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Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book ‘Ethical Vegan’, interviews his fellow ethologist and author Jonathan Balcombe, who has written several popular animal books such as ‘Pleasurable Kingdom’, ‘What a Fish Knows’, and ‘Super Fly’

Every time I read a non-fiction book from an author I have never read before I must figure out first where the author is coming from. Nationality, year of writing, profession, and things like that, help me to contextualise, but only after reading a few chapters I can begin to have an idea of the author’s credibility, point of view, and relatability — and whether I should dial-up my critical filter if I find myself in disagreement.

When I read Jonathan Balcombe’s book Pleasurable Kingdom, I got him straight away. I immediately felt he had a very familiar voice. I thought I could have written what I was reading. I felt he was a kind of kindred spirit with the same view of life as I.

We have several things in common. He is a long-time ethical vegan as I am (but he has been vegan for much longer). He is an ethologist like me who also worked in animal protection. He is a kind of itinerant human as I am (he was born in the UK, grew up in New Zealand and Canada, lived in the US for a while and now lives close to Toronto). We both are baby boomers who grew up in the 1960s. He is also an author (although I just started on this profession while he has already published more than ten books). And, like me, he has a fondness for the animals most people ignore or despise.  

This is why I was particularly thrilled when I managed to finally meet him — although remotely via Zoon — and I was able to interchange animal anecdotes with him. As I expected, he turned out to be a very amicable and knowledgeable bloke, so I thought I would share with you some of the answers to the questions I asked him.

Jonathan’s Veganism Journey

Cow and calf photographed on my grandparents farm. A moment where the calf seeks comfort from its mother. Photo By Rhian Mai Hubbart via Shutterstock (Royalty-free stock photo
ID: 1108171421)

There is an obligatory question I cannot help asking any vegan I interview. We, vegans, always like to know how others became vegan.

“I’ve always been completely smitten and enamoured by all animals, with no exceptions.  Even mosquitoes and flies that want to bite me. Even parasites. It’s not to say that I like being bitten by a mosquito. I have a level of respect and I have a high level of fascination for them. Nothing is surprising about me being vegan. The only surprising thing to me is how long it took me to make that step. 

I was 25 when I decided to stop eating meat, and I became a vegetarian. It took me another five years to make the connection. How the animals we drink their milk or eat their eggs still go to a slaughterhouse as well. Plus, they have the add it stress of being kept in often horrible conditions. The reason for me not eating meat was ethical because I didn’t want animals to be harmed for my benefit. Then I realised I had to expand this to include animals who are also harmed and killed for their by-products. Being vegan was a very natural decision for me, ethically. 

But such are the vagaries of life, and the society we live in, that often it takes a long time to get to that point, and even if I had the ethical belief system to support that, it took a while — 25 years, a quarter of a century — before I came to that realisation. And that was in the 1980s when the animal rights literature and the whole movement was gaining momentum. That helped me a lot. I read an article by Tom Regan — ‘the moral basis of vegetarianism, I think it was — and what he wrote made so much sense to me. I couldn’t live with myself eating animals and their products once I had that level of moral growth.”

Jonathan’s Ethological Journey

Mexican Free-tailed bats emerging from a cave in central Texas. Photo By Jeff Reeves via Shutterstock (Royalty-free stock photo ID: 760694149)

Ethology is the science that studies animal behaviour and usually focuses on animals under natural conditions, as opposed to in lab experiments. Although often ethologists study types of behaviours across species rather than the complete behaviour repertoire of one species, they all tend to have started with a particular group of animals. In my case, it was social wasps. In Jonathan’s, it was bats.

Jonathan got a Bachelor degree in biology from York University in Toronto in 1983, a Master of Science in biology from Carleton University in Ottawa in 1987, and a PhD in ethology at the University of Tennessee in 1991, where he studied mother-pup vocal communication in the Mexican free-tailed bat. He told me how his vocation started.

“I was actually acting as an ethologist while before I knew the word. As soon as I had enough independence to go out to the backyard and look around, I was looking at insects. Insects especially because they are so accessible; they are there in big numbers. And if you look closely, you can really find really neat stuff about them. 

By the time I was old enough to finish high school and go to university I knew that I wanted to do something about animals. So, I took a biology degree. Then I did a master’s degree in biology —I was focusing on the behaviour of animals, bats in this case. By the time I was thinking of doing a PhD, I thought of a career in animal protection. Perhaps top of my list of reasons to do a PhD, and commit four years of my life in doing that, was being a more effective spokesperson for my future clients, the animals — I consider the animals my clients.”

