Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, interviews the prolific vegan ethologist Marc Bekoff, known for his compassionate approach to science and conservation

His name kept popping up everywhere I looked.

During my career as an ethological animal protectionist (another way of saying that I am an ethologist who left academia to become an animal protection campaigner and an animal rights activist), I kept seeing the name Marc Bekoff appearing everywhere. I knew he was a renowned proper ethologist, but he showed up in numerous animal protection books, essays, and scientific reports denouncing animal exploitation, and ethological and animal rights conferences. He seemed to be someone who validated what I was trying to do: become both a scientist and an animal protectionist, without compromising on either field or apologising for trying both at the same time. 

So, I was eager to see him giving a talk on 30th April 2008 at the World Forum for the Animals in Barcelona, Catalonia, as I was flown there by the organisers who asked me to participate in an anti-bullfighting round table next day (at the time I was the Campaigns Co-ordinator of the Dutch anti-bullfighting organisation CAS International, and we were already working heavily for the bullfighting ban in Catalonia that was achieved two years later). I was not disappointed with that talk. His wisdom, energy, friendliness, and insight were truly inspirational, and the subject of his talk, “Animals Matter”, was fascinating. That day I got the Spanish version of his best-selling book “The Emotional Lives of Animals”, and I have been a fan since.

Marc Bekoff is a professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has won many awards for his research on animal behaviour, animal emotions (cognitive ethology), compassionate conservation, and animal protection, has worked closely with Jane Goodall as co-chair of the ethics committee of the Jane Goodall Institute, and is a former Guggenheim Fellow. Because of his recent work with dogs, Marc was recognized as a Hero by the Academy of Dog Trainers in June 2022.

There is one thing I regret about the day I saw Marc giving a talk in Barcelona. I regret not having tried chatting with him afterwards, despite he seemed very busy. Well, 16 years later, I managed to correct that mistake. I had the chance to interview him via Zoom for over an hour, and it was a great experience for me, which I hope to share with you in this article. 

Marc’s Vegan Journey

Marc Bekoff with Winston

I could have titled this chapter “Professor Bekoff’s vegan journey”, but after chatting with Marc I feel that we are kind of ethological colleagues now. I know this is just me getting over excited, but the truth is that there is something very approachable about Marc. Not just in his looks, demeanour, politeness, and friendliness, but also in his approachable writing. So, I think that he will not be offended by my excess of familiarity — which does not detract from my admiration for his scientific expertise and my respect for his academic achievements. 

Before we all got somewhere in life, we started somewhere else, so it would be interesting to find out about his journey. To begin with, as is traditional in my interviews, let’s look at his journey into veganism. This is what he told me:

“I think my vegan Journey probably started when I was about two or three years old. I was born in an apartment house in Brooklyn, New York, but I used to talk to all the animals, and I used to ask my folks what they were thinking and feeling all the time. I wrote a book called ‘Minding Animals’ that came out in 2002, and it was called Minding Animals from a conversation I had with my parents where I was ‘minding’ animals. I was attributing minds to them, and also minding and taking care of them. I don’t remember a lot of it but my folks remembered it all. I’m sure that a lot of it came because my mother was an incredibly empathic woman. She said that I could feel the joy, pain, anxiety, or stress of an animal when I was very young, and I did, and I think that somehow that guided me along the way, because my path to doing what I’m doing now, and my path to being vegetarian and vegan, was very nonlinear. 

Over time, I became vegetarian. In the late 1980s, I just did it — I call it ‘going cold tofu’ instead of ‘cold turkey’. For the next ten or so years, the only thing I ate that wasn’t vegan was a piece of cheese or an egg once a month. People used to ask me, and I was honest. I’d say that my diet was 99% vegan by bulk and calories. Then, one day, a young girl asked me something like, ‘Why do you have to have that little cheese a month?’, and my response was simple, ‘I don’t.’  And that was it. That was between 22 and 25 years ago. It was not a difficult choice — I really mean that.”

Becoming an Ethologist

Marc Bekoff looking for dingoes

My vocation as an ethologist started when I was a child, well before I knew the name existed. I first learned about the word “naturalist” and wanted to become one, then I learnt about the word “biologist”, and I thought that would be it, then the word “zoologist” and this is why I started a degree in zoology, and finally “ethology”, the comparative study of animal behaviour by observation, fitted the bill perfectly. I began my ethological studies by researching social wasps (for a while gaining the reputation of being the “wasp man”) but then I left academia altogether, emigrated to the UK from Catalonia, and started my career as an animal protectionist — but still wearing my ethologist hat during most of my campaigning work. 

It seems that Marc’s professional journey started with a very similar early vocation to mine, but unlike me, he stuck to academia and successfully worked protecting animals from the inside.

“I think my interest in ethology really stemmed from my early childhood. Once again, always asking my parents what animals were thinking and feeling, and really loving to watch animals. My mom said I would just sit there for hours and watch a dog, or a cat, or a bird, or an ant. I think it was in my genes that this is what I would wind up doing. 

