Author of Animal Rights & Human Morality and The Unheeded Cry
FORT COLLINS, Colorado––Bernard Elliot Rollin, Ph.D., 78, better known as just Bernie Rollin, died on November 19, 2021.
Remembered and appreciated as an entertaining, provocative, and often persuasive bridge among the animal rights, animal welfare, academic, veterinary, and legal communities during his 51 years of teaching at the University of Colorado at Fort Collins, Rollin was also notorious for decades for his opposition to wearing a motorcycle helmet while riding his Harley Davidson.
Rollin thereby set a dangerously bad example for generations of motorcycle-riding students, some of whom undoubtedly later spilled their brains on asphalt, at general expense to society as well as themselves.
“I don’t need to assemble supporting facts”
Comparably, Rollin during his last two decades became an outspoken pit bull advocate, whose every publication about pit bulls made an average of about one demonstrable factual error per sentence––which was, however, consistent with his flagrant factual inaccuracy in earlier writings pertaining to dog-and-cat issues, in a career focused on animal use in agriculture and laboratories.
Brushing away reckless disregard of factual accuracy, Rollin asserted several times that “If I can show that there is a moral-conceptual flaw underlying breed-specific legislation, then I don’t need to assemble supporting facts.”
Well, no, because the “moral-conceptual” framework for understanding any topic proceeds from accurately understanding the facts, whether having to do with motorcycle helmets, pit bulls, or public safety in any context in which individual freedom conflicts with the rights of others to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
How Rollin came to “Put the horse before Descartes”
Rollin wrote his own autobiography, more-or-less, in the first two chapters of his 2011 volume Putting the Horse before Descartes: My Life’s Work on Behalf of Animals, his seventeenth book, of which his 1981 book Animal Rights & Human Morality was by far the most widely read and most influential.
Explained Rollin, “Through college at City College of New York, I slavishly followed the stereotyped New York Jewish yellow brick road––hard academic grubbing resulting in a straight-A average after my first year, majoring in literature and philosophy. The only deviation from this trite script was my insistence that I work summers in Coney Island. It was in Coney Island that I developed some ‘real world at its worst’ sense and honed the wisecracking, tough-guy persona that would later inform my teaching and lecturing.”
Wife Linda also taught at Colorado State University
Rollin at City College of New York met Linda, his wife of more than 50 years, who also pursued an academic career. After Bernard Rollin earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University, he took a teaching position at Colorado State University, where Linda Rollin also taught for 48 years. They retired together in January 2021.
“During their early years in Fort Collins,” recalled Jeff Dodge for Source, the online magazine of the Colorado State University College of Liberal Arts, “Linda taught English composition for one quarter, then started working on her Ph.D. in mathematics, both at CSU. She taught at the University of Northern Colorado for a short time before teaching math at Colorado State. Linda later joined her husband as an assistant professor in the philosophy department, where she taught logic and critical thinking and built the Core Curriculum Logic Program, teaching graduate students how to teach.”
Animal Rights & Human Morality
“Bernie,” wrote Dodge, “started out teaching the history of philosophy. One day, a veterinary medicine professor who had an adjacent locker at the gym asked Bernie if he’d consider teaching ethics to vet med students. Bernie asked for the textbook for such a course, and there wasn’t one, so he decided to write it. Animal Rights & Human Morality, published in 1981, was the first of 22 influential books and more than 800 articles that he wrote over the years.
“Bernie also gained a reputation for being a tough guy who used colorful language and wasn’t one to back down from a fight,” Dodge remembered. “He worked out with the CSU football team until last year and could bench press 505 pounds. Facing a hostile audience of ranchers while giving a talk in 1982 in rural Kiowa, Colorado, he quieted them down by saying he was from Brooklyn and he’d take them outside, one by one.”
Later Rollin cultivated the persona of a philosopher who looked and usually spoke like a wise and kindly rabbi, yet continued to remind his audiences that he remained a power-lifting Harley Davidson rider, occasionally detonating fusillades of obscenities, especially about motorcycle helmet laws.
Both in speaking and in writing, Rollin was predictable primarily in always “putting the horse before Descartes,” usually––but not always––distinguishing authentic ethical considerations from mere ideology.
His late-career writings about pit bulls, in particular, offered no more than recitations of stock pit bull advocacy rhetoric, little if any of his material originating with himself.
Rollin generally had little use for the sort of philosophy that can be logically extended into absurdity, such as the exercises in abstraction for which the 17th century vivisector Rene Descartes is lastingly known.
The philosophical idea that appeared to interest Rollin most is telos, the Aristotelian notion that each animal has “a unique set of functions, needs, and interests,” Rollin summarized, which together create “the ‘pigness’ of a pig, the ‘dogness’ of a dog,” wrapped up in the expression, “Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly.”
Rollin’s bottom-line ethical conclusion was that “If human nature determines human rights, i.e. the aspects of humanity that are protected by our legal/moral system animal telos, then the fundamental aspects of the animal’s life flowing from nature should determine the features of an animal’s nature we protect.”
