His life’s work on behalf of animals

In this Q&A, Temple University Press author Bernard Rollin talks about Putting the Horse Before Descartes and his life’s work on behalf of animals
Q: What prompted you to write your autobiography?
A: People are always spellbound when I tell stories of my animal work, of the abuses I find and how I try to fix them; of my interactions with cowboys; of the crazy reactions some of my work garners from putatively sane people. I have been asked repeatedly to put my stories and life history into a book, and finally did so.

Q: You state that your passion is a “moral concern for animals.”  How/when did you develop this—and what challenges did you face to commit to it to the extent you did?
A: I was shocked when as a child I visited a shelter full of wonderful, beautiful animals, any and all of whom I would have been happy to take home had I been allowed to do so. When I asked what happens to them, I was told that they would be “put to sleep.” Also, as a child growing up without a father I felt extremely vulnerable and unprotected. It dawned on me that animals shared that situation. As I grew up to be physically and intellectually strong, I felt obliged to help protect them.

Q: You have done much to improve the situation for animals. You improved the condition of laboratory animals, and put an end to such practices as over-operating on animals in veterinary and medical schools. Did these related efforts develop naturally, or from your growing reputation?
A: I was fortunate to be faced with real ethical issues in animal use at the same time as I was attempting to develop a new ethic for animals. These two tasks operated synergistically, so that convincing the veterinary school to lessen the severity of animal use led me to seek realistic and practicable solutions that could be sold to educators. Similarly, the more I learned about biomedical research, the more I worked to create a practicable ethic for animals that researchers would adopt, despite their ideological denial of the relevance of ethics to science. There being very few people working on real solutions to ethical issues occasioned by animal use in science, my work attracted considerable interest and attention.

Q: Much of your life has been dedicated to passing laws that protect animals used in research. Can you describe the reputation you developed when you want humans to use pain-killers when operating on research animals?
A: Somewhat to my surprise, I was not welcomed and embraced by either the research community or the activist community. In one banner week in 1982, I was labeled a “Nazi and an apologist for lab-trashers” by the New England Journal of Medicine and a “sellout for accepting the reality of science” by an activist magazine. Initially quite depressed at these demented responses, I was assured by friends and colleagues that I must be doing the right thing if I was getting attacked from both sides.

Q: You write about connecting with animals first through having pets.  You discuss farmers who talk about caring for sick animals, often spending more on them than the animals may be worth. The dedication animal owners have is often unshakable. What have you observed in your travels about the bond between humans and animals?
I have seen old and lonely people redeemed in their lives by their relationship with animals. I recall one old lady in Manhattan bundled up in heavy clothing to take her little dog to the park. I remonstrated with her that the city was in the grip of a major storm that could put her in danger of accident or illness. She replied that “I must take Fluffy to the park. She misses her friends.” For this lonely woman, her obligation to her dog provided her with a reason to get up in the morning and brave a snowstorm, thereby rescuing her from a sedentary existence.

Q: You were booed by cattleman at a lecture for one minute and 40 seconds before you said anything. You also write eloquently about your classroom experiences—getting rodeo cowboys to use breakaway ropes. You often disarm the folks you educate by getting them to think about their processes and actions. How did you develop your strategy/approach for changing minds?
A: In teaching history of philosophy, I inevitably taught Plato. I recalled Plato’s dictum that one could not, when dealing with adults and ethics, teach, only remind. I took this to mean that one could not try to force one’s ethics on others, but rather show them that your ethical conclusions in fact follow from what they already believe. I used this approach very effectively with individuals, and also with anticipating the direction the social ethic to go regarding animals.

Q: You are a philosopher, but also a professor, an advocate of biomedicine and veterinary ethics.  How did you intertwine these related/diverse subjects?
A:It was not difficult to do this. I taught history of philosophy for many years for seven hours a week. No one asked the question of why animals were excluded from the scope of moral concern. It was quite natural to me, in the course of trying to answer that question, to try and include animals in the moral arena and to augment their moral status. The more I studied biomedicine and veterinary medicine, the more I realized that both fields ignored the ethical presuppositions of their activities. Clearly a dominant question in each field was the moral status of animals. For example, I saw the fundamental question of veterinary ethics as being whether a veterinary practitioner’s primary obligation is to animal or owner. In biomedical science it was universally believed that experimentation on animals was basic to scientific progress, yet no one engaged the question of what entitles us to hurt these innocent being for our own benefit. I also noted that animals did not receive the best possible treatment consonant with their use in research – for example, there was no knowledge or use of analgesia. I resolved to bring pain control into science.

Q: Your work has introduced you to biotechnology, animal and industrial agriculture. How did you become involved in all these various fields, and how did you adapt to the different issues you faced?
A: I became interested in a wide variety of animal uses in society, hoping I could change things for the benefit of animals. The above uses were obvious areas where one needed to introduce ethical thinking about animal welfare. I have been remarkably blessed with wonderful colleagues in a variety of areas who guided me in mastering these areas even when they disagreed with me. My colleagues have been extraordinarily generous with time and tutelageand have kept me from making a fool of myself in new areas. I in fact have been vindicated in my activities by receiving joint appointments in the departments of Biomedical Sciences and Animal Sciences where I teach courses and do numerous guest lectures. I have even done research to benefit animal welfare under the aegis of such colleagues, who on many occasions donated their own time and research money. If there is a more open University than Colorado State University, I do not know of it.

Q: What has surprised you most in your work?
A:  I have been most surprised by the degree to which rational argument can change people’s thinking at any educational level. In fact, MD/PhDs are far more rigid in their thinking than “ordinary people” or cowboys. On one occasion, I spoke to the Montana cattlemen’s Association. When I contracted for the speech, they asked me how much time I needed. I replied “as much if you can give me.” To my astonishment, they gave me eight hours with an hour off for lunch. In fact, they stayed for 10 hours, only reluctantly stopping because I had a dinner engagement.

Q: What has been the most rewarding part of your work?
A: Without a doubt, the most rewarding part of my work has been producing measurable diminution in the amount of pain and suffering animals experience, be it by virtue of laws mandating analgesia, or by virtue of my eliminating brutal and brutalizing laboratory exercises. There is probably no greater “high” than alleviating the suffering of innocents.

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