I did a whole lot of things, and I spent two years in a PhD/MD program — I really didn’t want to be there. Then, I learnt about a professor at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, Michael W. Fox, in the United States. I’d gone there as an undergrad and this professor came when I was not there, and I somehow picked up a university magazine — every quarterly they publish these — and there was a story about him. So, I called him literally that day and I said, ‘Look, I’m in this medical school PhD program, I don’t want to be there, I’d love to be your grad student,’ and I went to Washington University. I drove out to St Louis from New York and he accepted me. That was really the turning point. 

Michael was way ahead of everybody in terms of animal ethics and vegetarianism. He was working on the social behaviour of dogs, wolves, coyotes, and also some hybrids of coyote-dog and wolf-dog, and these were animals in captivity, mostly rescued animals.  There was a big field station in rural St Louis, Missouri, and he was really interested in the development of behaviour. I was too, so my early work was on the development of behaviour, comparing the different species. One of the things young animals do is play a lot, and that was my early research and my interests in play have continued for around five decades. But I wanted to do fieldwork, and that led directly to an eight-and-a-half-year study of wild coyotes in the state of Wyoming in the Grand Teton National Park. My students and I along with a post-doctoral fellow studied the social behaviour and ecology of young and adult coyotes. 

Then I went to Antarctica for one field season just because I was at a meeting and this guy I knew — he was kind of an academic friend, I didn’t know him well — said, ‘Do you know anybody who wants to go to Antarctica and study Adélie penguins?’ and I said, ‘I do!’ (My father used to say, ‘When opportunity knocks, get off your butt and answer the door’). So, that’s how I wound up in Antarctica, at the Adélie penguin rookery at Cape Crozier on the Ross Sea.

From then on, it was pretty much a straight journey. I was always interested in animal cognition and animal emotions, and I was always interested in ethics, so when I got to the University of Colorado, the first thing I did was start a non-dissection general biology laboratory. The chairman of the department was great. He said, ‘Yeah, you could do it, but no one’s going to take it,’ and in fact, it was the most popular lab in the department — and they had to add more additional sections. This was in the mid-70s. I taught courses in animal behaviour, behavioural ecology, and conservation behaviour and also taught courses with Dale Jamieson, a very well-known philosopher who did pioneering work on animal ethics. 

I left the university 18 years ago. I loved my job; I had a wonderful job. I just wanted to be on my own, to be honest with you. They gave me a good early retirement package — I have hardly retired — but I just wanted to be free to read, write, travel, and ride my bicycle.”

Prolific Author

Front cover of book Jane at 90 by Marc Bekoff

In addition to the hundreds of scientific papers and book chapters he published, and his regular publications for Psychology Today (so far, 1,796 essays), Marc has published 31 books (or 41, depending on how you count multi-volume encyclopaedias). His books include, “The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy―and Why They Matter”, “The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age” (with Jessica Pierce), “Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence”,  “Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do”, “Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible”, “A Dog’s World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World Without Humans”, and “Dogs Demystified: An A to Z Guide to All Things Canine”.  I read most of these, and they are very accessible, informative, and interesting. He told me about his style:

“My dad was a businessman and we probably had some talks about getting the word out to the general public, and that’s why I wrote ‘Minding Animals’ and my earlier books which were meant for academics but I really wanted them to be in a style that wouldn’t have someone just look at it and go, ‘Oh, I don’t even understand what a graph is.’ I just really enjoy writing for the general public.”

Marc’s latest books are  the second edition of “The Emotional Lives of Animals” and “Jane Goodall at 90: Celebrating an Astonishing Lifetime of Science, Advocacy, Humanitarianism, Hope, and Peace.” I asked him about his relationship with the famous primatologist Jane Goodall and the genesis of his latest book about her:

“I met Jane around 25 years ago and we connected in many different ways. We share a lot of the same values, and she studied chimpanzee behaviour, so that was a natural connection. She was an ethologist, she watched animals, and that really was great. It was a good meeting of the minds and the hearts, and she got me involved in Roots & Shoots. 

Jane founded Roots & Shoots in 1992 in Tanzania with 16 teenagers. They started cleaning up beaches, but it has expanded greatly. Now, countless countries have it, there are numerous local branches, and it now includes correctional institutes, refugee camps, and senior citizen homes. I got involved at first by just doing a lot of kids’ events around Boulder, but then Jane and I did a number of events in different countries when we were travelling together. Roots & Shoots was founded to generate compassion for animals, people, and the environment.

In December 1999 Jane and I wrote up what we called ’The 12 Mantras’ and then I suggested, ‘Maybe we should do a book on this,’ and she agreed. And so, the 12 mantras basically morphed into The Ten Trusts, a book we wrote that came out in 2002. Then, she wrote the forewords for a number of my books, we wrote some articles together, and right now I am co-chair of the Ethics Committee of the Jane Goodall Institute with Koen Margodt, who is a co-editor of ‘Jane Goodall at 90’.  

