Mar 242016


The recent announcement that SeaWorld is ending their orca program and forging an alliance with HSUS sparked widely diverse emotional responses, from joy to despair, but most serious animal people were deeply hurt and furious.

I am not going to address the specific orca question: despite my tens of thousands of hours working with hundreds of species, I do not possess sufficient knowledge or experience with marine mammals to know whether or not orcas can thrive in captivity. This determination belongs in the hands of dedicated, knowledgeable, caring experts, and not abandoned to weekend activists, anti-animal fanatics, pre-occupied politicians, or casual animal lovers. And I am not privy to what happens at SeaWorld, so I cannot speak to the details of their care.

Nor am I going to attack those at SeaWorld for this decision.  We are all struggling to find best and most effective paths in the current world, and I do not have access to all the information they had.  I suspect it was a serious mistake for SeaWorld to become a publicly traded company, but even if they had not, no institution can long survive what SeaWorld has been facing, so they did what they believed was necessary to survive in the short term, even though doing so may well have sacrificed the future.

I want to discuss some of the broader realities and process failures that got us to this point:

It is profoundly saddening that SeaWorld has been unable to persuasively communicate the core truth that responsibly managed captivity is a great alternative in parallel with protection of wild animals. That animals can do better living with people than in the wild.  That they can be happier, healthier, and longer-lived.  That man has today claimed every inch of the planet and that the only future for most species inexorably includes human involvement. That most animals care not about the idea of freedom, but about survival, comfort, and happiness.

It is devastating that SeaWorld partnered with an organization that has shown repeatedly that it will not rest until every single animal living with man has been removed or eliminated.

It is flabbergasting that a filmmaker with no relevant knowledge, education, or experience, and a woefully lopsided, sentiment-based agenda, could produce false and misleading propaganda and raise up an army of well-meaning-but-utterly-misinformed do-gooders who—in the name of orcas—set about destroying the greatest ally orcas have ever known.

It is gravely disappointing how many excellent animal facilities have seen no choice but to die with a whimper, or hand over their soul to the devil and betray their colleagues and the truth.

It is crushing how close we are to a world in which all animals have been shoved out of our homes and lives and banished to an illusory “wild.”

It is depressing how little SeaWorld, and other animal professionals, have been able to educate the public that good animal training is not cruel, coercive, or exploitative.  That animals need, and love, to play the game, figure things out, and perform complicated behaviors.

It is unfathomable how many people embrace an agenda that they have not bothered to fully grasp, and do grievous harm to animals while passionately believing that they are helping.  How many people are certain they know best, even when they know nothing at all.

But the most frightening and saddening truth is this: science and reason surrendered to a mob of pitchfork-brandishing villagers.  Knowledge and thoughtful pursuit of truth abandoned the field to ignorance, hatred, and frenzy. However you may feel about SeaWorld, you should be very afraid of a world in which the mob can control such decisions.

Make no mistake: animals and those who love them are losing badly. Sea World’s capitulation was a grave defeat for Earth’s animals. But perhaps even worse, it was a devastating blow for mankind. Watch the responses to SeaWorld’s decision, and relentlessly you will hear people with inadequate knowledge repeat the tautological assumption—“Wild animals belong in the wild because they are wild and yearn for freedom.”  No matter how much logic and data are presented to them clearly demonstrating the fallacy of their position, they will simply repeat their impenetrable certainty.  Reason, knowledge, and discourse are little match for sentimentality, unabashed ignorance, certitude, and zealotry.

Some may not recognize the enormity of this event: SeaWorld, after all, is but one organization, and we are only talking about a few orcas. But we are not really talking about SeaWorld as a brick-and-mortar institution.  SeaWorld is an icon, a metaphor.  SeaWorld is a manifestation of the notion that enterprise, entertainment, education, and animal care can synergistically coexist. SeaWorld, until recently, generated a great deal of revenue and profit, but its managers directed a significant portion of those profits into the welfare of their animals, aiding wild animals, conducting groundbreaking research, educating the public, and generating interest and affection for marine mammals.  It is cruelly ironic that the only reason people care enough about orcas to be attacking SeaWorld is because SeaWorld brought the charismatic mammals to our focused attention, and made them into the icons we treasure so deeply.  SeaWorld was the principal global institution with the resources and commitment to stand toe-to-toe with the Animal Rights groups and say, “No! We will not capitulate to misguided sentimentality no matter how loudly you yell.”

SeaWorld was one of the last citadels protecting the ideal that animals and people can live together, and that both can be the better for it. I do not know if there is hope left, but if there is, it lies with every single person who loves animals banding together right now and saying with one voice what I wish SeaWorld had said: Enough. We will not be intimidated; we will not let you eliminate animals from our world.  We will not let you distort responsible care and love and stewardship and call them exploitation. We will not let your simplistic fanaticism crush truth. We are the true lovers of animals, the people who dedicate our lives to caring for them and learning about them. With immense devotion and immeasurable reflection and action, we have learned what is humane, what is ethical, what is best for the animals.  And while we will always welcome thoughtful, informed input into how we can do better, we shall ceaselessly strive to ensure that the animals we love always have homes in the wild and with us.

 March 24, 2016  Posted by at 11:01 pm Tagged with: , , , , ,
Apr 042014


Whether you acquire your dog from rescue or a breeder or some other path, you need to be unwaveringly committed to keeping that dog for the duration of its life. If you cannot be absolutely certain that you will be able to care for this dog for the next 17 years, you have no business getting a dog.

