episodio 5
30 Marzo 2021

Marc Bekoff: «I’m happy that those who say they respect animals and then mistreat them don’t love me»

Interview with biologist and writer Mark Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, known worldwide for having introduced the concepts of emotion and cognition in the animal world into the world of science. This is the fourth episode of MeetKodami, the video series in which the protagonists are people who, through their experience, embody the essence of the Kodami Manifesto.

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Marc Bekoff smiles and runs a hand through his hair, wrapped in a silver ponytail. It is early morning in Boulder, Colorado, where he lives with his dogs who «are out now, free to live their day and come back here whenever they want». The man who "arrives on the screens" of Kodami looks like an American Indian who carries with him that special aura of someone who has lived a life of great discoveries that he has not kept in a closed laboratory. Indeed, through science which was part of his professional career, he shocked the academic world by finally bringing among scientists the assumption that animals are sentient beings who feel emotions.

Marc Bekoff is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, known globally for making "logical" among his colleagues that other species have thoughts and feelings.

«It was difficult but I am a biologist and I simply did not give up». So begins the story of his long journey between human and non-human animals that he decided to share with us for the fourth episode of MeetKodami, the series of video meetings in which the protagonists are people who, through their experience, enclose the essence of our Manifesto.

Many years have passed and science has changed. How did this evolution begin in conceiving the relationship between man and other species from a scientific point of view regarding emotions?

I think I started at the right time. It was a good time because so many people were starting to wonder and want to know what their dogs feel but also what chimpanzees, coyotes or wolves feel and I was studying just what related to their emotions. Jane Goodall was also starting her studies on chimpanzees and she was doing this very important thing for the first time: she didn't identify them as numbers, but she gave them a name and gave them back a personality. Now I'm a good friend of her but I didn't know her at the time and I was like "Oh my God, I'm so glad someone else is doing this." And this only happened by showing good science. We weren't just animal lovers, we were experts in evolutionary biology and ethology. So, slowly but surely, things changed. And then there was also Donald Griffin who wrote about animal consciousness. He was an experimental biologist. Here, some people thought he was crazy. But Griffin in particular was very balanced and very intelligent: so he helped lay the foundation for cognitive ethology or the study of animal minds.

From labs to our homes. How is the relationship with animals today?

Things have really changed and I don't know any scientists who would disagree with what you and I are talking about right now. They might not be that open yet, but they wouldn't disagree. Many years ago people always asked me, "Can you find someone who doesn't share your position?" and it was really easy to answer "yes". Science is founded on solid research but common sense cannot be lacking. I always tell people: if you live with a dog or a cat or another pet every day you share your emotions and emotions with them and these are really the glue that holds you together. Let's think of robot dogs that have never really been successful: what you feel in physical contact, what you exchange emotionally with an animal is the encounter between different emotions of one and the other. Another important thing that has emerged in the last twenty years is the work  around the world about legislation relating to animal welfare. And if people didn't think that dogs and other animals have feelings and emotions then they wouldn't have cared about their protection.

In your books you often use two terms talking about relationships: "compassion" and "empathy". What do they mean?

Compassion for me simply means understanding that other animals have feelings and emotions. It's feeling that sense of cameratism, that connection with them and I find it very difficult at times to separate compassion from empathy which means "putting yourself in their shoes" or, better, in their postures. Compassion and empathy require a lot of effort on our part, it also means acting on behalf of the animals and not just understanding and perceiving their feelings. We need to do something to make sure they can continue to have peaceful lives.

Do animals "talk" to us?

Yes definitely. Many people say that animals don't have a language. Sure, they don't speak English or Italian, but in their own way they communicate exactly what they want and desire. Uumans can do whatever they want on this planet, I mean: we are really that powerful! So, if you understand that they are experiencing feelings of pain or sadness or joy or pleasure, or other emotions, jealousy or guilt, then we must do everything possible to make their lives the best they can be in a world dominated by man. We must not forget: the supremacy of our species has always been evident.

You mentioned emotions of various kinds, let's also dispel another myth: animals also have "negative" feelings…

Sure! They share as we do all the emotions we have. Many say it is not proven and I must admit that but studies are increasingly on this and are supporting the existence of very broad emotions in non-human animals. When dogs, chimpanzees or elephants play, they like to do it: if they didn't have fun they wouldn't do it and they wouldn't look for it. And, at the same time, animals have been shown to really grieve or feel sad, for example when a friend or family member goes missing or dies. I think the road from a scientific point of view is now really marked in this sense and I notice that people realize that the real question is no longer whether other animals have emotions but why did they evolve and for what? In the future, we will learn a lot more as people stop asking whether or not an animal can have emotions. For me, nowaday, it is a stupid question. Animals feel emotions once you simply accept the fact that they do and only this absolute truth will truly open the door to better and broader studies of them and us.

Animals have a moral code: this is another important result you have achieved by opening the debate on what you have called "wild justice"

The general scheme is that they work together and there is a great honesty in relationships, a basic clarity in the behaviors. So if I ask you to play with me I will not try to dominate you or reproduce me or eat you for dinner. I will keep what I call "the golden rules of the game". Animals say it clearly: I want to play with you, I could bite you harder but it's all fake. And they developed these relational mechanisms. How do we say between us humans? They too must maintain "fair play". And it is the same with sharing food or between members of a group that helps defend a territory, a lair or a food source. So when people sometimes say: "Dogs, cats, wolves, gorillas, chimpanzees do not have the same moral code as we do" it is really an error of understanding or evaluation, perhaps because they think like humans and do not differ in terms of moral codes applied to another species. But there is the morality of the dog, that of the chimpanzee and that of the elephants. It all comes down to treating other individuals fairly and respecting their relational dimension. Humans have a different moral code. But different doesn't mean better. It just means a way of being in the world other than the coyotes or wolves I studied. This is how the concept of justice is clarified also in the animal world, that "wild justice" that exists and is respected by the members of the social groups of the various species.