Rollin argued that most people agree with this, including about 90% of the western ranchers he often addressed in local speaking appearances. Thus recognizing the telos of animals might be a part of the telos of humanity, Rollin contended, from which veterinarians, scientists, and agribusiness exempt themselves at risk of becoming seen as monsters, if not actually becoming moral monstrosities.
Identified “ideology of science”
A chapter of Putting the Horse before Descartes entitled “Pain & ideology” opened with an extended discussion of how surgery on infants was usually done without anesthetic until late in the 20th century. The chapter moved from there into the frequent “scientific” denial of animal suffering in research––and discovered the origin of the scientific dogmas governing the non-use of anesthesia in the cultural values of the 19th century, not scientific evidence.
“It took me until the mid-1980s,” Rollin recalled in an earlier chapter, “to understand how scientists could deny the relevance of ethics to science and deny the reality of consciousness [in animals] I became aware that, as an undergraduate, I had been taught precisely the patterns of thinking I was now criticizing…I had learned––and believed–the mantra ‘Science is value-free in general and ethics-free in particular.’
“I realized that scientists were learning a set of beliefs along with the data of the science, even as people learn logically questionable precepts in their religious education. I saw that these beliefs were very much like religious belief, and that no amount of rational argument could dislodge them–in other words, that an ideology of science was taught to nascent scientists from the beginning of their education.”
“Research that oversteps the bounds of decency is a social issue”
Rollin then cited 10 examples from his own experience in which scientists sabotaged their own work and careers by placing the ideology of science, especially as regards denial of animal pain, ahead of what should have been obvious if they had applied scientific observation to their learned assumptions.
Rollin emphasized the need for scientists and other animal users themselves to introduce ethical discussion of what they do–and to respect the ethical conclusions of an informed public.
Asserted Rollin, again in Putting the Horse before Descartes, after reviewing the evolution of the U.S. Animal Welfare Act from 1965 to the present, “The issue of research that oversteps the bounds of decency is a social issue concerning which current laws are silent. The next reasonable step in creating morally sound laws governing the use and treatment of laboratory animals would be to allow the decisions for which invasive animal research is to be done or not done to fall on those who allegedly will benefit from it, rather than on those who clearly stand to gain from doing more research.”
Eventually Rollin arrived at the realization that the enduring popularity of the Frankenstein story, told first by Mary Shelley in 1818 and now retold at least 2,666 times by Rollin’s count, is that it expresses the anxiety of the public about change introduced by scientists without adequate ethical discussion and appropriate restraints on the possible catastrophic consequences.
Though this has been recognized by literary critics for nearly 200 years, including by Mary Shelley herself, versions of Frankenstein and similar stories are still not usually incorporated into the formal ethical education of scientists.
Rollin set out to remedy that in his 1995 book The Frankenstein Syndrome: Ethical and Social Issues in the Genetic Engineering of Animals.
Summarized reviewer David DeGrazia, a philosophy faculty member at George Washington University, for the journal Bioethics, “In the end, he [Rollin] argued that society should neither ban genetic engineering of animals, nor let it run wild, but should rather develop a careful body of regulations in accordance with an emerging social ethic regarding animals. His three chapters examined aspects of genetic engineering of animals that are represented by three troubling themes associated with the story of Frankenstein’s monster: (1) the idea that creating new lifeforms is `against nature’ and therefore wrong; (2) the image of new creations rampaging out of control; and (3) moral concern for the living result of creation.”
Inconsistent regard for precautionary principle
Rollin’s concern for the precautionary principle, both in addressing animal pain and in considering the possible consequences of genetic engineering, was distinctly at odds with his disregard of the precautionary principle as applied to motorcycle helmets and pit bulls, wherein he seemed obtusely oblivious to the frequently disfiguring and sometimes fatal consequences for other living beings of what he considered only as personal choices.
The concluding fourth of Putting the Horse before Descartes explored how the ethical mistakes of science are echoed and amplified many times over in factory farming.
Along the way, Rollin tended to get enough right to make his frequent factual errors especially jarring.
Rollin recounted, for example, both in Animal Rights & Human Morality and in Putting the Horse before Descartes, that at the 1978 American Humane Association conference he “criticized the more-than-50-year-old mantra of spay and neuter, which was ineffective,” he claimed, in reducing shelter admissions and killing.
In truth the American Humane Association had grudgingly approved of dog and cat sterilization only five years before, after 50 years of vehement opposition to the procedures as “vivisection,” though the AHA had rescinded opposition to scientific vivisection itself circa 1900.
The American Humane Association originally opposed dog and cat sterilization, after the American Veterinary Medical Association approved the surgical methods in 1923, because the AHA was then fighting eugenicists who sought to forcibly sterilize girls who were consigned to orphanages, and felt that endorsing dog and cat sterilization would set a bad precedent.
Moreover, at the same AHA conference that Rollin addressed, Robert Wilbur of the Pet Food Institute presented data showing that only about 41% of the female dogs in the U.S. and 31% of the female pet cats had been spayed––not half enough to begin reducing shelter admissions and killing.