Every one of us has heard this countless times, and probably said something similar ourselves.  The problem is that while the intent—trying to get people to understand that a pet is a serious long-term commitment and not something to attempt lightly—is excellent, the specifics are often quite wrong and significantly harmful:Older-2

  1. Pretty much no honest person can genuinely make this commitment.  Who knows what bizarre twists and turns life may take.  You may end up dead, ill, homeless, whatever.  By requiring animal owners to make this eternal vow, we eliminate nearly all homes except those that are dishonest enough to pretend that they can promise the future.
  2. Millions of nice pets end up languishing in yards, kennels, and crates for years because the owners are ashamed to be derided and despised if they admit they cannot live up to this ideal.
  3. Many animals end up dumped somewhere to suffer simply because the person could not face the shame of rehoming their dog or walking into a shelter.

The real message ought to be that when you acquire an animal, you assume absolute responsibility for the welfare of that animal, whatever that means.  In most cases that will mean keeping the animal for a lifetime, but in some cases doing what is best for the animal will mean not keeping it but instead making certain that it goes somewhere else where it will be handled responsibly and with care. In some cases it may even mean stepping up and making the hard decision to euthanize a particular animal. A person’s life may change and they can no longer provide a good home for a pet, a Olderparticular pet may not fit into a particular home, a pet may be too much for an individual to handle, a pet may simply be nasty.  People should not enter into pet ownership lightly, but they also should not feel like there is no escape or they will never try.

Before I get a huge number of hostile comments, let me be absolutely clear that I am not in any way diminishing the magnitude of the responsibility of getting a pet.  I am not countenancing the casual acquisition and disposal of pets.  There are few undertaking I consider more sacred and serious than the decision to become responsible for the welfare of an animal.  And I think we absolutely should be doing everything we can as a community to encourage and increase retention, including making very certain that people understand what they are getting into.  But I do not think terrifying and shaming people is the best way to accomplish this goal.


 April 4, 2014  Posted by at 9:26 pm Tagged with: , ,
Mar 112014


Joe lives on a completely isolated island where he has the only dogs—a nice, happy, healthy, beautiful, unrelated adult male and female.  Joe asks everyone on the island, and 4 of them would really like a puppy and are committed and capable of providing a great home and life.  Should Joe breed?

  1. NO!  Joe should NOT breed because he might produce more than 4 puppies.  It is better to let the species go extinct than risk having a surplus.
  2. YES! Joe should breed so that there are future dogs, 4 of whom have great homes.  If there are more than 4 puppies, he should place the healthiest, nicest, best structured puppies in the 4 homes, house any extras humanely (in a shelter or with Joe) until a home becomes available or they die of old age.
  3. YES! Joe should breed so that there are future dogs, 4 of whom have great homes.  If there are more than 4 puppies, he should place the 4 healthiest, nicest, best structured puppies in the 4 homes, and try to place the others, but if after all reasonable efforts have been expended there remain any surplus puppies, their lives should be ended as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Which of these do you believe is the right choice and why?

(Of course, this is not intended to be read literally—it is ridiculously inaccurate and oversimplified. And I am sure many people will point out the many complications that prevent this question from being applied to reality… It is intended as a thought experiment—a small isolated question to think about that might help to clarify an underlying core notion. In my opinion, anyone who is going to contribute to discourse on the topics of breeding and rescue and reducing shelter populations ought to have thoroughly considered this question.)

 March 11, 2014  Posted by at 5:50 pm Tagged with: , , ,
Jan 072014


Most readers are likely aware that Western black rhinos went extinct in recent years.  By far, the two largest factors in driving this extinction were habitat loss and poaching.  Despite millions of dollars spent and many laws passed attempting to stem the trade of rhino horns, Western black rhinos were wiped off the face of the planet largely in a few decades.

Let us imagine a different scenario:

Back around 1970, a small number of rhino were allowed to be removed from the wild and kept by private owners.  Several ranchers in Texas spent lots of money and each imported several rhinos.  They built them huge pastures—in some cases larger than the area they had in the “wild.” They spent lots of money on veterinary care and enrichment because their profit depended upon healthy, long lived animals.  They bred them and grew their herds.  Once every 18 months or so, each rhino was sedated and its horn removed at the same time routine veterinary procedures were performed. When they awakened, they were in no pain, and their horns grew back in around a year. The ranchers made lots of money, much of which they put back into their rhino operations, and they worked together to improve the care and husbandry of rhinos, and created a database so they could breed the healthiest and strongest.  They sold babies to other people looking to get into the rhino-horn business.  And a small but thriving industry was born.

Undoubtedly a few incompetent, unscrupulous, or greedy people would do a bad job—a few rhinos would suffer and die. But the overwhelming majority would be well cared for, and the species would be safe and thriving.  There would be thousands of healthy black rhinos today, well-cared for on ranches not only in Texas, but in Africa and elsewhere.  There would be plenty of specimens to repopulate the wild. Yes, they would be “captive,” but would that be worse or better than extinct?

This scenario did not occur, and in fact was not even broadly discussed, because the animal rights movement was so effective at persuading people that animals cannot be humanely utilized, that animals belong only in the “wild.” They passed law after law “protecting” black rhinos from any captive future, and prohibiting the rhino-horn trade, but in doing so obliterated the very fiscal incentive that might have motivated some people to allocate land and resources to breeding these animals.  They protected black rhinos straight into extinction.

