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Part II – Marc Bekoff
Marc Bekoff is professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has worked alongside leading writers and activists including Jane Goodall, Peter Singer, and PETA cofounder Ingrid Newkirk. He lives in Boulder, CO.
Caryn Hartglass: You’re listening to It’s All About Food on a chilly November 5th, 2013. I’m going to introduce my next guest. Marc Bekoff is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has worked alongside leading writers and activists including Jane Goodall , Peter Singer and PETA co-founder Ingrid Newkirk. He lived in Boulder, Colorado. That’s a very, very brief bio because this man has done many amazing things, written many great books and so much more. Welcome to It’s All About Food, Marc.
Marc Bekoff: It’s great to be here Caryn. Thanks for having me again.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, thank you so much. I’ve just finished reading Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed. I was very excited to find out about it because I did not know that you were writing a blog column on Psychology Today.
Marc Bekoff: Right.
Caryn Hartglass: On one hand I’m really glad I found it, on the other hand my book list has just grown like a thousand things I now have to read.
Marc Bekoff: There’s a lot out there but I’m hoping you will enjoy what I write.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s what’s exciting, there’s a lot out there about animals. I believe that…well…we have this horrible history as humans I think where we’ve done so many terrible things. We do a lot of wonderful things but we’ve done some terrible things and a lot of it just comes from ignorance and not really understanding what we’re doing. We treat fellow humans too often without respect or integrity and we certainly do that with other nonhuman animals.
Marc Bekoff: Yes.
Caryn Hartglass: We’ll talk about that in a minute. We just need to learn once we open our minds to what’s really in front of us, we’re just going to soar. And I believe that a lot of the work that you highlight in this book is the beginning of that.
Marc Bekoff: Really what the book is all about…I’ve written about 500 essays for Psychology Today and there’s a little more than a hundred in there. What I really try to cover are the new and exciting discoveries like mice displaying empathy, chickens and rat displaying empathy. We’ve just learned recently that a fish actually uses their head to indicate where there’s food. In ethology or the study of animal behavior, we call that referential communication. It used to be thought that only humans did it and we know other animals do it now. And so one thing after another in terms of animal consciousness, animal sension, animal cognition, animal emotions and it’s just incredible what we’re learning about other animals. So that’s what I try to do in these essays, just make them digestible to people, you know don’t compromise on the science but really present them so that non-scientists can read them.
Caryn Hartglass: Humans have had this opinion—we—I guess I have to include myself in this group. I like to think sometimes that maybe I’m part alien, but maybe not. Anyway, humans have believed that we are the most amazing of all the species, the most superior, the most intelligent and it’s really not a good idea to think that way and once we get humble and realize that all species have something to offer to this world.
Marc Bekoff: Right. The bottom line, and I say it in the book, is that animals, including human animals, need to do what they need to do to be card-carrying members of their species. What that really means is that we do amazing things, you’re right as you said in the beginning, we do some pretty nasty things but we do a lot of wonderful things and so do other animals. We can’t fly like birds or hear ultrasound or very low frequency sounds like elephants and whales but we can do other things. Really what we’re learning in study of behavior when you really look at it from a biological point of view, is that it doesn’t get us anywhere to say oh dogs are more intelligent than cats or cats more intelligent than bees. Really what we have to look at is how do they do as members of their own species? And that’s what I think is definitely one of the main messages of my book.
Caryn Hartglass: From a psychological point of view, and I’m not psychologist or a psychiatrist or any of that but I do read a lot, a lot of what we do as humans is out of fear.
Marc Bekoff: Yes.
Caryn Hartglass: We fear a lot of things, and we do unfortunate things because of that. When I was reading this book I kept thinking about the opinions or the feelings that we have towards other humans. When people came from Europe to the United States and encountered the Indians they just thought the Indians were not as civilized, they were barbaric. They just didn’t understand their culture, their language, their way of living and we looked down on them.
Marc Bekoff: Right. That’s exactly what people do about other animals.
Caryn Hartglass: Exactly.
Marc Bekoff: If you don’t understand other nonhuman or human animals or don’t appreciate them, they become second-class citizens and then we start assigning value. When we don’t understand something we fear it and that’s actually a very cogent point because when we fear other animals what happens is we treat them differently and we usually treat them and take advantage of them in order to dominate them. And so one of the things that I try to point out is that well sure, we should fear other animals. They can be dangerous. I’ve had many close encounters with cougars, mountain lions and black bears and some of my friends say, oh that’s really cool. And I say no, there was nothing cool about it at all. But I met them, I’m ok. Where I live I have these animals in my neighborhood and so I just have to take care and respect the fact that I moved in to their house. I like to say I redecorated nature. I really think that what we’re learning, that as we learn more and more about animals, that fear will disappear.
Caryn Hartglass: There’s so many different little tidbits in here. If you read each article there’s often a link or a recommended reading to learn more about each item. A few things that stood out for me, I’ll just mention them briefly. You mention a study about how people who live with cats have a lower risk of heart disease or heart attacks. You had a fascinating article about what’s in urine and what fascinates dogs about urine because they’re so sensitive to smell and all the things that they learn from it. I just want to stop there for a minute. That was so fascinating. There’s just so much information in urine that dogs take advantage of.
