An interview with Marc Bekoff
Few names are as synonymous with “pioneer” as Marc Bekoff. An authority on behavior, sociality, and play in mammals (first through canids and then more broadly), Dr. Bekoff has a truly large and wide-ranging bibliography to match his incredible career. He has brought us hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific research publications, essays, and book chapters, and has written 23 books on animal emotions, cognition, play, and compassionate conservation. In 2000, he co-founded the organization Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals with Jane Goodall. Among his numerous honors, he was presented with the Exemplar Award from the Animal Behavior Society for his major long-term contributions to the field of animal behavior and the St. Francis of Assisi Award by the Auckland (New Zealand) SPCA. Ethologist and ethicist Marc Bekoff has been an extraordinary advocate for the welfare of all animals and it is one of my greatest honors to interview him here today.
What inspired you to study animal behavior?
Bekoff: I was always interested in animal behavior. My parents told me that when I was around 3 years old I began ‘minding animals’ and always asked them what animals were thinking and feeling. I published a book called ‘Minding Animals’ in 2002 based on this conversation with my wonderful parents. I love learning about other animals and still write about them in scientific and mass-market books, and essays for Psychology Today.
Why is play so much fun?
Bekoff: Play is fun because when animals including humans are playing they are relaxed and stress free, and simply are able to enjoy themselves with their family and friends. Play is also contagious—just watch dogs join their buddies at a dog park and frolic on and on and on. This always make me smile and want to join in.
How important is play when trying to understand the behavior of social mammals?
Bekoff: Play is incredibly important because it is essential that animals play when they are young in order to become socialized, card-carrying members of their species, and also for them to get physical activity and cognitive training. Two colleagues and I have suggested that play is ‘training for the unexpected’.
Have the ethics of behavioral research changed over the course of your career?
Bekoff: Absolutely. It seems like every week something ‘good’ is happening for further protecting animals from wanton and horrific abuse in a wide variety of venues. Nonetheless, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to protect animals from being abused.
What role has research played in discovering the inner lives of animals, including dogs, and how does this affect research and how we should treat animals in the future?
Bekoff: Rigorous scientific research has clearly shown that other animals are sentient beings, very intelligent, extremely emotional, and moral, and that we must never cause intentional and unnecessary pain, suffering, and death.
If I’m not mistaken, Michael W. Fox was a teacher for you in grad school. What was it like being a student of Michael’s?
Bekoff: Yes indeed he was. He was an exemplary mentor and always was there for me. I learned an incredible amount from Michael in many different arenas, lessons that I tried to use with my own students. Michael was always a forward-looking thinker and walked his talk. He was and remains an inspiration to me and to many others.
Your schedule of speaking engagements is remarkable, what brought you to SPARCS?
Bekoff: I like very much bringing what we know about dogs and other animals to a wide audience because the fields of animal behavior and cognitive ethology, the study of animal minds and what’s in them, are incredibly exciting. Almost daily we’re learning more and more about the amazing cognitive and emotional capacities of other animals and it’s essential to share this information with as wide an audience as possible.
Would you say that your relationship with dogs and other canids have shaped aspects of how you view the world? If so, in what way?
Bekoff: Yes it has. I’ve learned many life lessons about trust, friendship, devotion, kindness, compassion, empathy, and love from the animals with whom I’ve shared my home, the land around my home, and from those who I’ve had the opportunity and pleasure to study. My life would have been and would continue to be empty without the nonhuman animals with whom I’ve had contact in a wide variety of situations.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention to our readers about you or the upcoming conference in Redmond?
Bekoff: Try to attend! It’ll be a wonderful gathering and there will be a lot of information that’ll be shared with you all.
Dr. Bekoff will be speaking at SPARCS in Redmond, WA on June 28th and June 29th to discuss the emotional lives of animals and how research and science can “rewild” our hearts.
For more information regarding SPARCS, please visit www.CanineScience.info; to learn about Dr. Bekoff’s other upcoming appearances around the world and his publications, please visit his homepage at www.MarcBekoff.com. Thank you Dr. Bekoff.
This interview was originally published March 25th here