The phrase, “better dead than caged” has often been proclaimed by those who believe animals should never be kept.  I wonder, would the Western black rhinos agree?

This question is worth contemplating, not merely for our own edification, but also because there are many other species, and other subspecies of rhino, on a similar trajectory.  Should we save them to live with us or let them go extinct?


 January 7, 2014  Posted by at 4:00 am Tagged with: , ,
Feb 252013

TIMG_0717his post is not a judgment of anything you may have done!  I do not know the details or variables of your decisions, nor do I believe there is a single right answer to this complex question.  I am only addressing it in the hopes that everyone will consider it:

In recent years it has become an accepted and even expected practice to drop one’s dog at the veterinarian’s office in the morning and return later that day or later that week to retrieve the dog after appropriate veterinary procedures have been completed.  Similarly, when owners are present, dogs are routinely taken to a separate room in back for actual procedures and then brought back into the exam room.

In some cases, leaving a dog is unavoidable or the only realistic option. But in many cases, I think owners fail to seriously consider their animal’s perspective, or are simply carried along by inertia and simply do it that way because that is how their vet does it.  In many cases, I believe these practices are contrary to the best interests of the animals. So I thought it might be worth enumerating some of the key considerations in deciding whether to leave an animal or stay with them.  There are tangible advantages and disadvantages that warrant consideration:

Advantages to leaving your animal at the vet office:

  1. Convenience for the owner: it is certainly easier to spend a few minutes dropping your animal at the vet than it is to spend all day sitting on the floor with them…
  2. Convenience for the vet: with animals that are left, vets can get to them when it fits into their schedule, can have techs and students perform tasks they might otherwise do themselves, can spend less time calming worried owners.
  3. Fewer distractions for the vet: even for the most skilled and experienced vet, having an owner in the room is a distraction.  The vet is thinking about perception, how to answer questions, etc.
  4. Vet not made nervous: vets are human, and having someone looking over their shoulder can make them perform less well than they would if they were alone.
  5. Some animals are better behaved when their owner is not present. Nobody likes to admit this, but oftentimes animals are much more tractable when their owner is not there to bolster their confidence.
  6. Many owners are stressed at the vet and communicate this stress to their dogs.  Particularly when needles, scalpels, blood, pus, and other medical realities are present, many owners are not relaxed.
  7. Some procedures can be better and more efficiently performed in a manner that may not appeal to owners.  Sometimes what is best for a dog may look bad, and well-intentioned but inexperienced owners may be upset by all sorts of best practices.
  8. Space is sometimes at a premium, and there just is not room for every owner to be present.

Disadvantages to leaving your dog at the vet office:

  1. Emotional support: a vet’s office is a strange and stressful place to most animals.  Being “left” alone adds to this stress. Having a skilled owner present is the single biggest thing that can be done to provide consistency and continuity. This is hugely exacerbated if the animals is sedated, anesthetized, or otherwise altered–when an animal wakes from anesthesia, it is disoriented, frightened, and generally in pain.  It has no idea what has just happened or why, and it does not understand the after effects of anesthesia. It has no way of knowing its owner will return given that this situation is so outside normal events. This is extremely stressful, and extreme stress is not only harmful to animals, it can be extremely deleterious to healing.
  2. More attention: In the post-op hours, the veterinary staff will check on each animal periodically.  If there is an emergency with another animal, an individual may well go unchecked for a long time.  With an owner present, the animal will get uninterrupted vigilance. There is simply no way any vet can provide this level of care. Even in the operating room, another set of eyes can help—on at least two occasions, my presence averted a serious mishap.
  3. Superior baseline knowledge of animal: The vet just does not know the individual as well as the owner does.  We are more able to recognize aberrant behavior.   We know which of our animals have had a paradoxical response to propofol, which has a heart murmur that is evident only when sedated, which are sound sensitive, which are reactive to other dogs, etc.
  4. Informed advocacy: Decisions may need to be made on the fly, and if the owner is not present, who will make them?  In my view, it is a team effort—the vet is the medical expert, but the owner is the team captain who knows the animal’s history, personality, and future plans.  Removing the team captain during a critical procedure weakens the team hugely.
  5. Animal handling skills: Owners are often more knowledgeable and skilled than most of the people working in a veterinary office.  More experienced with animal behavior, more aware of spinal consequences of poor lifting techniques, etc.
  6. Veterinary knowledge: much though we want to assume our vets know everything, they do not.  Particularly when we know our animal has a particular issue, we may have read every study and talked to every expert and be FAR more current than our vet.  I cannot tell you how many times I have educated my various vets on latest research on a topic.
  7. Ethical obligation: many owners simply feel an obligation to be there—we made an absolute commitment to our animals that we would take care of them, and we cannot do that if we are not present.


Every case is different.  The best answer depends upon many variables, in particular the abilities and attitude of the owner, the vet, and the techs; the temperament and experience of the individual animal; and the procedure being performed. If you are going to leave your pet, get him ready for it: leave him several times with a friend for a fun afternoon, leave him in a crate in a strange place for a few hours, arrange with your vet to leave him there on days when nothing happens except they give him a few cookies and pats throughout the day.  Get him used to being there, apart from you, and to the strange smells, sights, and sounds….