After his studies, Jonathan worked for The Humane Society of the United States, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and PETA.

Why the Little Guy?

A fish with wide open mouth and big eyes in fishtank, Surprised, shocked or amazed face front view. Photo By Noheaphotos via Shutterstock (Royalty-free stock photo ID: 1332341678)

One of the reasons I chose social wasps as my first subject of ethological studies is because I thought everyone hated them and that was unfair. Also, one of the reasons I went undercover to study the suffering of fishes in public aquaria is because I realised many animal protection organisations were only interested in mammals and birds. This inclination to help “the little, forgotten, and despised guys” is something that I share with Jonathan.

In 2016, he published What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins, a thoroughly enjoyable book that, with clever humour and accessible science, will teach you amazing facts about fishes and their incredible lives — l love the fact he uses the plural ‘fishes’ rather than ‘fish’, to remind us they are individuals. It doesn’t leave any aspect of their life unturned. It talks about what fishes see, hear, smell, taste, touch and perceive. What fishes feel, think, and know. And, of course, how badly we treat them. 

In 2021, he published the fascinating Super Fly: The Unexpected Lives of the World’s Most Successful Insects, a winner of the National Outdoor Book Award for Natural History and a New York Times Editors Choice Pick. It compassionately focuses on the lives of flies, mosquitoes and all the other insects of the order Diptera, who are so universally despised and feared. Did you know that only about 1% of the 160,000 known species of flies are harmful to humans and that there may be about 17 quadrillion flies on planet Earth at any given time?

I loved both books enormously, and I am sure you don’t need to be an ethologist to enjoy them as much as I did. I asked him why he chose fishes and flies

“I really like to try to help the most misunderstood, the most downtrodden, the most abused and maligned by humans. When I thought of writing a book about fishes it was like an epiphany moment. I almost fell out of my chair. I thought ‘it is so obvious that a book like that needs to be done’. There is plenty of fire under me to do something like that. It’s very motivating to me. And I think for you as well. We share this passion for this kind of subject. 

Now, flies, are a very different group of animals, of course. Fishes are vertebrates. They had the disadvantage of living in a different realm. They evolved in water, and we evolved in air. That is a disadvantage for them. But insects alone, we have so many negative attitudes about them. And among them, flies, even more so — as it includes mosquitoes and biting flies. So, one can argue that I was crazy to write a book about flies. I have a literary agent and I did get her approval, so I thought how enlightened of her to agree with me that it would be a neat subject.

Insects are the biggest group of animals on earth. 80% of the animals we can see are insects. An incredibly successful group of animals. And, of course, humans being what we are, we are having a lot of negative impact on them. The irony of that is that they would thrive without us. Sure, the mosquitoes and the black flies will be disappointed if we went away as we are a big food habitat for them, but flies as a whole, 160,000 known species, would flourish and continue to thrive — In fact, most of them would benefit for us not being around. The flipside is not true. If flies disappear, we are done. Flies alone are so important as pollinators, cleaner uppers, members of food webs, and this sort of thing. Anyone that has an even remote knowledge of ecology can appreciate that we have to have insects, we can’t live without them. 

One can make a very utilitarian argument for writing a book about insects and flies, trying to convince readers not to harm them. If you don’t want them in your house, don’t kill them, don’t spray them. There is definitely a plea for that in the final chapter of my book. I have a great deal of respect for the subject matter. Not just interest, but concern; and desire for them to flourish and do well into the future. The planet needs that, and certainly humans need that.”

Sentience in Insects

Close-up portrait of brown female European Praying Mantis in natural habitat. Mantis Religiosa looking at camera and sits on Ficus carica leaf. Nature concept. Soft selective focus.Photo By Marinodenisenko via Shutterstock (Royalty-free stock photo ID: 1829566739)

After observing insects from up close for many years, I am certain insects are sentient beings. Jonathan has taught a course in animal sentience for the Viridis Graduate Institute, so he knows about this stuff. I asked him for his thoughts about it. 

“If you look at insects closely you see things that you cannot explain with them being just a little robot. The beetles and wasps who run their thin antennas through their mouths. They’re cleaning their faces with each hand. It looks like a cat on a couch doing that. It’s pretty amazing stuff. And then flies when they’re cleaning their wings. And rubbing their hands together. The leading theory of why they do that is that they have taste senses in their feet, and they are cleansing their palate. I love that. 

