“Every Life Matters”

A conversation with animal ethologist Marc Bekoff

It’s hard to overstate Marc Bekoff’s contribution to the fields of animal behavior and rights. He has published more than a thousand essays and thirty books on everything from animal intelligence and emotions, to rewilding ourselves in the interest of conservation, to why we must change the way we treat animals.

photo of Marc Bekoff
Bekoff is very intentional about the language he uses to refer to animals commonly used for food. “I talk and write about 'who' we eat, not 'what' we eat,” he says. 

Bekoff, who holds the title of Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, fervently argues that human beings need to abandon ideas of human exceptionalism. As he put it in an article in Greater Good Magazine, “Research on animal morality is blossoming, and if we can break free of theoretical prejudices, we may come to better understand ourselves and the other animals with whom we share this planet.” Fundamentally, he believes that animals have the right to live their lives just as humans do, adding that when it comes to human diets, veganism is the way to go. As he points out, when we eat animals, we are eating a “who” not a “what.” 

In addition to his prolific writing, Bekoff is a member of the Captive Animals Protection Society, a charity that campaigns against the exotic pet trade and the use animals in circuses and zoos. He is also the co-founder, along with Jane Goodall, of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which works to raise awareness of the everyday cruelties that animals face.

I recently spoke with Bekoff via Skype about how he first became interested in animals, his philosophy on animal protection, and his thoughts on how we can improve animal well-being.

Was there a moment in your life that shaped your perspective on animal rights and protection?

I don’t think there was one moment. I think there were a number of moments, but one thing that is for sure is that ever since I was basically able to walk and talk, I was always asking my parents and other people what different animals were thinking and feeling. I’d always get very upset when I would see people yelling or hitting a dog or screaming at another animal. I think it was just some innate drive that led me to care for and to work with other animals. My parents definitely agreed and supported me, and throughout my education, I didn’t want to dissect animals, and I didn’t want to do certain things that were part of a standard curriculum.

On what do you base your beliefs and interest in animal rights?

First, I do not consider myself an animal rights activist. Rather, I am interested in animal protection and focus on the fact that all individuals have an interest in living a life free of pain and suffering, to live in peace and safety. To me the most important thing is sentience — the emotions animals feel. And it’s not if they feel different emotions but why they have evolved — what [the emotions are] used for. To me, the most important variable is that every life matters. Every individual has inherent value and we don’t have the right to cause intentional harm or pain or death to other beings. That’s really the foundation of how I approach things and different questions about animal protection. Each and every individual matters, and their lives are no less valuable to them than ours are to us.

Can you explain what you mean by “compassionate conservation,” which was something you wrote about in your 2013 book Ignoring Nature No More?

Compassionate conservation focuses on a few basic principles. The first is “do no harm,” and the second is that the lives of all individuals matter. The third is to strive for peaceful coexistence which means not killing or harming other animals in order to attain certain conservation goals — not killing them “in the name of coexistence” or “in the name of conservation.” It’s not a matter of animal welfare or killing animals “compassionately,” whatever that means. When you look at the guiding principles of compassionate conservation, killing them is off the table.

How does teaching ecology and evolutionary biology as a professor further your efforts to promote animal protection?

I was in the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I left the department twelve years ago to be on my own. When I was there, I taught courses on animal behavior, conservation behavior, and some courses that now that would definitely be called “compassionate conservation.” What I used to do in my classes was focus on different aspects of animal behavior, behavioral ecology, and the evolution of social behavior and I always stressed the practical sides of the things — what can we do to protect other animals with what we know about their lives. What they want and what they need. Just talking about how smart and how emotional animals are would lead into discussions of how we are obliged to treat them with respect, compassion, and dignity. I weave in what we know with how we should treat other animals. Even if we think they don’t have feelings, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are alive, and they should be allowed to live the lives they are meant to live.

As a vegan, what do you think of meat lovers?

I don’t think of people eating meat in any demeaning way. I know a lot of people who eat meat, and a number of them make contributions to different animal protection and conservation organizations. I depersonalize what they do, but I don’t like the fact that they eat meat or other animal products. I wish they wouldn’t. I try to talk with them about why they should not eat other animals in a nice way because there’s no reason to be mean because then they’ll just walk away from you. I spend a lot of time talking to meat eaters and trying to show them how veganism or vegetarianism is really the way to go. And, I explain to them how easy it is to be vegan or vegetarian. One of the other things that I do focuses on the language we use to refer to so-called “food animals.” I talk and write about “who” we eat, not “what” we eat. It makes it clear that we’re eating animals who used to have deep feelings and that they suffered greatly on the way to human mouths.

What do you think of animal experimentation that serves the purpose of testing products for the safety of people?

I think that we need to very strongly and very rapidly phase out animal models…. Now we know more about animal pain suffering, and we also have a large number of non-animal alternatives…. Is it going to be easy? No. Is it going to happen overnight? No. But the more people talk about it, the faster it’s going to happen. People can’t really say with any kind of reliability that these non-animal models aren’t as good as animal models because the animal models aren’t all that good either.

Do you believe that using animals for farming and others uses, such as a sheep’s coat for wool and milking a cow for milk, are also a violation?

The dairy industry is really horrific. There is a lot of pain, suffering, and death among the animals. If someone rescued a sheep and sheared their wool off in a non-painful way, and then used the wool from that sheep rather than going out and buying something made of wool that could have come from an abused animal that would be better.

Do you believe that keeping pets is a violation of animal rights?

It is and it isn’t. There’s no “easy” answer to this question. It’s definitely a violation of their freedom because companion animals give up a lot to live in a human dominated world. We tell them when to go to the bathroom and who they can play with and when they should take walks and when and what they should eat. I think the reality is that we are not going to phase pets out anytime soon, but it is a violation of their right and freedom to have a good life. We need to do much more for them because many companion animals who share homes with humans have pretty horrible lives.

In most jurisdictions in the US, animal abuse is considered a misdemeanor offense. Do you believe it should be considered a felony?

Absolutely! Some of the abuse that animals are subjected to is incredibly reprehensible, cruel, and barbaric. Slowly, but surely, I know that there are some places that are trying to make it a felony rather than just a misdemeanor. This change can’t come too soon. 

Lastly, what is your organization, Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Citizens for Responsible Animal Behavior Studies, doing to fight for animal rights, and how do you attract more activists?

It’s not really a formal organization. Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was co-founded with Jane Goodall and we stress that researchers and anyone who works with or cares about other animals must treat them with respect, dignity, and compassion. I also have a group that focuses an animal cognition, animal emotions, and compassionate conservation to which I send out a lot of information. We need to look at other animals like we look at other humans. They deserve dignity, compassion, and respect, and any kind of abuse towards them should be punishable. Each and every life matters.

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