Before you leave your animal anywhere, including the veterinary hospital, think carefully about the risks associated with doing so.  Think about it from the animal’s perspective— what are his past experiences, how will he feel, what will be going through his mind? Do not simply follow protocol—do what is right for your animal.  At the end of the day, you are his advocate, his owner, and you are the one who must make the best possible decisions!

 February 25, 2013  Posted by at 6:35 pm
Feb 122013

Dear Dog, and other animal,Untitled-3 Breeders,

Over the past few years, dog breeders have been included in much controversy, and I want to take a minute to address all “serious” dog breeders directly:

Thank you!  Thank you! Thank you!  You have so deeply enriched and improved my life, and the lives of nearly every person I know, and I want to encourage and implore each and every one of you to keep breeding and know that your efforts are well recognized and understood by many of us, even if that truth is sometimes lost in the clamor…

Johnny014Dog breeders are often vilified by Animal Rights zealots, by well-meaning but woefully misguided members of the public who have been persuaded that breeders are causing overpopulation and filling justsheepshelters, by rescuers and shelter workers whose views of the world have become so skewed by the war they are waging that they have lost all perspective, and by those in the media who prefer drama to truth.

Breeders are the solution, not the problem. You are the true heroes stewarding the present and the future of dogs.  You are the ones creating healthy, well-structured animals with great temperaments and excellent early socialization. You are the ones funding health research. You are the ones devoting your lives and resources to the betterment of the species. You are the ones who put in twenty hour days giving your puppies everything and then wake up three times during the night to check on them. You are the ones whose dogs are virtually never in shelters because you do such a good job screening and placing and taking back dogs. You are the ones who have virtually eliminated overpopulation within your realm and in fact created a shortage of good dogs such that it often takes years of waiting before a puppy is available.

Clip0039That another, completely unrelated, group of idiots allows their dogs to keep reproducing for no good reason and filling shelters; that a few profit-driven miscreants breed countless dogs in horrid conditions; that rescues and shelters keep placing horrific dogs in homes so that they bounce back and keep the system full; that naivety motivates the unnatural and unsustainable notion of no-kill, that by nature dogs produce more puppies than are needed and so some excess and attrition are unavoidable—these things are not your fault!

napYes, there are issues that breeders need to improve—breeding towards extremes, prioritizing the wrong goals, breeding too young, over-breeding certain lines, placing excessive value on breed purity, hostility towards differing opinions, elitist attitudes, undervaluing balance—and I hope breeders will continue to improve.  And yes, there are some awful breeders out there.  But all in all, it is you who have created the wonderful dogs of today, and you who will create the wonderful dogs of tomorrow, and my gratitude for that is nearly boundless. And while there are some lovely accidentally bred dogs in shelters (I have a few!), and some awful dogs being produced by breeders, at the end of the day the quality of dogs generally being produced by careful breeders is leaps and bounds higher than what is generally available in shelters.

All thhosee mindless anti-breeder rhetoric is nothing more than misleading hate-mongering that points the blame in the wrong direction: if breeders, and the public, buy into this mindless propaganda, we will lose all the good dogs in a few years, with virtually no reduction in the number of poorly bred dogs filling the shelters.

So please, keep up the good work and know how much you and your hard work are appreciated. And above all, know that the fabulous creatures you produce are dearly loved and valued.



 February 12, 2013  Posted by at 9:17 pm
Nov 022011

I generally avoid nature documentaries—they tend to contain so much misinformation that they make me crazy—but the other night I was flipping channels, and I watched a few minutes of two different shows, both about lions, that really piqued my curiosity:

Lions are a true apex predator—one of the most powerful and successful creatures on the planet with few adversaries. So their lives are in many ways easier, safer, and more comfortable than most other animals.

In the first show, a lioness was raising her cubs in what turned out to be the territory of a cobra, and each of the cubs and the mother ended up being bitten.  Within a few agonizing minutes the cubs were all dead, but it took much longer for the mother, who was clearly in incredible pain and anguish as she lay next to her dead cubs, growing weaker and weaker, salivating and cramping and going blind before eventually a pack of hyenas showed up to terrorize her before she finally died…


In the second, a pride of lions (a 3 year old male, several females, and a bunch of cubs) was struggling to survive.  In a brief period they had battled drought, and a scarcity of food, and they were weak and hungry.  They finally managed to catch a buffalo which was great news for the lion pride, but was gruesome for the buffalo who was essentially pulled down by the weight of several lionesses and eaten alive…  But at least the lions were finally able to eat, although each of them had countless flies on her face making even the brief moment of satiation rather unpleasant.  Then, just as they were finishing their first meal in weeks, an unknown male lion showed up to fight with and defeat the resident male.  The resident male was injured, and limped off to die a slow agonizing death of starvation, while the new male spent the next hour or so killing all the cubs and playing with their lifeless bodies.

Each of these is, obviously, quite sad on an emotional level, but I was able to set aside my sentimental response and remember that this is how nature works: almost all wild animals will face hunger and injury and cold and parasites before dying an unpleasant death while they are still quite young.

