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A pioneer in animal ethics tells his story

Putting the Horse before Descartes

My Life's Work on Behalf of Animals

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Bernard E. Rollin

Q&A with Bernard E. Rollin, 2011

"Dr. Rollin is a pioneer who introduced both philosophy and the principles of ethical treatment of animals to veterinary school curricula all over the country. In the process, he convinced the schools to eliminate cruel laboratory experiments that were a standard part of the veterinary school curriculum. His book is an engaging combination of both philosophical principles and his experiences. It should be required reading for both veterinary and animal science students. I highly recommend this book to everybody who is interested in the ethical treatment of animals."
—Temple Grandin, co-author of Animals in Translation and Animals Make Us Human

When philosopher Bernard Rollin was six years old, he visited an animal shelter and learned that unwanted dogs are put to sleep. That event shaped his moral outlook and initiated his concern for how animals are treated. In his irreverent memoir, Putting the Horse before Descartes, Rollin relates how he came to educate himself and others about the ethical treatment of animals and dedicate his life to improving animal welfare.

Putting the Horse before Descartes showcases this passionate animal advocate at his best. In witty, often disarming detail, Rollin describes how he became an outspoken critic of how animals were treated in veterinary and medical schools and research laboratories. He recalls teaching veterinary students about ethical issues and engaging in face-offs with ranchers and cowboys about branding methods and rodeo roping competitions. Rollin also describes his efforts to legally mandate more humane conditions for agricultural and laboratory animals. As public concern about animal welfare and the safety of the food supply heighten, Rollin carries on his work on a global scale—in classrooms, in lecture halls, in legislatures, in meetings of agricultural associations, in industrial settings, and in print.

Putting the Horse before Descartes is ultimately much more than a memoir. Rollin not only provides a wide-ranging discussion of ethical issues in numerous settings but also testifies to the myriad ways that people of good conscience accept their ethical responsibility with regard to animals.

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Excerpt

Read Chapter 14 (pdf).

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Reviews

"In this accessible and engaging book, Bernie Rollin reveals his quite extraordinary footprint on the modern animal welfare movement. He is an academic but also a pragmatist, and he applies his understanding of animal issues and human nature to achieve some pretty great successes for the cause."
Wayne Pacelle, President and Chief Executive Officer, The Humane Society of the United States

"Unfortunately, most readers will not have had the opportunity to know Bernie Rollin personally as I do. He is truly a remarkable individual . . . brutally honest, fair, fearless, intimidating, caring, and transparent. The line ‘what you see is what you get’ applies to him. And what you are about to read in these pages is Bernie Rollin at his best! Putting the Horse before Descartes is a great memoir."
Bill Hammerich, Chief Executive Officer, Colorado Livestock Association

"Rollin emphasizes the need for scientists and other animal users themselves to introduce ethical discussion of what they do--and to respect the ethical conclusions of an informed public."
Animal People

"Rollin relates with self-deprecating humor, detail and East Coast brashness, how a New York City-raised pioneer in animal ethics came to dedicate his life to improving animal welfare. In addition to his personal journey of discovery and development, this irreverent, 300-page memoir provides current and historical perspective into the field of animal ethics, as well as insight into trends in animal care and food-animal production.... It’s a sure bet that this personal look into the field of animals and ethics will tweak the nose of more than a few folks whose vocations and/or avocations revolve around working with animals."
BEEF

"Rollin offers a new twist on the philosophy text. Best described as autobiographical philosophy, this volume shows how a philosopher arrived at his position through his life experiences.... Rollin organically explains how he came to the conclusion that what people do to animals matters to them, as conscious beings, and describes his impressive work to change research practices and animal law. Rollin is strongest in his critique of the neo-Cartesian skepticism present in medicine and research concerning animals' pain."
Choice

"Bernard E. Rollin's autobiography, is foremost, the story of his courageous struggle against animal cruelty and abuse, both professional and personal.... In this book he criticizes scientific ideology for being 'ethics-free' and speaks out against the (then) common denial by scientists of animal pain and consciousness.... Rollin, who now holds a range of illustrious professorships, has been one of the towering figures in animal protection for more than four decades. One can only salute his moral courage, his considerable learning, and his other tenacity in the face of opposition that would have destroyed lesser men."
The Times Literary Supplement

