The Benefits of Animal Science Behind Prison Bars

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The Benefits of Animal Science Behind Prison Bars

By Marc Bekoff,
March 2009

For ten 10 years I have been teaching animal behavior and conservation biology at the Boulder County Jail in Colorado. The course - part of the Jane Goodall Institute's Roots & Shoots program - is one of the most popular in the jail. Inmates have to earn the right to enroll and they work hard to get in.

One reason the course is so popular is that many prisoners find it easier to connect with animals than with people, because animals don't judge them. Many of the inmates had lived with dogs, cats and other companion animals who were their best friends. They trust and empathize with animals in ways they don't with humans.

Many prisoners find it easier to connect with animals than with people.

Nonetheless, they retain a distorted view of how animals treat one another. The inmates have often had enough of "nature red in tooth and claw": many lament that their own "animal behavior" is what got them into trouble in the first place. I teach that though there is competition and aggression in the animal kingdom, there is also a lot of cooperation, empathy, compassion and reciprocity. I explain that these behaviors are examples of "wild justice", and this idea makes them rethink what it means to be an animal.

Many of the students yearn to build healthy relationships, and they find that the class helps them. I use examples of the social behaviour of group-living animals such as wolves as a model for developing and maintaining friendships among individuals who must work together for their own good and also for the good of the group.

It's clear that science inspires the students: our exchanges rival those that I've had in university classes. It also gives them hope. I know some students have gone back into education after their release while others have gone to work for humane societies or contributed time and money to conservation organizations. One went on to receive a master's degree in nature writing.

Science and humane education help the inmates connect with values that they otherwise would not have done. It opens the door to understanding, trust, cooperation, community and hope. There's a large untapped population of individuals to whom science could mean a lot, if only they could get exposure to it. The class helps me, too. I get as much out of it as the students and it has made me a better teacher on the outside.

Marc Bekoff is emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of books including Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals. In 2005 he won the Bank One Faculty Community Service Award for work with children, senior citizens and prisoners.

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