Marc Bekoff: Yes and so do other animals. You know like rodents, elephants and that gets back to the point we were making before is that animals do what they need to do to be members of their species. If you’re a card-carrying dog you better have a really good sniffer.
Caryn Hartglass: We look at that and we say eww, that’s gross, they’re sticking their nose and it’s dirty but they’re decoding and we could take advantage of that if we could understand what was going on.
Marc Bekoff: Right. As we learn about the different sensory modes that animals use we could use that to not only learn about them but also to just basically come to understand how we can treat them better and what they need. We all know that if you live with dogs that certain high frequency sounds really freak them out, certain odors are stressful to them. Male birds, especially sing and when they hear certain songs, certain noise in their environment, it can really bother them. As we learn more and more about the natural behavior of these animals it will really translate over to how we treat them, how we house them, how we walk them, how we view them and so to me it’s a no-brainer that as we’re learning more about their behavior we really will learn also more about ourselves. That’s another message in the book of how when we do good things for animals and earth we feel good and when we harm other animals we really suffer the indignities.
Caryn Hartglass: That reminded me. You have many different articles early in the book about dogs and you talked about the unconditional love that dogs give humans. Most of us know this but what I loved is that you wrote that their giving unconditional love brings love back to them. Their human guardians feel tremendous love for their dog and that made me think that’s all the more reason for all of us to love unconditionally as many people as we possibly can to put out love because love comes back.
Marc Bekoff: Yes. A few times in the book I have used the phrase “compassion begets compassion” and basically the opposite–violence begets violence. I was just reading an interesting story about how people who feel really good about themselves tend to display more empathy and compassion for others. I always tell people you don’t have to worry about running out of compassion credits. You really don’t because they’ll come back at you and when you get more compassion coming at you then what happens is you basically then can give it to others. It’s a win-win situation.
Caryn Hartglass: So when humans talk about how superior we are some of the things that are listed are the fact that we use tools and we communicate and we’re learning more about how other animals use tools and other animals have their own language and way of communicating.
Marc Bekoff: Right. We know that there’s a species of bird called New Caledonian crows who live in New Caledonia and they fashion and use tools that are more sophisticated than tools that chimpanzees make. We know that prairie dogs have an incredible language. They basically can use sentences. They have very, very distinct messages they send to one another concerning like when a human comes, what they’re wearing, who they are, what other animals such as predators are around. Once again, we’re not unique that way. There’s no animals that speak English or French or any of the human languages but there’s lots of animals that do really amazing things that we can’t do and we do amazing things that they can’t do.
Caryn Hartglass: One of the things you mentioned a number of times in the book and this was very moving to me, most of the book was. It was just like, oh my goodness there’s just so much incredible stuff going on out there that we’re not paying attention to we are just too busy focusing on our phones…is that different animals grieve and mourn their loss and actually have a version of a funeral.
Marc Bekoff: Yes I’ve seen it in magpie birds. I’ve seen it in foxes. It’s very commonly observed in elephants and there’s been some recent wonderful videos on the web of chimpanzees. The major point there is that animals recognize a loss. We’re not saying they have the same concept of death that we do because it doesn’t seem that they do, but they recognize a loss and they show respect to the corpse, if you will. We’re just seeing it across species now, lots of mammals and birds. It’s really just indicating that the animals know something has happened. It doesn’t get us anywhere to say bad or good. Of course death in humans we would cash out as bad, but I’m not sure they do that. I think what they do is they notice that something is going on that hadn’t gone on before. They may do it because of an odor. Some people have suggested the lack of a sound, we don’t really know the mechanism. The fact is they know, if you will, when another animal is really in pain or suffering and they change their behavior accordingly. It’s just incredible to see. I just got a video from a couple in Canada who saw basically a funeral ritual in magpies and that was one of the first ones that I reported years ago. You know the birds stand around, in my case they brought pine needles and twigs and laid them around the body of the dead magpie and then they all stood around the corpse and almost imperceptibly bowed their head forward. I was with a friend of my named Rod who doesn’t study animal behavior and he was incredulous. We were both mesmerized and as we rode off on our bikes he said, wow, did you see that? I guess you see that every day. I had never seen it. But it was good that Rod was there. Not that I would embellish it or falsify it. It was good that Rod was there. He was moved as much as I was.
Caryn Hartglass: Anybody would be.
Marc Bekoff: Once again, if we do something it’s possible that they, other animals, do it. We just need to keep the door open. The last ten years has been remarkable in terms of what we’ve learned about other animals. My God I think the next ten years is just going to be unbelievably rich in what we learn.
Caryn Hartglass: You’ve got a number of articles about zoos. How do you really feel about zoos?