We have to appreciate that their sensory world is a little bit different from ours. But they have a sensory world. Pray mantises are perhaps the best example. I had pray mantises looking at me in the eye. They not only look at me, but they look at my face. They know which part of me they should keep an eye on. To be regarded by a praying mantis is very unnerving. To have them turn their head and look at you. That’s one way of hopefully convincing people that these animals are sentient. They have awareness. They have conscience. They may have feelings.

And then, there is the science. I think science is important too. Is very important to convey examples of scientific studies. One example would be a very sophisticated technical study from Israel that concluded that ejaculation was a pleasurable experience for a fruit fly. 

We also know from studies with fruit flies that males who have been rejected by females will consume more alcohol. Alcohol is very relevant to fruit flies because they go for fermenting fruit, a by-product of which is the production of alcohol. How very human of them that you can picture this male fly being kicked away by a female wanting to have a stiff drink at the bar because he’s a bit depressed. We don’t know that’s the kind of internal feeling going on, but we shouldn’t exclude the possibility that there is a negative effect there. That there is some kind of negative association of being rejected by a female. That’s very reasonable. And a fly who had alcohol before knows that this tends to make him a little bit more carefree of the hardships of life and the challenges we humans can certainly relate to.”

Ethical Dilemmas

House fly, Fly, House fly on leaf. Photo By annop youngrot via Shutterstock (Royalty-free stock photo ID: 770351020)

One of the many reasons I decided to abandon my potential academic career and emigrate to work as an animal protectionist was the internal conflict I experienced when I decided to conduct some “experiments” with the wasps I was studying. Although none of the experiments were lethal or was designed to cause physical harm to the wasps — they were all behavioural experiments in which I recorded what wasps did in situations I put them under— I knew I was messing with their lives and causing them distress. I still feel guilty about them. When deciding how to design studies, there are — and always should be —ethical considerations that scientists should give serious thought to. 

There was a question for Jonathan that I had in mind since I read his book about fishes. To either show how sentient animals are or to reveal surprising facts about their intelligence or physiology, he sometimes quotes studies that were done to animals that harmed them. Although he often mentions how he disapproves of them, I imagined that, from time to time, he might have hesitated about including them. I asked him.

It is a bit of a paradox, and a bit of an internal conflict, that I am citing studies that often may harm the insects or fish. My response to that, in my own defence which is not without holes, is, first of all, that I cannot stop the study that has been already done — I have no control over that and probably no control over future studies — but if the study’s findings help to change attitudes and help to improve our view of the animals, then perhaps some good can come from that. It’s a kind of a utilitarian defence, but I always keep the animals’ best interests at heart when I write or speak about animals. 

And yes, sometimes it entails citing studies that I personally would not like to do. I don’t personally approve of them in that fuller sense. But there is a part of me that says ‘well, it’s done, and we can learn from that. I am always hopeful that scientists will continue to look for more ethical ways to conduct research, and I am encouraged to see that this is more and more expressed. Science has been progressing in all those lines, but it could progress faster, I think.”

The Rewilding Question

Sea eagle. White-tailed eagle. Seeadler. Photo By Bernhard Klar via Shutterstock (Royalty-free stock photo ID: 1100836418)

One of the best things about Jonathan’s 2006 book Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good is the array of examples of animals in the wild doing nice things rather than suffering or inflicting suffering on others. Playing, enjoying food, feeling pleasure with sex, liking touch, loving others, feeling good and doing good. It provided me with what I was lacking when discussing with others how the idea that Nature is cruel because it’s all about killing and suffering is a distorted idea created by the drama artificially emphasised in nature documentaries. It also helped me when talking to other vegans who think we should stop natural predators from killing their prey.  

In my experience going into the wild, I certainly have seen more animals doing routine life stuff in an apparent relaxed and content mood, than animals being predated or suffering disease. Of course, there is suffering in Nature, but there is happiness too. Of course, there is pain, but there is pleasure too. But overall, I think that the amount of suffering of the average individual animal in balanced natural ecosystems is lower than the suffering of the average wild animal in degraded ecosystems or human-made habitats.  This is why I support the idea of eco-vegan rewilding (projects that do not use lethal methods and do not discriminate against any species, which aim to return habitats to Nature). I asked Jonathan about his thoughts on this. 

I like the concept of rewilding. We have artificialized life. We have taken so much into captivity for too long. We need to have efforts to rewild, to encourage an increasing number of available habitats rather than decreasing. A big part of that must be to curb our numbers. We have to address the human population. This is something that we don’t hear on the news, almost ever. It’s really frustrating that this issue is not presented as a good thing. To work to lower our procreative rate and to lower our numbers. Everything else being equal, even if we are making progress in other areas, if there are more of us, we need to take more resources. It’s worst for climate change. It’s worst for pandemics if this goes on. But anyway, rewilding, I look on it favourably, and stopping taking animals from the wild in the first place is even better.