Jane Goodall at 90’ began when Jane was in Denver, Colorado in March 2023. One night as I was just driving home, I thought, ‘Oh, she turns 89 next week, Koen and I should do a book for when she turns 90.’  We wanted it to be very special because we only wanted 90 essays — which we call the ‘90 candles’. We wanted the book to be ready for her birthday, or a couple of months before, and an industrial publisher could not do it that fast, so we found an excellent self-publisher (Salt Water Media) and basically did about a year and a half of work in six months, and it turned out beautifully. The book was a secret, Jane was very surprised when we gave it to her, and she loved it.

Writing About Compassion

The Emotional Lives of Animals by Marc Bekoff

When I read “The Emotional Lives of Animals” 16 years ago, it reinforced many of my ideas about ethics and introduced me to new concepts about animals’ lives that have become part of my intellectual repertoire. For instance, the fascinating growing scientific discipline of Cognitive Ethology which focuses on learning about what animals feel and think, and the surprising fact that there is evidence that non-human animals are also moral agents like us with a sense of justice, empathy, and fairness. Marc and Jessica Pierce wrote a lot about this in ”Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals”. 

These books, like many others he has written, stem from the sympathetic concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others, which is what we call compassion. Marc uses this word in many of his writings and projects, as he truly is a compassionate human being. This is what he said about the genesis of the second edition of this very influential book:

“My publisher asked me to do a second edition around two years ago, and a lot of my academic colleagues said, ‘Don’t do a second edition because it’s going to be at least as much if not more work than the first.’ I kept saying, ‘No, I’ve got other things going on.’  I was really busy, and it was a good excuse to tell my publisher I didn’t want to do it. But then, about a year and a half ago, we were talking about my book ’Dogs Demystified’, and he said again, ‘People would like the second edition of the ‘Emotional Lives of Animals,’ so I said, ‘Fine.’ I wound up adding around 300 new references to it. It’s almost twice as long. 

The original edition had a lot of information, a lot of stories, a lot of data, and the bottom line is that we need to treat animals better. This new one is a much stronger call to action. There’s no compromise here. Cutting through the chase, we have to get off our butts and do something. No more wondering whether animals are sentient; no more wondering whether dogs enjoy playing; no more wondering whether animals who were tortured in laboratories don’t like it. 

So, it’s a stronger book, and it also focuses a lot more on compassionate conservation and on the importance of studying animals non-invasively and focusing on individual animals. There’s a lot more of how fieldwork is conducted and the ethics of studying wild animals.”

Marc is known for being one of the leading figures of the movement called Compassionate Conservation, an alternative approach to conservation which focuses more on individuals than on populations or species. I asked him to explain what this means:

“The major umbrella of Compassionate Conservation is ‘don’t do harm’ and figuring out how we can solve problems — that have inevitably been caused by humans — by humane methods, but I always felt that instead of ‘first do no harm’ being the first principle and then ‘the life of every individual matters’ as a second, I would have switched them around. Compassionate Conservation is not antithetical to traditional conservation in terms of its goals of maintaining or increasing biodiversity. It’s antithetical because it says you just can’t harm; you can’t kill animals in the name of conservation.

Historically, the focus of Compassionate Conservation was ‘first do no harm’, but focusing on individuals is more current. Jessica Pierce and I wrote a book called ‘The Animals Agenda’, and the purpose of that book was to direct focus away from Animal Welfare — which doesn’t do much for nonhumans — and Dale Jamieson and I wrote papers on this topic some 30 years ago. We wrote one called ‘Reflective Ethology.’  Then I wrote a couple of essays on Carnivore ethics, the focus of which was individual animals. A number of people were thinking about it, including Will Travers from the Born Free Foundation. I also edited a book called ‘Ignoring  Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation’. My name is associated with it a lot because I write a lot and I really advocate for it.”

Another concept that Marc created in his book “The Animal Manifesto” is the Compassion Footprint, which happens to be the opposite of the concept I created called the Blood Footprint, (or the measure of harm done to other sentient beings). I thought that mine could be easier to calculate than his, and perhaps he could just use mine for quantification, but use his to give a positive spin to the concept and encourage more people to use it to make good decisions about their choices. I was pleased he really liked the idea.

Talking with Marc was a pleasure. I felt a little bit like a pupil again. I don’t mean a student, as I feel like a student every day when I look at the world and learn new things. I mean a pupil of a wise professor. When I began to build my ethological identity in my late teens, I was an eager-to-learn pupil of my university mentors, but now that four decades have passed, I’ve kind of forgotten the feeling. However, I felt it again chatting with Marc, because he exudes a kind of friendly wisdom vibe only exceptionally good teachers manifest. Most importantly, though, is that I felt the peace and hope of being in the presence of a truly kind and compassionate person who intelligently and positively engages with the world to help those in need, no matter the species. 

Marc is the compassionate ethologist I have always aspired to become.

“Originally from Catalonia, but resident in the UK for several decades, Jordi is a vegan zoologist and author, who has been involved in different aspects of animal protection for many years. In addition to scientific research, he has worked mostly as an undercover investigator, animal welfare consultant, and animal protection campaigner. He has been an ethical vegan since 2002, and in 2020 he secured the legal protection of all ethical vegans in Great Britain from discrimination in a landmark employment tribunal case that was discussed all over the world. He is also the author of the book, ‘Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to change the world’.