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April 15, 2010

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Food System Solutions

6 minutes read

Life’s Work

Update: August 4, 2016 –  Public Responsibility In Medicine and Research (PRIM&R) selected Farm Forward Board Member Bernard E. Rollin, PhD, for their Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Research Ethics 2016. Dr. Rollin is PRIM&R’s first Lifetime Achievement Award recipient from the animal care and use field. He brought applied ethics to veterinary medicine over 40 years ago and as a valued philosopher and educator his influence on veterinary ethics and human animal relationship remains unparalleled. This award honors the game-changing impact that Bernie’s work has had on animal agriculture in the U.S.

Original article: Anyone on the inside of efforts to improve farmed animal welfare and end factory farming will know the legendary work of Distinguished Professor and Farm Forward board member Bernard Rollin—arguably the single most influential reformer of animal agriculture alive today. Bernie is something of a force of nature, and the remarkable story of his life and accomplishments are now recorded in his memoir, released this week, Putting the Horse Before Descartes (available at major booksellers).

Picture an accomplished senior professor of philosophy with a list of publications as long as a novella, more than a thousand lectures in 30 countries under his belt, and a core conviction that our ethical obligations to animals should be based on a consideration of their telos—”allowing the animals to live their lives in a way that suits their biological natures … the pigness of the pig, the dogness of the dog—’fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly.’ … Social animals need to be with others of their kind.”1 Now picture another man: a swearing, weight-lifting, Harley-riding, self-proclaimed “gunslinger” known to respond to those who disrespect him by lifting them off the ground by the shirt collar and making gentle suggestions like: how about I “take you outside one at a time and kick your —–.”2 Now imagine that both men—philosopher and gunslinger—are one and the same: that’s Bernie.

Before Farm Forward was founded, Bernie had already changed the course of animal agriculture: he founded the field of veterinary ethics, taught the world’s first animal ethics course, wrote the first book on the ethics of genetically engineering animals, played a key role in the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production’s landmark report, Putting Meat on the Table, and conducted successful negotiations that led the State of Colorado to pass historic farm animal protection legislation. Many cruel procedures once common in veterinary and agricultural education and practice—like painful surgical training exercises on dogs and the face-branding of imported cattle—have ended through Bernie’s persuasive efforts. What is so remarkable about Bernie’s thirty-year record of victories for animals—especially farmed animals—is that he has accomplished these things without deep pockets or massive protests. Bernie is an organization of one. His primary weapon is an uncanny ability to make his audience—be they ranchers, academics, or politicians—remember what is in the end undeniable: no one wants to be the cause of animal suffering.

Putting the Horse Before Descartes captures Rollin at his best: a master storyteller who keeps you alert and keeps you laughing even as he engages serious ethical questions—questions like, “How can a city kid with a Ph.D. in philosophy have a conversation about animal ethics with a bunch of ranchers who aren’t interested?” In one of his classic stories, here is Bernie’s answer:

And so I walked in the first day [of my ethics course for veterinary students] with a prepared lecture on “the importance of ethics to the veterinarian” or some such schmucky title, attired in my suit, absurdly feeling like a Bar Mitzvah boy. As I entered the room, my worst fears materialized. In the back of the room, caps emblazoned with incomprehensible logos such as “King Ropes—Sheridan Wyoming” and “Dally Up” pulled over their eyes, feet up on the seats in front of them, chewing tobacco in their mouths, was a group of cowboys insolently grinning what I dubbed the “shit-kicker smirk” and wearing an expression that said to me, “Go ahead—teach me something.”

“Be cool,” I said to myself as I launched into my lecture, a resolve that lasted three minutes as they whispered and nudged one another with elbows. All the weeks of angst burst forth. “Hey, you shit kickers in the back: Get your damn feet on the floor, take off those hats, stop talking, and listen up. If I remember to speak in words of one syllable, you might learn something. And if you don’t wipe off those smirks, I’ll take you out in the hall and do it for you.” (Jesus, what did I say?) The effect was instantaneous: Twelve or so pairs of cowboy boots hit the floor at once; twelve hats came off; twelve smirks disappeared. “That’s better,” I said and coolly continued.3

Bernie’s ideas, especially his insight that the ancient and ongoing tradition of animal husbandry4 has historically contained a strong ethic of regard for animal life, an ethic that was destroyed in the transition to factory farming, have had considerable influence on Farm Forward’s philosophy and strategy. Decades before Farm Forward became the first food and farming advocacy organization to highlight the value of animal activists working with progressive ranchers, Bernie had identified the significant, incremental progress that could be made when animal protection advocates took seriously the concerns and wisdom of ranchers, especially those still imbued with the pre-factory farming values of traditional animal husbandry. As Bernie’s story about his first day teaching veterinary ethics above shows, building the bridges that allow for communication between largely urban animal protection and ecological activists, on the one hand, and those who work with farmed animals professionally, on the other, requires a creative approach. Such efforts, however, are likely to pay off over time. As Bernie emphasizes in lectures, “90 percent of the eight thousand or so western ranchers I have addressed believe that animals have rights.”5

It was also Bernie who articulated the “Principle of Conservation of Welfare” that animates Farm Forward’s focus on changing the genetics of today’s factory farmed animals as a means of improving animal welfare. This elegant principle simply states that “genetically engineered animals should be no worse off than the parent stock would be if they were not so engineered, and ideally should be better off.”6 The last fifty years of agriculture, especially in the poultry industry, have been such a disaster for animal welfare precisely because no such principle has guided the breeding of farmed animals.

If you have ever wondered whether one person can make a difference in the fight against factory farming, pick up a copy of Putting the Horse Before Descartes and you will realize what a life devoted to change can accomplish. All of us on the Farm Forward team have been inspired by Rollin’s thirty years of work on behalf of animals and we hope you will be too.

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The quote continues, “animals built to run need to run; these interests are species specific. Others are ubiquitous in all species with brains and nervous systems-the interest in avoiding pain, in food and water, and so forth.” Bernard E. Rollin, The Frankenstein Syndrome: Ethical and Social Issues in the Genetic Engineering of Animals (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 157, 159


Bernard E. Rollin, Putting the Horse before Descartes: My Life’s Work on Behalf of Animals (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011) 186-187


Ibid.: 23-24.


Animal husbandry refers to the body of knowledge and techniques used to organize animal agriculture prior to the rise of “animal science.” Where animal science has tended to ignore animals as living beings with interests of their own, treating them like cogs in a larger machine, husbandry traditions have often aimed to work with the natural behaviors of animals to align the wellbeing of animals with the interests of the rancher. Science can play a valuable role in refining and improving animal husbandry, but the discipline known as “animal science” has tended to ignore the insights of husbandry rather than build upon them.


Today farmed animals do not suffer simply or even primarily from the confinement methods used on factory farms but, especially in the poultry industry, from genetic modifications that deform and cripple them. These same genetic modifications also mean that virtually all chickens and turkeys raised for food in this nation are “dead end” animals who can no longer reproduce naturally. As a result, poultry farmers-even good ones-must constantly supply themselves by buying birds from unsustainable and cruel factory hatcheries. Farm Forward advocates a return to , which must be naturally mating, not because of an inherent commitment to heritage standards but because our research has shown that these birds live better lives. The highest standards of animal welfare are simply impossible with current industrial breeds or slightly modified versions of these industrial breeds sometimes used in free range operations. Heritage represents a standard of welfare that was achieved by previous generations of husbandry-based farmers and today’s farming should be at least as high welfare.