Last night I went to hear one of our local Boulder treasures, animal scientist Marc Bekoff, talk about improving the lives of animals—increasing our “compassion footprint.” Marc is world renowned for his studies of animal behavior. For years he has taken footage of animals playing and analyzed it frame by painstaking frame—every feint, jab, tussle, and roll measured and accounted for. In addition to his academic articles and widely read books on animal behavior, last year he came out with a children’s book, Animals at Play, showing animals learning to play fair with each other—something every kid needs to learn too.
Last night he spoke often to the children sitting on the floor in the front row: “I’m showing these pictures of people making a difference in the lives of animals. Look at these people”—he pointed to teenage girls in China organizing a Roots and Shoots chapter or people in North America or Africa rescuing abused animals. “These are wonderful people—look at what they’re doing. And lots of them are women. Girls”–he looked down at the front row, “you can do this too.”
Marc is one of those rare biologists who’s not afraid to talk about emotions in animals. “It’s simple evolutionary theory,” he said, pointing his laser light at the slide of Darwin’s theory. (Happy 200th birthday tomorrow to Darwin.) “Darwin taught evolutionary continuity, which means differences between species are differences of degree rather than differences of kind. If we have feelings, they have feelings.” Spindle cells, which play a role in cognitive and emotional brain activity, he told us, have recently been found in whales as well as in humans and apes.
Some of his slides were disturbing–animals seared, snared, or with limbs chopped off. It wasn’t anonymous suffering; these were animals he’s met in his travels, animals he referred to by name. But the night was far from a downer because these very same animals are now living in sanctuaries as far-flung as Mongolia or South Africa, and he grinned when he showed these animals after their rescue, lounging in the shade or rolling in straw. “I’m an optimist,” he said, striding around the stage in his enthusiasm. “There are marvelous people doing great things for animals everywhere in the world.”