“Some people say they love animals and yet mistreat them. I'm glad those people don't love me”. That's your sentence. What does it mean?

When people say they love their dog and then don't even really know if dogs like to play, I'm glad I'm not their dog. When people say they love animals but then they don't protect them, they don't respect them or they hunt them, they kill them for pleasure, again I say loudly and clearly: "I'm glad you don't love me". Another one of those ways of thinking that we really need to pay attention to is when people say that dogs are carriers of "unconditional love". Not so: if you've ever really shared life with a dog you will know that they are very demanding. "He is man's best friend", they say but this idiom serves more to create beautiful titles in articles and essays, in magazines and studies. If we understand instead that dogs are not objects that emanate only love, then this really opens the door to understanding their emotions. I have lived with dogs who had very difficult lives when they were young and had to work hard to gain their trust and perhaps their love.

There is no "perfect dog": everyone is a unique subject  like it is for us humans. Is this correct?

There are two messages that I still try to spread. What I have just described about the ability to recognize the dog that lives next to us and then that there is no "universal dog": dogs are all individuals. A few days ago I was reading an article about if cats are less socially aware and less socially skilled than dogs. I think some are and some are not. These generalizations at the species level do not help in understanding the subjects. And that's another trend now that I'm really happy to see more and more pointing out by researchers.

How do you think the relationship between dogs and humans in the homes of Western countries evolved in times of pandemic?

In recent times, with the pandemic, it has been hard for us and our life partners. I have received many e-mails from people who told me that working from home they had begun to like their family's dog or cat more, to know them better. It's a good sign to me that by spending more time with their pets they have learned more about how wonderful they are. But from another non-positive point of view, after the hard period of lockdown, many people who had gone to get dogs or other pets because they were at home are abandoning them. They have "discovered" that it is a huge responsibility to have an animal in your life and in your home. The pandemic was a "mixed blessing". But, since I am a diehard optimist, I always look on the bright side. Human beings must understand that a dog or a cat is not a panacea for our shortcomings. It's not like you bring an animal to your house and it's okay. I read another article that basically said: "If you have difficulty, go get a dog, there are many to save". Well no! If you have problems, it is better that you first ask yourself who they are instead of believing to save them by having a dog in your life. Ask yourself: will it be good for me? and for the dog? And that's the same thought I'd like to hear about utility animals and emotional support animals. The relationship has to be "win win", it has to work for both non-humans and humans. Getting a dog is not like bringing home a puppet. It's not like coming back with a new car. It is to bring a sentient being into your life and it means that we must make a commitment to give them the best, if possible.

A balance between the needs of each other and the ability to share life by contributing in both directions. Are we as pet owners at a good point?

That's right, a balance between the species. That's why I was talking about shared emotions earlier. I have met many people who have companion dogs, emotional support dogs, assistance dogs and have that kind of relationship with them. But every now and then someone asks me: what can I do for my dog? And my simple answer is: remember that they are conscious, sensitive and sentient beings and they also have needs. So when they aren't doing something for you, you have to let the dog be a dog. He risks more, too, and I am referring to those who say they love their dog and then keep it under a glass dome without allowing it to live experiences. I have met people who let their dogs run free when they can and know that it is risky in many ways but they recognize the happiness of their life partner and also put aside their anxiety just to see the dog in its essence.

80% of the dogs in the world live in freedom. Then there are the so-called "pets". Many don't think about this huge difference

Yes, only about 20/25% actually live in a house and there are nearly a billion dogs in the world. This means that at least 700 million dogs are free to roam. They can go where they want, some can go home in the evening, others are completely without human reference. Over time I have always thought about how to get street dogs in India, for example, or dogs in China or East Africa, better lives. And you know, a lot of them actually live very well without us. A new book of mine is coming out, co-written with Jessica Pierce, entitled "A World of Dogs", in which we imagine the lives of dogs on a planet without humans. We started it long before the pandemic but it raises all the questions we are dealing with now.

What else can we do to raise awareness?

After this chat together, after reading what you write and after seeing your videos, I would say that what Kodami does is already very important: it helps to create a different culture. The more we learn the better we do and not just for dogs, cats or other animals but for humans. Because the better is our relationship with non-humans, the better our life will be.

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Diana Letizia
Direttrice editoriale
Giornalista professionista e scrittrice. Laureata in Giurisprudenza, specializzata in Etologia canina al dipartimento di Biologia dell’Università Federico II di Napoli e riabilitatrice e istruttrice cinofila con approccio Cognitivo-Zooantropologico (master conseguito al dipartimento di Medicina Veterinaria dell’Università di Parma). Sono nata a Napoli nel 1974 e ho incontrato Frisk nel 2015. Grazie a lui, un meticcio siciliano, cresciuto a Genova e napoletano d’adozione ho iniziato a guardare il mondo anche attraverso l’osservazione delle altre specie. Kodami è il luogo in cui ho trovato il mio ecosistema: giornalismo e etologia nel segno di un’informazione ad alta qualità di contenuti.
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