Q. Your specialty is cognitive ethology. What is that?
A. I study animals’ minds and what’s in them—what they know, as well as what they feel. I’m most interested in why animal emotions have evolved. I believe they act as social “glue” and social catalysts, meaning that having emotions draws animals to each other and catalyzes their interactions.
Q. Don’t you run the risk of anthropomorphizing animals?
A. We have to be anthropomorphic. I can describe how my dog’s biceps and triceps are moving, or I can just say “He’s begging,” and you’ll understand immediately. It doesn’t mean we have to lose the animal’s point of view. All science begins with good stories. It doesn’t make it less scientific.
Q. Tell us about the book you’re writing, Wild Justice and Fair Play.
A. Whether animals know right from wrong centers on play behavior. When animals play, they communicate in ways such as, “I’m sorry I just bit you, please accept my apology.” Morality has long been used as a characteristic that separates humans from animals. Certainly, neither humans nor animals behave morally all the time, but some animals, some of the time, behave in a moral way. For instance, my dog Jethro brought me a baby rabbit, which we fed, and Jethro slept by its box for two weeks. Was he behaving morally? I don’t know. I know he easily could have killed it, but he didn’t.
Q. If animals have deep emotional lives, as your research suggests, what are the implications for humans?
A. Animals are sentient; they feel pain and can suffer. I believe they have inherent value just because they exist. Their value shouldn’t be dependent on how well we can train them or how well they perform for us.
Q. What are some everyday animal-welfare issues?
A. You should dig deeply and look at why you’re doing what you’re doing. Ask about the source of your clothes and your foods. Boycott circuses and rodeos. You can argue to make dissections optional in your local schools.
Q. You’re active in Roots and Shoots, which was started by your friend and frequent collaborator Jane Goodall.
A. Yes, it’s an activity-oriented program that was originally designed to increase kids’ appreciation and understanding of animals, people, and the environment. Now there are more than 5,000 chapters in 80 countries, and we also work in senior centers, jails, and refugee camps.
Q. People today are so busy; can we all really be activists?
A. I’m an optimist, but if we sit around, time’s not on our side. Being busy is not an excuse for not doing anything. We need to set an example as adults and really be involved. But you don’t need to take the whole world on. Jane Goodall’s mom got her local store to start selling free-range eggs just by asking for them.
Q. What else?
A. It’s very hard to be consistent in this complicated world. But we consciously need to make attempts to be compassionate and proactive. When I speak, I tell audiences: No one is exempt; we’re all on Earth together. We should be nice to one another.
Q. You’re an accomplished bike racer and skier.
A. I work hard and I play hard; the two really feed each other. My mother’s last words to me were, “Make sure you play enough.”