Philosophers are often thought to be scholarly hermits who distance themselves from the practical world to produce books and papers accessible only by their peers. But there are exceptions, one of whom is Bernard Rollin of Colorado State University.
In 1975 Rollin was asked by his university to design and teach a course in veterinary ethics. This led not only to a new course but a new career path for Rollin. He immersed himself in ethical issues involving animals and eventually he became one of the most influential and respected practitioners of animal ethics in the world. Like other distinguished philosophers, Rollin has an impressive list of publications including fourteen books and over 300 articles and papers. But what sets Rollin apart from mainstream philosophers is a hands on approach in which he works with thousands of people around the world every year to improve the treatment of animals. Rollin moves comfortably and confidently among government officials, corporate executives, scientists, farmers, ranchers, veterinarians, and faculty, staff, and students on campuses. At last count Rollin has given over 1,100 talks on animals and ethics in thirty countries on six continents.
Not surprisingly, Rollin was the principal architect of federal legislation in 1986 dealing with the treatment of laboratory animals. But his focus is not restricted to the laboratory; he also addresses ethical issues involving companion animals, animals used in safety testing, animals used in product development, animals used for food, and animals used for sport.
Rollin's career is built upon two foundations. The first is the belief that animals are entitled to fulfill their natures. This means that they have rights to food, mobility, companionship, exercise, treatment of ailments, and freedom from avoidable pain, suffering, and distress. Surveys show that three of four Americans, while still wanting to continue using animals for food and other purposes, agree with him. The second is the belief that patiently working with stakeholders in the world of animals will lead to steady incremental improvement in the treatment of animals. Instead of finger-pointing at a distance, Rollin prefers to meet and talk with stakeholders and explore with them ways to achieve their goals which are compatible with the welfare of animals. After all, he points out, people who deal with animals are pursuing laudable goals such as, trying to cure diseases, protect the public from toxic substances, advance knowledge, or produce cheap and plentiful food. His most recent success is a decision by a huge pork producer to discontinue sow stalls and to shift to traditional grazing.
Rollin hopes that the United States will evolve to match the compassion for animals found in Europe, especially Sweden, but he admits that this will take time and cost Americans more at the super market, perhaps ten-percent to twenty-percent more. He also hopes that ethical sensitivity to animals will continue to grow among scientists, some of whom, he says, have been reluctant to abandon the Cartesian myth that animals are mere machines who experience no felt pain.
It's time to amend the old saying that a dog is a man's best friend. Bernard Rollin is the best friend of dogs, cats, mice, rats, cattle, horses, pigs, chickens, and hundreds of other animals to whom he has dedicated his life.