Friday, July 30, 2010

Jonathan Balcombe - Interview

To wrap up all things furry and feathered week, I have a special treat, my interview with Ethologist and author of Second Nature - Jonathan Balcombe. Check it out below.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I am an Ethologist—a biologist who specializes in the study of animal behavior. I am also an advocate of animals to the fullest degree. I support efforts to protect animals and their living spaces, and I repudiate all activities that unnecessarily or gratuitously harm animals, including their use as sources of meat and dairy products, in harmful research and testing, and where they are harmed as forms of entertainment or recreation. Among my personal pleasures are painting, playing the piano, bird/nature-watching, vegan baking, and trying to understand the cats (and, I confess, the humans) I live with.

How did you become interested in animals and their behaviour?

From my earliest memories I've been fascinated by animals and what they do. How do they perceive the world? What are they thinking? How do they solve the challenges that their living environments present them with? What are their particular sources of pleasure? Etc.
How long have you been in this field?

Professionally, I've been an Ethologist since around 1978, when I decided to major in biology as an undergraduate student. Unofficially, I've been studying animal behavior since around age five, when I first began venturing into the garden to find insects and making my elbows raw by watching ants for hours on end.

Does it just become more fascinating?

The more I learn about animals and their ways, the more fascinating it becomes. The closer one looks, the more there is to discover. As much as I notice animals, I notice people often failing to notice them. I sit at an outdoor cafe and surreptitiously drop crumbs to watch the house sparrows who come foraging for them. I admire the quickness and accuracy with which they pluck tiny tidbits from the ground. I notice them glancing up at me every second or so—monitoring that big, lumbering fleshy creature up there. I can't resist twitching a foot and noticing that they flinch briefly before continuing. I notice the rusty tones on the male's neck and two ochre patches on the back and marvel at the beautiful job that that million year old artist we call “nature” did. I notice that I'm the only one watching and I think how much people are missing right at their feet.

In your opinion, if people who hunt for sport realized "the inner lives of animals" would they still be hunting?
I think that hunting, like all forms of animal abuse, requires a switching off of empathy. I suspect that few hunters lack empathy; it is just culturally and socially suppressed. I like to think that many hunters who realized the inner lives of animals would soon be hunting for a new pastime.

Most people who are intune to their pets know and believe they possess a certain personality - how can we get non-pet people to recognize this in animals, domesticated or other-wise?
As an Ethologist and animal protector, I try to use my knowledge and skill to provide the public with information that may influence their view of animals. There are a lot of exciting scientific discoveries on animals these days, but it tends to get buried in the academic journals and texts. Through my books, blogs and other writings I try to make this information more accessible to people, many of who are interested and hunger for such information. Information is powerful because knowledge leads to change. And we need a major change in our relationship to animals.

What are your views on using animals in testing? Zoos? Circuses?

I have a simple rule that informs my opinion of our uses of animals: would I accept treating humans that way? If my answer is “no,” then I'm generally opposed to it. So obviously I oppose using animals to test products that are likely to harm them. I oppose the use of elephants, big cats and other exotic animals in circuses, where they live in deplorable conditions of confinement and discomfort, and where arcane views of human control and superiority are reinforced. I don't necessarily oppose domestic dogs performing in circuses provided they are happy doing so, and I think many are. Similarly, I oppose most forms of captivity in zoos. There might be some creatures whose quality of life is not compromised by captivity. Maybe, for example, some lizards if they have a decent habitat and can bask in the sun, forage, and chose their social partners, or well-fed hissing cockroaches with room to run around, hide and generally act like cockroaches. I think common sense can inform some of these decisions. We need to understand animals' needs, and make honest assessments as to whether their quality of life is being compromised by what we're doing to them. If it is, then we should stop because we don't have to.

I once heard a vivisector say that “animal research is a necessity.” Not only is that arrogant—it is simply wrong. We don’t have to do it, we choose to. And we can and should choose to stop doing it.

Are we doing wild animals/birds/rodents any favours by feeding them? Or are we actually "killing them with kindness"
I assume you are referring to feeding birds in our back yards? I don't wholly oppose giving a bit back to animals after we've taken much of their living spaces away for our own. I think it should be done judiciously and in moderation. We certainly shouldn't feed bears and other wild animals in wilderness areas. In surburbia where many species have become more commensal with us, then I think some cases are acceptable.

Anything at all you'd like to add?
Anyone who's still reading this will know that I have plenty of opinions about animals. Whenever I'm interviewed in the media I urge people to take personal responsibility for starting to improve the animals' lot. The best, most immediate way to do that is to stop eating them. I'll be blunt: animal agriculture and meat-consumption are ruining the planet and causing untold (and unprecedented) amounts of animal suffering. Anne Frank said “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” I love the optimism of that statement, and how empowering it is.

Thanks so much again for your time, Dr. Balcombe :)

You can follow Dr. Balcombe's Blog at;

Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals (Palgrave Macmillan, March 2010). Available at most bookstores. More info visit

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