What I could not answer, and still cannot, is how so many people can look at a lion in captivity—lounging on a comfortable bed, eating its fill of optimal food, free from flies and worms and fleas, drinking clean fresh water every day, running and playing without a worry in the world, living several times longer, raising babies in safety—and feel sorry for the captive animal.  Feel that the animal would be happier or better off living the “free” life of a wild animal.  Certainly, there are some captive animals that are abused or neglected and would be better off in any other situation, but you would have to look long and hard to find ANY animal in captivity that suffers more than its wild counterparts…

Mar 282010

On  February 24, 2010 in SeaWorld’s Shamu Stadium in Orlando, Florida, animal trainer Dawn Brancheau was pulled under the water by an orca. A few minutes later, Dawn was dead.  Subsequent discussion in the media and around the Net has focused on the keeping of orcas and the dangers of working with powerful predators.

Profoundly missing in this discussion is Dawn’s voice.

I cannot speak for Dawn, but I can share with you the professional animal trainers’ perspective. You see, we all understand a common truth, and when an event like this occurs, we talk late into the night trying to figure out how we can effectively share that truth with others – how we can explain why, as Roy Horn was slipping from consciousness in the jaws of Mantecore the tiger during a Las Vegas show, he was saying over and over, “Please don’t hurt the cat… .”

Animal training is not a job, not a hobby, not an interest.  It is an all-consuming passion.  Those of us who devote our lives to working with animals love what we do beyond reason.  We work 365 days a year, and when we are not working with animals, we are playing with them.  We forego vacations, families, nice clothes, tidy homes, and most social activities to spend our lives with animals. We spend countless hours talking about how to care for animals, we get up every few hours to bottle-feed baby creatures, we spend all our money on animal care, and we use most of the rooms in our homes for something animal related.  We are joyously consumed by our chosen path, and when an animal causes one of us injury or death we are sad, but hold no ill-will towards the animal. Let me explain.

We work with animals – not Disney characters, or humans wearing fur costumes – but real animals with real teeth and claws and immense power who behave according to their animal natures. We know that our chosen vocation is extremely safe based on the number of people harmed, but we  also recognize that it entails real risk.  We believe that life is an adventure we cannot authentically live solely by avoiding those things that might result in failure, injury, or death. Some people climb mountains, race cars, surf, pilot airplanes, luge, or share their lives with animals, and each of these journeys poses risks, although in truth people are far likelier to die in traffic accidents or childbirth than in any of these more dramatic undertakings.  Sitting at home on a couch may indeed be a safer choice, but living a rich and full life and owning our own choices and their consequences are worth a little risk.

When accidents occur, people often want to examine the details and motivations of an animal’s behavior to understand exactly what happened and why.  Careful investigation and analysis is a valuable process to allow us to improve our techniques and avoid needless future accidents, but in truth we can rarely know precisely why an animal behaved in a certain way.  In a very real sense, however, such speculative detail does not matter: whether the animals were attacking, trying to protect themselves, sexually aroused, responding in annoyance to excessive pressure or fear, or some other miscue, the stark truth is that any of these circumstances could have arisen with similar outcomes. Many animals are vastly more powerful than humans: given sufficient time, wherever humans and animals interact, injuries may occur.

People who argue against working with animals often assert that certain animals are “unpredictable,” a completely erroneous claim.  Each species, and each individual animal, is endowed with a well-established range of behaviors and rarely acts in conflict to these. Understanding and correctly predicting animal behavior is among the most basic challenges and responsibilities of any trainer.

Animals are often held accountable for their actions, a profoundly wrong conclusion: animals are not subject to “blame”: they always and simply act as animals, and people are responsible for minimizing situations in which harm might come to anyone.

Underlying the common reaction to traumatic animal incidents lurks a contemporary human expectation that the world should be “risk-free.” As human enterprise has relentlessly expanded, we have paved, denuded, and sanitized huge portions of the planet.  In virtually every populated environment, we have effectively eliminated any predator that might pursue us.  We fully expect handrails and padding and signs to protect us at all times. But nature cannot and should not be completely tamed. When we venture into the wilderness, or bring a piece of the wilderness into our world, we find that bears, wasps, mountains, skunks, waves, tigers, and orcas do not respect our notion of sovereignty and will behave as they have behaved since time immemorial.  Innate animal behavior is not amenable to human moralizing: it is neither good nor bad.  It is simply a truth that we must understand if we wish to interact with the natural world. Each day, millions of animals safely coexist with man.  Many visit schools, perform tricks, and lounge around.  For hundreds of shows, Roy’s tigers reliably came on stage and performed perfectly. Such numberless days of productive and enriching interaction cannot be forgotten as we scrutinize the day someone is injured.

Why is it that when people die in automobile accidents we do not seek to ban cars?   Or when people die on mountains we do not seek to outlaw mountain climbing; but whenever someone is injured by an animal there is such an outcry?  There are four reasons:

1.  Animal attacks are rare, which makes them dramatic and newsworthy.

2.  Few people actually work with animals or experience them firsthand: and it is much easier to blame, condemn, and legislate out of existence something you do not understand and that does not directly affect you.

