Marc Bekoff

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and co-founder, with Jane Goodall, of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He has won numerous awards for his scientific research, including the Exemplar Award from the Animal Behavior Society and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Marc has published more than 1000 essays, 30 books, and has edited three encyclopedias. His books include the Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare, the Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior, the Encyclopedia of Human-Animal RelationshipsThe Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons For Increasing Our Compassion Footprint, and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce), published in April 2017. In early 2018, Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do will be published by the University of Chicago Press.

In this Q&A, the Charter for Animal Compassion asks Marc about animal wellbeing, compassionate conservation, and the role of rewilding in a more compassionate future.


Charter: One of the core aims of the Charter is to champion the science of animal sentience. In your view, why is the science of animal sentience important?

MB: There are a number of reasons why the science of animal sentience is important. First, it’s fascinating to learn about the cognitive, emotional, and moral lives of nonhuman animals (hereafter, animals). Second, we can — and must — use this information on behalf of other animals who are used and abused relentlessly globally by humans in an increasingly human-dominated world. Of course, a lot of the science that is done simply supports what so many people have known for centuries, namely, that other animals are indeed sentient and feeling beings who care about what happens to themselves, their families, their friends, and likely other individuals. Many if not most people agree that animals such as nonhuman primates, elephants, other mammals and some birds, fishes, reptiles and amphibians and sentient, but they’re not so sure about insects and other invertebrates and want to see ‘the science’ before they accept they are. And, there are many so-called surprises when, for example, solid science shows that fishes, reptiles, amphibians, and some invertebrates are undeniably very smart, sentient, and conscious.

It’s good news that the tide is turning, for it’s very difficult to find anyone who can or will try to convincingly argue that we really don’t know if other animals are sentient and conscious beings, or argue that they’re not. This view would not only be anti-scientific given all we know but downright inane. To this end, there’s a relatively new professional publication called Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling that is devoted to the comparative study of animal sentience. I’ve also written an essay titled “A Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience: No Pretending.” It’s based on the indisputable fact that animals are sentient and that they can suffer and feel pain, as is the Treaty of Lisbon and the rapidly growing field of compassionate conservation. There’s also The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness that was publicly proclaimed on July 7, 2012 at the University. The group of scientists wrote, “Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

All in all, it’s essential to have ‘the science,’ and to combine what we know with common sense. The only conclusion that is tenable is that other animals are sentient beings and need to be treated with respect and dignity.

Charter: A growing body of research underpins animal sentience science – in your view, is this science being used to promote animal wellbeing or is there more than can be done?

MB: It is and it isn’t. In our book The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age Jessica Pierce and I argue that much more needs to be done and that animal welfare science patronizes other animals ‘in the name of humans’. We also write about the ‘knowledge translation gap’ that focuses on how what we know is not used on behalf of other animals. The knowledge translation gap refers 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 US 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.” (For more on the idiocy of the AWA’s mis-classification of rats, mice, and other animals, see “The Animal Welfare Act Claims Rats and Mice Are Not Animals.”)

Because animal welfare fails other animals we argue for a paradigm shift in which the science of animal welfare is replaced with the science of animal wellbeing, which 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. Wellbeing 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; wellbeing 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. So, it’s clear that much more has to be done.

Charter: You mentioned earlier the growing field of ‘compassionate conservation’ – what does compassion have to do with conservation?

MB: There are many lessons to be learned from the rapidly growing international field called compassionate conservation, for which the guiding principles are “First do no harm” and all individuals matter. Individual animals have intrinsic value because of who they are and because they’re alive. Their value is not determined by how they can serve us (this is called instrumental value). Compassionate conservation offers many different ways for dealing with human-animal conflicts without blood being spilled. (For more information on compassionate conservation please see “Compassionate Conservation Meets Cecil the Slain Lion,” Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, “Compassion as a Practical and Evolved Ethic for Conservation,” The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age, and references therein.) 

Charter: What is the compassionate conservation movement hoping to achieve?

MB: Simply put, compassionate conservation asks people to use non-lethal methods to solve the problems at hand. While there are some differences among people who call themselves compassionate conservationists in terms of what is acceptable and what is not, adhering to the basic principles is essential and, as I wrote above, compassionate conservation offers many different ways for dealing with human-animal conflicts without blood being spilled. It is not welfarism ‘gone wild,‘ but rather a new approach based in individual wellbeing that stresses nonviolence toward other animals.

So, for example, the slaughter, some would call it murder, of wolves in the United States, would not be acceptable in the paradigm of compassionate conservation. However, there are animal welfare groups and conservation organizations that either support the killing or have not spoken out against it. Once again, welfare lets the animals down. Some will say that it’s essential to kill some wolves to save others — to trade dead wolves for live wolves — and that you’re over-stating what’s really happening. Some might say something like, ‘We don’t like what’s going on, but that’s the way it’s got to be.’ However, they conveniently ignore the fact that no one has to kill these wolves. It’s their choice to do so, and they have to live with their decision. So, not saying ‘no’ and allowing the killings to happen is really saying ‘yes’ to killing wolves and other animals. And, from the individual animal’s point of view, she/he doesn’t really care about what motivates people to take their life, either by choosing to do so and actively taking part in the slaughter or by not saying anything and allowing others to do the killing. By choosing the latter option their hands remain sort of clean, but in the end, the wolves are dead and that’s what really matters. And, human interests have trumped those of the nonhumans in a welfarist mindset.

Charter: Rewilding is a hot topic in conservation circles. What role does rewilding play in a more compassionate future?

MB: I could write a book about this and I did! It’s called Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence and in this book I argue that individuals have to become re-connected and re-enchanted with nature and other animals and that it’s a personal and spiritual journey. We need a revolution of heart and to unleash our hearts and let our deep feelings of connection, compassion, and empathy help us to treat other animals with much more respect and dignity, and recognize them for who they are — sentient and feeling individuals.

In Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence I’ve argued that by personally rewilding, by undoing the unwilding and by reconnecting and becoming re-enchanted with nature, including other animals, we can overcome negativity and see the world in more positive ways. What I call ‘the ethology of rewilding’ entails focusing on what we know about who other animals truly are and using this information to come to a deeper appreciation of the similarities and differences among nonhuman animals and between nonhuman and human animals. Compassionate conservation mandates that we focus on individuals, and that the life of each and every individual matters. It also stresses that all stakeholders, human and nonhuman, count.

All in all, we must redefine our relationship with ‘other nature’ and we must rapidly do it and act on the feelings that emerge. We also need to reconsider our relationships with other humans and do away with resolving conflicts using violent means. A rewilding manifesto would clearly state that we will indeed, and with deeply passionate and motivated intention, reconnect with other humans, other nonhumans, and their homes with as much positive energy as possible. And, it could become a cultural meme, a non-genetic way to spread love for animals and nature globally. Rewilding is a rehabilitation process that will result in much closer and deeper reciprocal connections with other humans and other animals and their homes, and if enough people rewild themselves, rewilding will become a heartfelt and heartful cultural meme that fosters behavior patterns that will spread from person to person and to future generations as a form of cultural evolution. In my book I wrote about the eight p’s of rewilding — being proactive, positive, persistent, patient, peaceful, practical, powerful, and passionate — and I’ve recently added four more, namely, the importance of being playful, present, principled, and proud.

As I wrote, we sorely need a heartfelt revolution in how we think, what we do with what we know, and how we act. Rewilding can be a very good guide and is all about acting from the inside out. The revolution has to come from deep within us and begin at home, in our heart and wherever we live. We will never have the world we previously had, but the longer we wait the less likely the future will be a good one for those who follow in our wake.

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