Q: Animal Passions and Beastly Virtues offers readers a prismatic view in which to understand animal behaviors, minds, and habits. How did you get involved in this kind of research?
A: Ever since childhood, I've always been interested in knowing "what it is like to be a fox." Through my work in college and beyond, I've discovered that this field of study is what appealed to me. My parents told me that I always "minded animals." Minding animals means that I attribute minds to animals and also that we must mind themcare for them, respect them, and love them.
Q: You say that when you study dogs, you are a dog, and then explain that this is a form of "cognitive ethology," which is described as the comparative and evolutionary study of animal minds. How do you get into that mindset? Can you describe what that process is like?
A: I identify with the animals and empathize with them. I try to place myself in their paws and in their hearts and heads. I truly try as hard as I can to feel what they feel and often I'm deeply moved by the incredible array of their emotionsfrom exuberant joy to stilling grief. It's hard to put in words, but this has been a central part of who I am since I've been a child. It's innatemy evolutionarily "old brain" pulls me back to animals and to nature. In my research I ask "What is it like to be a dog or a wolf or a coyote?" and then watch them carefully and for long periods of time. There's no substitute for watching animals and for learning about who they are in their worlds.
Q: Your book is about social responsibility and what we can learn from animals. What have animals taught you? In what ways should we humans adapt their behavior?
A: We must coexist with other animals. Animals have taught me about responsibility, compassion, caring, and the value of deep friendships and interconnections. I've also learned much about who I am, not only in my world, but in theirs. Many animals see me and other humans as intruders who don't care about them, while others see us as their caregivers. I want to be a "consummate companion" to all animals if I can, and embrace them for who they are. Often I ask "just who do we think we are?"
Q: You wrote about many animals that people like reading about: coyotes, dogs, wolves, foxes, elephants. How did you decide what animals you wanted to study and learn about, and what appeals to readers about these species?
A: I really do love all animals, but the social animals grab me because I want to know how they form and maintain social relationships and how emotions and empathy come into play. Learning about empathy is one of my main goals for the future because it is clear that empathy existsit has evolvedin many different animal species.
Q: You subtitled the book "Reflections on Redecorating Nature." Can you explain this idea and what the issues are surrounding it?
A: "Redecorating nature" is a term that I came up with to describe situations in which we move animals around as if they're furniture. "Oh, wouldn't wolves look good here?" or "Oh, maybe we should move the lynx there." When I use the phrase it calls attention to the fact that animals are not objects like a couch or a dining room table and that we need to be very careful when we move individuals around for ournot theirown good. I'm very concerned about individual animals and question whether we should trade off individuals for the possible good of their species.
Q: Can you talk about your work with Jane Goodall, who wrote the book's foreword? I understand you founded Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals with her. What is that organization?
A: Jane and I have worked together for about six years during which time we wrote a book, The Ten Trusts, and we have worked on many projects through Roots & Shoots, the organization that Jane founded to promote compassion for animals, people, and the environments in which they live. Our organization, Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has been very successful for leading to more humane ways of studying animal behavior, for example, reducing harm that we bring when we study animals, and for making the animals' lives more comfortable when we study them. I do a lot of work for Roots & Shoots and recently was awarded The Bank One Faculty Community Service Award for the work I have done with children, senior citizens, and prisoners.
Q: Your writing in the book ranges from general interest to the scientificwhat were the unifying themes for selecting the articles and chapters that appear in Animal Passions and Beastly Virtues?
A: I wanted to bring together a blend of popular and mainstream essays along with some that had a good deal of data to make the case that we know a lot about the intellectual and emotional lives of many other animals. I also wanted to show how much more there is to learn. In addition, I wanted to make the case that it is useless to ask if emotions have evolved in many different species, but rather we must ask why they have evolvedwhat are they good for? I argue that emotions are social catalysts for stimulating different sorts of social interactions and also are a social glue in that they are important for developing and maintaining close social bonds among group members. I also argue that often we know more than we are willing to admit about animal passions and beastly virtues.
Q: You are a strong advocate for animal protection and talk about your sorrow at having once allowed small animals to be killed during research you were doing. How did you become such an advocate for these issues and why are they so important?
A: A lot of my "education" came from the warm and compassionate home in which I was raised. I always felt for other animalstheir joy, sorrow, and pain. It was natural for me to empathize with them. I am indeed sorry for the harm that I have caused. And while I know that I'm not perfect, I try as hard as I can to minimize harm and to be proactive and to anticipate problems before they arise. I also love to take part in and organize peaceful and compassionate protests to call attention to the harm that we do to far too many other animals and to earth in general. It's important to get out of the ivory tower and do something. I never felt right about causing intentional harm and the course of my life changed radicallyfor the betterwhen I decided to stop doing this. I also believe that scientists are responsible for sharing their findings with non-scientists.
Q: You have recently completed an award-winning Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior and have taped a program for Animal Planet. What other projects are you working on?
A: Right now I am writing two booksone is a popular book on animal emotions and why they matter, and the other is on the evolution of morality in animalswhat I call "wild justice." I'm also editing The Encyclopedia of Human-Animal Relationships. Time magazine had an essay about my work this past summer, so I also am doing a lot of radio and TV/video programs because of the attention from that and other essays and books.