"[A] mix of often hilarious biography, condensed and readable expositions of his approach to animal rights, and…later accounts of his battle to improve animal welfare in venues as diverse as veterinary education, shelter practices, research, rodeos, and industrial agriculture."
The Bark

"Combining the history of philosophy, ethics, and his transition from New Yorker to transplant in cowboy country, Rollin narrates his dust-ups with riled figures—academic and industrial alike—with delight."
Library Journal

"The book is useful not least because it provides an extensive reprise of Rollin's published work—on animal ethics, the relationship between science and ethics, biotechnology, and the industrialization of agriculture.... Much of Rollin's book is an account of his attempts to influence decision makers and those working directly with animals. Rollin is right to point out that in his lifetime the treatment of animals has been transformed from being a matter of personal morality to a matter of social, and therefore political, concern. To this extent, the book serves as a valuable study of the emergence of an important political issue and a social movement designed to promote it. It is also a lesson in effective advocacy....[T]his is a book that can be highly recommended to anyone who wants an introductory account of the key issues in the increasingly important debate about our treatment of animals. It serves as a powerful testament to a life devoted to improving their lives and deaths."
The Review of Politics

"Woven into this memoir’s abundant humor are heavy doses of skepticism, delightful irreverences and unexpected turns, all of which permit Rollin to indulge his penchant for insights exhibiting common sense often expressed in a localized, colorful way of speaking.... [T]his book amounts to much more than mere autobiography.... It also provides detail and perspective important to the history of the worldwide social movement known variously as 'animal protection' or 'animal rights.'... [W]onderfully idiosyncratic and yet fully attuned to the value of reflective thinking, [Rollin] provides a realistic, humble, and fulfilling view of humans in connection with other-than-human lives."
Anthrozoos

"Through his descriptions of encounters with the various factions of people who work with living creatures, Rollin exposes the misconceptions that have taken root in the minds of animal scientists, veterinarians, biomedical researchers, companion animal caregivers, and others. The author critically and logically exposes the faulty reasoning that is still too often used to justify the inappropriate treatment of animals today.... With each chapter, the readers' ability to reason through ethical problems is enhanced.... Perhaps most gratifying to some readers is that real solutions to animal welfare problems are identified and put into practice in this book, demonstrating that philosophers do more than simply think about problems.... This book will prove entertaining and educational for anyone who likes or works with animals."
Journal of Animal Ethics

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Contents

Preface
Prologue: The Beginning
1. Life in New York
2. Coming to CSU: The Start of My Animal Career
3. Veterinary Medicine
4. Ethics, Veterinary Medical Ethics, and Emerging Animal Ethics
5. The New Social Ethic for Animals: A Philosophical Approach to Animal Ethics
6. Companion Animals and Animal Advocates
7. Creating Law for Animal Research
8. The Deeper Meaning of the Laws
9. A Philosopher Looks at Scientific Ideology
10. Ideology and Consciousness
11. Ethical Issues in Animal Research and the Research-Animal Laws: Successes and Inadequacies
12. Pain and Ideology
13. Biotechnology
14. Animal Agriculture: Cowboys and Husbandry
15. Industrial Agriculture
16. Changing Industrial Agriculture
17. Odds, Beginnings, and Ends
Acknowledgments
References
Index

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About the Author(s)

Bernard E. Rollin is Colorado State University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and University Bioethicist. He is the author of more than five hundred articles and seventeen books, the most recent of which is Science and Ethics. In 2005, Dr. Rollin was awarded the Henry Spira Award by the Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing.

Subject Categories

Biography/Memoir/Autobiography
Animals and Society
Philosophy and Ethics


In the series

Animals and Ethics, edited by Marc Bekoff.

Building on the idea that human and non-human animals share a common environment, the Animals and Ethics series will produce a wide range of books that explain animal behavior, show how humans’ decisions and dispersal around the planet affect animals’ interests and experience, and propose practical solutions to the ethical problems that arise from human effects on our world. The books will be rooted in the natural and social sciences, but the authors--mostly scientists, social scientists and philosophers—will write for a broad audience, including children.

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