Marc Bekoff: Well, you know I’m very honest to say I wish zoos would go away but they’re not going to go away any time soon. There’s practical matters like where are all the animals going to go? My take on zoos is that we should give the animals who are living there, or basically forced to live there, the very best lives we can and we need to really recognize that we can always do better. I think we need to get rid of some zoos, even some zoos that are credited by the AZA because they just don’t have very high standards. And there’s thousands of roadside zoos that have no standards at all. They don’t have to answer to anybody. So I think that’s what we need to do, slowly but surely phase out the zoos and send the animals to sanctuaries. In fact, Costa Rica just closed its two zoos and will be sending all the animals to rehab sanctuaries.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, I heard that. That is so inspiring.
Marc Bekoff: There’s just a lot that can be done. I think when you take a dose of reality zoos are not going to close overnight but I really do think that there’s quite a bit that we can do and believe it, people really are doing it. More than six American zoos have phased out their elephant exhibits. Elephants simply don’t belong in zoos. So if you want to look at it that way you can begin to sort of try to figure out which animals do better than others but large animals like elephants don’t do well in zoos and major zoos are phasing out their elephant exhibits.
Caryn Hartglass: There’s one article you have talking about killer whales and how at one exhibit there are people that are responsible actually for playing with Killy’s Willy. This is something that I find so unbelievable not just in a place like this but we find it in animal agriculture where there are people that are highly educated, they have great credentials, and they’re responsible for raping these animals or getting sperm out of them or inseminating the females. Who ever came up with this stuff?
Marc Bekoff: Well, you’re right. Tilikum is the male killer whale at Sea World who killed some people years ago and then killed a keeper I think two years ago. There’s a new documentary that’s been showing all over and CNN has been showing it called “Black Fish” which is really a very superb documentary about the ills of what happens at places like Sea World. The Killy’s Willy thing is just horrific because what they do is basically make the animal produce sperm then they use that sperm to make more whales and more whales who are going to live the rest of their lives in captivity who will then be used to make more whales. I call them whale mills, like puppy mills. That’s what they are. So it’s not surprising that a whale like Tilicum or Tilly gets really upset and harms or kills someone. It’s a no-brainer that something like that is going to happen. And it’s terribly sad. Nobody’s going around and saying, yeah, look at this. We need change our ways, Caryn. Really fast.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes. Now of course my passion is with food. The show is called It’s All About Food. You have a section about animals and food. Now I would want to believe that if we understood more about animals and understood their intelligence and understood that we are not superior that we would be less likely to eat them.
Marc Bekoff: Yes. I say in the book and I always say when I give talks that it’s not a matter of what we eat, it’s a matter of who we eat. And the reason I point that out is many food animals are formerly sentient beings. I’m not saying that to be cute. I’m not saying it to be antagonistic but whenever I use that phrase and I talk to people, it’s amazing how it changes their attitude. I had an e-mail from a woman in Vienna, Austria where I gave a talk two years ago and I just mentioned it’s who we eat not what we eat, these are sentient beings that wind up at the end of a fork or on a platter of pain and apparently six people who heard my lecture slowly but surely became vegetarians. It really pleased me not because I’m putting a feather in my cap but it pleased me that it really made a difference to them when they started thinking about who, not what. I’m very passionate about that because I think for health reasons and ethical reasons the way we eat and the choices we make can really have an impact on the lives of animals.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s time and you actually said that humans aren’t really that bad.
Marc Bekoff: No.
Caryn Hartglass: That we’re more good than bad.
Marc Bekoff: We are far more good than bad. We really are. I know people will always point to the bad but that’s because blood sells. I’ve tried to get some newspaper or magazine articles out about goodness and cooperation. We’re learning that. The psychologist Dr. Keltner at the University of California in Berkeley who wrote a wonderful book called Born To Be Good and my book, The Animal Manifesto is very much along those lines. He’s dealing with human animals, I’m dealing with non-human animals. More and more research is showing that, in fact, we are inherently cooperative and good. I mean, think of all the people you know—I really mean that, I wish people would do this. It’s only a very, very few people who are nasty.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah but they have so much power.
Marc Bekoff: Power. Exactly and that’s the point I try to make Caryn, is that they have power and we should harness our basic goodness when dealing with others. I’ve been involved in this movement called Compassionate Conservation and another book I had come out this year was called Ignoring Nature No More. Compassionate conservation stresses that the lives of every individual matter and that we are inherently kind, beneficent, empathic, cooperative—however you want to cash it out we should harness that inherent goodness. More and more research on humans is showing that that is the case. I’m so glad to discuss that with you because it really, really should move people to know that being nasty and being warlike is not natural.
Caryn Hartglass: War is not natural. And I think that’s the best place to end. Thank you and I want to recommend not only do you want to pick up Why Dogs Hump And Why Bees Get Depressed but this http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animal-emotions is a great place you can read. The entries are short and very moving.
Marc Bekoff: Thank you Caryn and thank you listeners. We will make a difference I promise you.
Caryn Hartglass: That sounds good, thank you Marc Bekoff.
Transcribed by Suzanne Kelly, 11/17/2013