To me, I really never warmed to this idea that we should stop predation from happening. We don’t need to interfere with what Nature does. She works perfectly well. Of course, there is suffering. Of course, there is pain and death in Nature. Although I would hasten to add not as much as a nature documentary can make you think. A constant struggle for survival; life and death struggle; it’s presented that way so much, and it’s a little bit annoying because there is so much more to wild existence than that. Most days, most animals in the wild live peacefully and contently. But, of course, the predator-prey relationship is dramatic. It makes good television. So, we focus on that. But that is a skewed reality. There is no denying that life has challenges and struggles, we know that as humans, but it’s not our place to go and stop lions from praying to antelopes. It’s our place to leave them alone, to give them space. It’s the animals we take under our control that needs to be stopped.

Even if somebody made the case that there is more pain and suffering than pleasure and joy in the wild — which I think is far from clear — it’s not our place to interfere with that. Absolutely helping an animal that happened to be in distress if you happen to be at the right place. We should not live them alone. I am a biological organism; I’m part of Nature. So, if I happened to be there, and I can rescue a frog from a snake — which I actually did when I was about nine years old — then we may act. Or finding a bee who has been hit by rain and is cold by the sidewalk, I have picked up many bees like that and brought them back. And give them food and warm them up. They take to it, right? If they feel well enough, they drink the sugar water, then you led them outside, and they fly off. It feels great. There is not to say that we have no place interfering, but the interference should be helping an animal in need, not going out and stopping animals from doing what is natural and normal to them. There is a difference between these two scenarios.”

The Power of The Individual

Photo by Jonathan Barcombe

One of the most extraordinary experiences I ever had with an individual of another species was my encounter with a wasp who was guarding her nest when I approach it to study it as part of my zoological degree in 1983. I was not prepared for the way this one-inch individual judged me so correctly and understood I meant no harm. I have often said that what happened that day set up the path that later made me become an ethical vegan. I asked Jonathan if he ever had any experience with an individual animal that change completely his behaviour from then on.

“When I was probably 25, I was a naturalist with a job at the nature centre north of Toronto. Part of the nature centre display was a terrarium with captive animals. I never liked that. I don’t like to see a snake in a terrarium. And I don’t like seeing fishes in an aquarium. We had a beautiful American toad for a while. He seemed content because he was always hungry and always appreciative when we gave him food. And the food we gave to him would be typically flies. We caught houseflies in the windows in the summer, and part of what we did was to tear one of the wings of the fly so she would not fly away from the toad. 

I remember having a fly in my hand just carefully tearing a little bit of the wing off, and that fly started to lay larvae onto my fingers. Probably she pumped out 20 little baby tiny larvae. I was transfixed, of course, and it made me feel much more guilty for harming the fly. One interpretation might be — and the evolutionary biologist might have this interpretation — that the fly figured she was going to die, so made the best of it and got her young out. Maybe some of them may have a chance. That really enhanced my feeling of sympathy for that fly, and I never tore a wing off a fly after that.”

Having written about mosquitoes extensively, I asked Jonathan what goes through his mind now if he sees a mosquito approaching him.

It depends. I have a greater rate of respect than I had before because I know a little more about what their capacities are. But I don’t think my behaviour has changed a lot. Partly because I was always a little bit less aggressive with them than any of my fellow humans would be. For instance, I killed many mosquitoes, don’t get me wrong, in all the stages of my life and living in Canada one encounters a lot of mosquitoes. But I never just slap them. I squash them so they are as quickly as possible annihilated. Mosquitoes that have been slapped, and their legs are twitching, are still alive. I don’t want them to suffer. I will practise self-defence, and I think it’s defensible to do that if they’re after your blood, but we shouldn’t necessarily need to kill them every time.

We don’t always have to kill. I feel sometimes I want to give them a second chance. It’s a little bit like rescuing a bee or rescuing any animal. I always feel that I rescue a little bit of my own soul in doing that. I elevate myself. My soul grows a bit. My heart feels expanded. Because I care, and it feels good to care. We are wired to care; we are social species. So, I will encourage people to give them a second chance. Maybe even a third. You might feel good about it.”

Talking to Jonathan I felt my heart expanded a little bit too.

I did feel good about it.

Jordi Casamitjana