3.  Over millions of years of evolution, hominids developed a powerful innate fear of being eaten.

4.  Human society is plagued by uninformed zealots always ready to twist any event to serve their purpose:

The loudest voices heard in the wake of traumatic animal incidents are those of Animal Rights advocates who aspire to outlaw all animal ownership and who seize any tragedy as an opportunity to chant their mindless rhetoric: “these animals ‘belong’ in the wild.  This death proves it…”   No.  By now every thoughtful reader should realize this is simply hogwash.  Nearly every species of animal can be superbly maintained in captivity where they are enabled to live rich lives that are longer and more comfortable than in the wild.  We can learn from such creatures and enjoy them and share them with millions of people – especially young people – who will grow to care about the natural world. These animals are not demeaned or mistreated and are not yearning for freedom. They have plenty of space, excellent nutrition and fabulous lives.  The only people who believe these animals have bad lives are people who have little experience with them and are forming their opinions based on uninformed sentimentality–people with genuine expertise quickly learn that these animals have excellent lives. The accidental death of a person who devoted herself to the well-being of captive orcas does not prove that orcas cannot be kept humanely, and the propagandists at PETA should be profoundly ashamed for using trainer Dawn Brancheau’s death to preach their own agenda, an agenda rejected and reviled by every thoughtful animal trainer.

As a professional working every day with powerful predators, I do not fear for my life; rather, I fear that should I be injured or killed by an animal, people who espouse “rights” but care nothing for actual animals will use such an event to harm the very animals I have spent my life cherishing.

We love these animals completely, even when their nature does not accommodate human society, and even when their actions harm us. They share their worlds with us, and in doing so bring immeasurable joy to our lives. We are afraid, not of them, but for them.  We want them to be preserved in the wild and in captivity by skilled and dedicated experts, and we want people to stop being enraged when they behave like animals.

All the lives of all the animal trainers ever lost working with animals is a number far smaller than the number of children who starved to death while you were reading this article.  Working with animals is safe and immeasurably beneficial for the humans and animals. If you really want to help someone, focus on providing food and healthcare to the millions of people who absolutely will perish without your help, and leave those of us who love animals to make our own well-informed decisions about how to balance our safety with our passions.

I am heading outside now to play with my beloved animal friends. I may make a mistake, and I may die. If so, please do not mourn the manner of my death.  Do not blame the animal. Do not imagine that I was an idiot, or naively unaware of what could happen, or thought myself invincible or protected by the animals’ love. It is the life and death I chose, and lived without regret. A lifetime full of joy, passion, and wonder shared with many magnificent animals whose lives were also full of joy. Whenever and however I die, I have been blessed to live my dream.

 March 28, 2010  Posted by at 8:18 pm
Dec 092009

sampsonbedToday was one of those days when you try to stay inside.  We mulled cider, finished decorating for Christmas, and played fetch in the living room. When we had to go outside to do chores we bundled up with mittens and hats. This is the first truly cold week of the season at our facility, and it has me thinking, again, about how technology benefits animals.

The most obvious benefit is simple heat—whether a propane heater, a wood stove, a baseboard heater, radiant flooring, or even just a roaring fire, how grateful we all are to be inside and warm. We take the dogs out for exercise several times a day, and they absolutely enjoy it, but after an hour they are back at the front door imploring us to let them get back to their comforters and heaters!

Closely related to warmth is dryness.  Each of our animals has somewhere dry at all times, usually up to their knees in soft dry bedding—woodchips to straw, hog fuel to mattresses, pillows to down comforters.  Even the luckiest wild animals are lying on frozen ground that melts and soaks their fur, leaving them with little protection against the cold ground that sucks the energy out of them.anniebed

Water is perhaps the hardest thing to ensure during the winter.  Trough heaters and constantly running hoses, and we still end up carrying buckets of hot water several times each winter to keep warm water available. In the wild, outside of the fast moving rivers, there is just no water.  The deer are licking a few drops of moisture off rocks, hoping to get enough to stay alive till the next thaw. This is particularly hard for ruminants whose stomachs do not do well with cold water.

Keeping them from slipping is also a challenge.  On icy days we bring everyone inside—in the house or in stalls on rubber mats with bedding.  Every spring, the first time we hike up our creek, we find the bodies of wild animals that tried to get to water and slipped and fell down the steep embankment and lay pitiably for hours with shattered limbs before being eaten or dying.

chirobedI write this article cuddled in my warm bed with dogs and cats while sipping cocoa.  Looking over at Sequel, hogging the down comforter as always, I smile.  Long ago, on a cold night like tonight, his ancestor took the first tentative steps out of the lonely dark to join my ancestor by the fire, and we are both immeasurably thankful. Our animals are all asleep; warm, with blankets and water and full stomachs.  But I look out the window towards the woods and think about the many wild animals suffering.  Some of them will find their way into our home, our pastures, or our vehicles, and some will have the reserves to endure the long bitter winter, but many will simply die—unable to find enough food or water and eventually succumbing to the brutal cold.

I wonder if our animals dream of going to live in the wild, or if the wild animals dream of coming to live with us….


 December 9, 2009  Posted by at 8:24 pm
Dec 082009

BritRibA vegan seeks to avoid all use of animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose.  But if you tell people that you are a vegan, they will often infer rather more.  Some will hear “touchy-feely-hippy-freak,” some will hear “human-hating-animal-lover,” and some will hear “animal-hating-Animal-Rights-zealot.”  For a word coined less than 70 years ago, “vegan” carries a great deal of emotional baggage.

