We talk to Marc Bekoff and Jonathan Balcombe, both teachers on on the forthcoming ‘Animals and Us’ course, about why the study of animals is so important at this point in our history and what we can learn about them and ourselves from new scientific findings.
Q: Why is this course so important at this time?
MB: The study of human-animal interactions is one of the hottest areas in animal studies – attracting people from many different disciplines – the sciences and social sciences, arts, literature and philosophy. It’s because more and more of us feel alienated from other animals and nature and are seeking a way back – a way of reconnecting, a way of re-wilding our hearts. I travel all over the world and meet people who are craving this reconnection, even if they don’t realise it. There aren’t many outlets for this kind of information for people who are not scientists, which is why courses like this are so important.
JB: Yes, there is a scientific revolution is going on. It is showing that animals do have sentience – cognition, awareness, emotions, pleasure and even virtue. There has been a spate of discoveries with scientists asking questions that were taboo for the twentieth century, like what and how do animals think, does a baboon feel sadness at the loss of an infant, can a bird be optimistic? Some of the scientific methods being used are not what I’d like to see, but the information is very powerful and it’s important that people are aware of it.
Q: What is the biggest thing we can learn, individually and societally, from animals?
JB: That they are not merely alive—they have lives, lives that matter. Sentient (conscious, feeling) animals are autonomous individuals. And they are not just pain-avoiders, they are pleasure-seekers. The capacity for pleasure expands an individual’s interests beyond merely avoiding pain or the ultimate penalty of death; it makes life worth living, and death intrinsically harmful.
Here’s a tiny sample of examples of recent scientific discoveries that belie old assumptions about “dumb brutes:”
MB: When you know that animals are sentient, feel pain and have emotional lives, invasive research such as neurobiological studies and social deprivation don’t work. I personally don’t like zoos and wish there weren’t animals in captivity, but there are ways of learning from them in ways that enrich their lives. On an individual level we can learn compassion, friendship, trust, empathy. But to me as a biologist, the most important message is that we are the only species that overpopulates and over-consumes. The lesson is that we can’t continue taking more than we give – no other successful animal overpopulates and over-consumes like we do. We need to change our ways.
Q: What is the best action we can take in our relationship with animals both individually and societally?
MB: It is easy to do things for the benefit of animals from food choices, clothing choices, stop going to circuses where animals are used, preserving habitats. It’s also about watching birds, seeing squirrels in the park. These things are very easy to do and they don’t cost – nature is free (unlike zoos). We need to stop complaining about how hard it is to do these things and just do them, without being prescriptive or judgemental about people with different ideals. If we feel we don’t have time, we just need to stop doing certain things and do others. Time is not a good excuse. I feel like I’m the luckiest person in the world because I work for animals. It’s my life.
JB: Individually, there is no question: we can stop eating them. A vegan lifestyle is the Holy Grail of personal activism for animals. Societally, it’s probably the same thing. Animal agriculture is by far the source of the most anthropogenic animal suffering and death. Add to that its significant contributions to air and water pollution, human “diseases of affluence,” healthcare costs, and ecologically destructive land-use—and it’s a no-brainer that plant-based diets would be a huge benefit to animals, humans, and the planet.
Q: What are your personal predictions about our future relationship with animals—best or worst case scenario?
JB: Best-case scenario: we come quickly to our senses, recognize that animals deserve basic rights to freedom from confinement, torture and death, ban all factory farming, and return to a more agrarian food-supply system that is principally plant-based and wholly respectful of all sentient beings. Worst-case scenario: we fail to rein in human population growth and the consumption of animal products, climate change worsens causing massive disruptions in food production and human migrations, large-scale starvation, disease (including zoonoses) and escalated conflict.
MB: We need to understand that whilst things aren’t as we‘d like them, we can change. People bond with trees and with flowers, but they really bond with animals. I’m optimistic because I see good people all over the world working for animals and the earth. I work with Jane Goodall and the Root and Shoots kids. That’s all about humane education – getting to kids and showing them what they can do and how they can be models. We need a social movement based on compassion and simplicity. We need to generate more ambassadors for animals and we need to work together. This social movement has begun. It will be slow but the ideas are getting out there – that’s what this course is about.
Marc Bekoff is a former Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, an ambassador of Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots Programme and has published more than 200 papers and 22 books including Animals Matter and Wild Justice.
Jonathan Balcombe is the Chair of the Animal Studies Department with the Human Society University and has published four books, including The Exultant Ark: A Pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasure.