Author, ethologist and biologist Dr. Jonathan Balcombe is breaking new ground in our understanding of and appreciation for animals. For many, Second Nature, his last book, was their first introduction to his fascinating and brave new world of animal behaviorism. His new book, The Exultant Ark: A Pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasure, promises to broaden even more the base of his audience with compelling visual references for all of the major insights in the book.
Not only does Balcombe make us rethink our attitudes and relationships with non-human animals; he also compels us to turn that knowledge into action. Free from Harm interviewed Jonathan to get a deeper understanding of his ideas and in particular how they apply to animals used in agriculture.
Some scientists just do their research, write their reports and visit conferences. But you seem to have a more active role in being an animal advocate. To what extent do you apply your study of animals into action for animals?
I consider my job as an animal advocate at least as important as my role as a scientist. I apply my study and knowledge of animals into action through my writings—books, blogs, scholarly papers, book chapters, etc.—and through public speaking.
How does science intersect with ethics in your analysis of animal behavior?
Animal behavior is one of the clearest windows onto animals’ inner lives. The way animals behave helps to demonstrate their sentience, and I like to say that sentience is the bedrock of ethics.
How do you explain why the study of animal behavior, ethology, has remained so underdeveloped up until the present time?
Observing animal behavior is so absorbing that I’m a bit stumped as to why there was so relatively little written about it before Darwin’s time. But let’s give science its due; after a period of myopic denial when it was doubted even whether animals were conscious, the latter twentieth century has seen the emergence of ethology as a lively and very active field. I view ethology’s contributions to our understanding of animals as one of the pillars supporting the animal rights movement.
What major directions do you see this discipline headed in?
I am encouraged by the recent rise in relatively benign studies on animal emotions and cognition. I think these trends will continue. We are beginning to see more studies that combine behavior with noninvasive brain imaging and measures of biochemical changes (e.g., hormone responses to emotional events) to show parallels between human- and non-human animals. This sort of evidence is very persuasive, and I believe it has a key role in compelling the sort of paradigm shift people in this social movement are hoping for.
What can a better understanding of pleasure in animals do to help us understand ourselves better?
Recognizing and accepting animal pleasure is an act of basic empathy. It is recognizing that—when it comes to the experience of a quality of life—they are us and we are them.
How did you go about selecting the images in The Exultant Ark?
Some images were easy to select because they were both beautiful and they “shouted” animal pleasure. Others were more subtle and required communication with the photographer to help clarify what was going on when the photo was taken. I also had a framework into which I wanted to organize the photos (e.g., categories of play, touch, love, sex, food, and companionship), and some otherwise legitimate images just didn’t fit that framework.
With regard to farmed animals, what unique ethical questions do we face with the knowledge we have of their behavior and intelligence?
There’s really just one overarching ethical question here: How can we possibly justify mutilating these animals, crowding them into places that thwart even their most basic needs, and then shipping them in terribly stressful conditions to the horror of their slaughter—when we don’t even need to eat them to begin with? The answer is clear: We can’t.
What opposing views of animal behavior serve to justify the treatment of farmed animals today? What are their sources?
I’ve yet to see a single opposing view that justifies our treatment of farmed animals.
How important do you think veganism is as an ethical and practical solution to the fate of animals used in agriculture today?
Veganism is as vital as it is easy. I regard it as the Holy Grail of personal activism for animals, the environment, and human health. It is also a useful tool for addressing this nation’s economic woes.