Some of my best friends are vegan, as was I for many years. There are many compelling reasons to be vegan , including nutritional or religious beliefs and culinary preference. However, many vegans are motivated by the desire to do what is best for animals.  Let’s examine the reasoning behind such “ethical veganism”:

Animals have the right not to be eaten:

This is a direct quote from one of the most respected legal scholars in the field.  Seriously. Setting aside the matter of “rights” for a moment, let’s acknowledge inescapable reality: in nature, every animal dies and is eaten. All life depends upon death.  If you truly love and respect Nature, you cannot reject its most central process.  Not only is being eaten a virtual certainty for every animal, this vital biological mechanism provides food for every living animal: billions of animals make it through each day by eating the bodies of those who died the day before. Even when not ripped apart by a predator, animals are eventually consumed by small organisms that are then consumed by larger organisms.  This is the cycle of life: you may celebrate this truth or lament it, but you cannot change it. If you could enforce the notion that no animals be eaten, in a few swift weeks life on Earth would cease.

Animals have the right to a life without suffering:

So absurd is this argument that it is astonishing that anyone might accept the assertion, yet it is the bedrock quicksand of the animal rights movement in general and PETA in particular:

  1. In the natural world, animals possess no rights, no protections, no guarantees.  Rights are a human construct, conferred by society or god: this abstraction has nothing to do with nature.
  2. Even if we were to extend the general concept of rights to animals, one we could not grant would be “the right to life free from suffering.”  No animal in the wild is free from suffering, nor is any human. A life free from suffering is not a right, but a fantasy.
  3. Life in nature is a struggle full of suffering – cold, heat, hunger, thirst, parasites, injury, illness, predation, conflict. Leave the confinement of your house and go live in the wild for a few months, then decide whether you prefer the “freedom” of the wild or the comforts of your home.
  4. If we pretend that a life without suffering were a reasonable goal, there is only one way to imagine achieving it: capture all the animals in the wild and bring them into our world and devote ourselves to ensuring that their lives are as free from suffering as possible. The only animals, including humans, that come close to life free of suffering are the millions of pampered pets whose every need and desire are met by doting owners, with the help of groomers, veterinarians, chiropractors, nutritionists, and others.

Animals deserve to be free:LHChomocreek

Very few animals are free: their movements are curtailed by other animals’ ranges, by geographic barriers, by predators. Freedom is a human illusion—we are all constrained. More important, anyone who has spent time around animals knows that, with few exceptions, animals do not want to travel: they want to establish a home range and stay there, safe and comfortable. If their range happens to be defined by fencing, and if within that range all their needs are met, animals do not yearn for some hypothetical freedom.

Animals deserve the longest possible life:

Life in nature is seldom long. Most wild animals die well before maturity, and few live long enough to see old age. If you believe that animals deserve the longest possible life, you cannot simultaneously believe that they should be in the wild: captive animals indisputably live considerably longer than wild animals.

Animals deserve a humane death:

Death in nature is rarely pleasant, never “humane.” Most animals in the wild die with little comfort. Whether they starve to death, are taken down by predators, succumb to illness, or meet one of numberless other fates, the end is often slow and agonizing. It may be comforting to imagine that predators kill with merciful speed, but anyone who has ever watched a cat play with a mouse, or seen footage of a killer whale flinging a seal into the air, a pack of wolves eviscerating a still standing ungulate, knows that natural deaths are often brutal. If you believe animals deserve a humane death, you cannot simultaneously believe they should be in the wild.

Humans are no better than animals and therefore should not eat them:

I am not sure this argument is valid—while we may not be better than animals, human consciousness is clearly different than that of most animals and might therefore obligate or entitle us to behave differently in certain situations.  However, even if we accept the idea that humans are no different than animals, it would follow from this that we are not constrained to behave differently from the rest of nature, in which case we would be no more obligated to veganism than any other animal.  Ethical vegans often suggest that meat-eating humans are misguidedly arrogant, that people who eat meat must believe they are superior to animals in order to ignore their suffering and consume them—that eating animals requires perceiving them as commodities.  And many meat eaters fall into this logical trap, defending their right to eat meat by quoting scripture about man’s dominion or making arguments about our moral or intellectual superiority.  However, these arguments are backwards.  It is arrogant to imagine that we are so qualitatively different from the rest of nature that we should eschew its underlying truths.  Do we really imagine ourselves so divine that we should remove ourselves from the very cycle of life? We eat, we are eaten. Our bodies are all commodities for animals yet to come.

Exploitation is wrong:goatonstump

Even accepting this assertion, very few human:animal relationships are exploitive.  On the contrary, they are mutualistic: both species experience an increase in quality of life and survivorship. In fact, many human relationships with pets are amusingly close to pure exploitation of the human: the animal derives virtually all of the benefits.  Many humans take such good care of their animals that their charges’ life expectancies are two to three times greater than those in the wild; and their lives are not only more comfortable but pampered. Even many animals kept for food are exceptionally well cared for and live longer than an average wild lifespan. They are not exploited, they are well compensated .… (The vegan notion of exploitation is so broad that using the bones of a long dead animal is considered exploitation, keeping a sheep and providing her with a great home, protection from predators, food, veterinary care, fresh water, and anything else she wants, and in exchange taking her wool that would fall off anyway and will grow back is seen as exploitation.)

