tomorrows. I urge that we all practice peace and justice, and express compassion, respect, and love for the rest of the world. May we all, as a tight and committed community, work toward these goals.

Interview by: AVAR (Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights)

Source: [email protected] (BEKOFF MARC)

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