Animals “belong” in the wild:

Animals belong in the world.  As the world has changed, so have animals.  Whatever the wild was before mankind arrived, it exists no longer.  Do not condemn the animals of the world to die as we inexorably alter the planet. Allow them to evolve and to become a part of our new world: it is their only option, and is also full of luxuries and benefits: plentiful food, medicine, warmth, pillows…

Species we eat are “worse off” than species we do not:

Not so. Species that we use for food or other practical purposes fare far better than species providing no tangible value to mankind. While a few exceptional species – mostly scavengers like rats and roaches – have thrived alongside mankind, in general as our numbers have increased, the populations of other animals have declined, many of them to the point of extinction.  It is predicted that half of the mammal species on the planet today will be extinct in fifty years.  On the other hand, species that have tangible value to mankind have flourished: dogs, cats, horses, chickens, cows, pigs, etc.  Unquestionably some individuals of these species have bad lives, but the species have flourished, and many of the individuals have had great lives. (As an interesting side note, one could argue that species kept by humans are injured genetically: they lose certain abilities over time, such as chickens that can no longer fly. However, this argument essentially demonstrates that captive lives are easier than wild lives: in captivity, species become less fit because human caretakers free them from the environmental pressures that normally keep them from devolving, just as humans have become largely incapable of surviving in the wild, having adapted during generations of civilization’s comparative ease.

peahenIndividuals we keep to eat are worse off than those we do not:

Sometimes this is true, often not.  In aggregate, we cannot know. Consider my chicken Sasha as an example. Of course she would never have been born if we did not keep chickens, but even if she had, she would have likely been eaten in her first few weeks by a predator, or starved to death her first winter.  Had she survived long enough, she would have been cold, hungry, wet, and miserable, until she reached her maximal life expectancy in the wild a few years later and died, likely eaten while still alive by a weasel, hawk, or bobcat.  Because I eat eggs, or more accurately I feed most of them to my other animals, she has spent 10 years in a perfect yard, protected from all predators, with a warm room for winter, healthy food and vitamin supplements, with all the room she wants, dirt to scratch in, bugs to eat, other chickens for companionship, rocks to keep her nails trimmed, a disco ball making lights on the ground to chase, virtually no parasites, veterinary care if needed, shade and mist on hot days, etc.  Even if I had eaten her years ago, she would have had a longer life, and a life far more full of happiness and free of suffering, than she would possibly have had without a human caretaker.

Not eating meat will have a practical impact on the meat production industry:

I believe this is the most interesting and compelling argument – both in favor of veganism and against. The basic argument is: regardless of all the theoretical and philosophical rhetoric above, we have seen what happens when humans raise animals for food, and it is not pretty. We have seen over and over in many different industries that when there is profit involved, some people will sacrifice the welfare of their employees and their animals in order to maximize gain. Perhaps  humans will someday evolve their thinking so that greed motivates good behavior because people recognize that being happy is more valuable than being wealthy and that the path to happiness lies through good behavior rather than profit, but for now, we need practical solutions.

In the real world, we must devise ways to prevent greed from driving bad behaviors.  This is true in every animal venture where profit is involved: breeding, racing, ranching, pet stores, and the rest.  The behaviors driven by profit are generally inconsistent with the best interests of the animals, and we need to find ways to prevent greed from motivating abuse or neglect. Historically, two tools have been effective: legal mandates for minimal care and consumer demand for improved processes.

Legal mandates on minimal care similar to minimum wage, child labor laws, and nursing home standards, for example, are likely essential to prevent the worst cases of outright abuse, and such abuse and neglect laws already exist in most states, and of course, depend upon effective enforcement.

Possibly the most effective tool we have to influence how captive animals are cared for is how we consumers allocate our dollars.  Dolphin-safe tuna, conflict-free diamonds, organic foods: it is clear that if consumers demand and are willing to pay for a process improvement, suppliers will meet that demand.  Let us imagine that everyone became vegan tomorrow: millions of animals would be immediately “unemployed” – and soon killed or turned loose into the wild where they would suffer and die; and billions of animals would never be born in the future.  On the other hand, if instead of becoming vegan, everyone tomorrow demanded humane treatment for animals in captivity, and only purchased humanely raised meat, suddenly raising meat humanely would be profitable, and raising meat inhumanely would become competitively unprofitable.  Billions of animals would enjoy pleasant lives before eventually being eaten, the ideal life for any animal. Such decisions would yield a far more realistic outcome: many more people would pay extra for humanely raised products than would renounce meat altogether. And as the human population increases and we need more and more food, animal consumption is likely to increase, not decrease.

Eat meat, do not eat meat. It matters not to the animals of the world.  They do not care whether they are eaten by you or some other animal, although you are hopefully persuaded by the arguments above that eating meat is neither immoral nor necessarily harmful to animals.

But strict ethical veganism goes much further than not eating meat: its partisans argue that it is ethically essential to exclude all usage of animals for food, clothing, entertainment, companionship, or any other purpose.  This means no beloved pets, no captive breeding programs of endangered species, no wool sweaters. “Better dead than caged,” they say. “The world is our cage,” I say, “let us enjoy it together, happily coexisting on farms, in living rooms, or even in comfortable enclosures.”

Animals today face a threat far graver than being eaten.  Their historic habitats are being destroyed while misguided animal lovers work tirelessly to eradicate every viable alternative existence for animals in the 21st century, relegating them to survive only in an imaginary realm where they are blissfully free, never die, have no interaction with humans, and are never eaten. Do not protect their illusory rights by sacrificing their comfort, their safety, their very survival.


 December 8, 2009  Posted by at 7:45 am