Claimed to have inspired no-kill movement
Wilbur also presented evidence that the numbers were going down where the sterilization rates approached 70%.
Since then, the U.S. dog sterilization rate for both genders has risen to more than 70%, while stubbornly remaining around 20% for pit bulls. The pet cat sterilization rate for both genders now exceeds 85%, and the volume of shelter killing has fallen by more than 90%.
Rollin compounded his errors about spay/neuter in Putting the Horse before Descartes by alleging that he influenced “a young man named Richard Avanzino” to lead the San Francisco SPCA to become a no-kill organization.
Avanzino and Rollin were very close to the same age, and while Rollin may well have influenced Avanzino, Avanzino’s major accomplishment during his 23 years as San Francisco SPCA president was adding a low-cost spay/neuter clinic which remains to this day the focal program of the organization.
The Unheeded Cry
After Animal Rights and Human Morality, Rollin’s next most influential book was probably The Unheeded Cry: Animal Consciousness, Animal Pain, & Science (1989).
The Unheeded Cry accomplished a great deal toward increasing scientific recognition of the importance of preventing animal suffering, not least to avoid compromising scientists’ own data, because animals in pain often do not respond as they otherwise would to a chemical or a procedure.
Blundered on decompression
But Rollin comparably and characteristically fumbled in years of efforts, beginning with The Unheeded Cry, to replace the use of carbon dioxide to kill laboratory rodents with decompression, projecting further that decompression might be a better way to stun pigs than carbon dioxide, which is now the usual stunning method in Europe and Australia.
Rollin’s critiques of carbon dioxide gassing, chiefly for inducing panic in animals before they asphyxiate, were and are accurate. Compassion In World Farming has called for the abolition of carbon dioxide stunning for the same reasons.
Rollin also accurately summarized two of most common problems in decompression: that decompression chambers leak and re-pressurize, and that decompression is often done too rapidly. Either problem results in great pain to the victims.
A third common problem is that decompression also involves asphyxiation and thereby induces panic.
No reason to expect good faith from the slaughter industry
But Rollin hoped to the end of his life that improved technology could make decompression acceptable.
Decompression killing of dogs and cats, pioneered by Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation chief Richard Bonner in 1948, was promoted nationally by the American Humane Association from 1950 until 1985, when after every animal shelter in the U.S. had already quit decompressing animals, the AHA quit pushing it––until 2010, when it resumed promoting decompression, now as a way to kill chickens.
If societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals could not make decompression
acceptably humane in 35 years of trying, even given the weaker humane standards of that era, there is no reason to believe the meat industry can do any better, since the sole object of meat slaughter is simply making animals dead.
Neither is there any reason to expect good faith effort from the slaughter industry,
in view of more than 60 years of frequent slaughter industry noncompliance with the never
well-enforced and eventually legislatively weakened Humane Slaughter Act of 1958.
Rollin throughout his life as a philosopher was much more successful in provoking thought than in actually solving the real-life practical problems that he claimed most concerned him––not that Rollin did not have some successes in practical matters.
Rollin, for instance, was among the principal authors of the 1985 amendments to the U.S. federal Animal Welfare Act, which required laboratories to respond to the psychological needs of dogs and nonhuman primates.
A decade later Rollin joined Coalition for Non-violent Food founder Henry Spira in a successful campaign to end the mandatory face-branding of cattle coming into the U.S. from Mexico. Rollin’s part was building consensus among ranchers that the practice was indeed cruel and unnecessary, as Spira had alleged in full-page ads in The New York Times and elsewhere.
Mostly Rollin was a humane educator.
“The best place to do humane education,” Rollin asserted, “is not in the elementary schools, where the children still exist within the moral universe created by their parents and don’t have much inclination or capacity to challenge the basis of their beliefs.
“The best place to do humane education,” Rollin contended, “ is in colleges and universities, where a lot of the students are ready to challenge the basis of whatever they have been taught , and to try to create their own moral universe.”
Rollin taught primarily what might be termed humane education for future veterinarians, through a course entitled “Ethical & Contextual Problems in Veterinary Medicine,” and for future farmers, whose version of the course was called “Ethical Issues in Animal Science.”
Both courses focused on teaching students to ask the questions of themselves that produce ethical consideration of animals in routine decision-making.
“These concerns are ubiquitous”
“These concerns are ubiquitous,” Rollin emphasized. “There are not many fields in which animals are not involved, whether in research or production or using habitat, and we need to be teaching about what concerns should be addressed, so that we can function more smoothly as a society, without the kind of conflicts that develop when interests are ignored because nobody ever asks the right questions.”
Rollin argued that the acrimony often accompanying the evolution of the animal rights movement was simply evidence of gaps in teaching.
“Teach people how to detect and resolve problems,” Rollin believed, “and problems will be detected and resolved. Ignore problems of a compelling nature, especially moral and ethical problems, and sooner or later the result is a schism.
“I’m not talking about making activists,” Rollin added. “You don t move social concerns by making activists; you move them by teaching citizens to become responsive.”
“Show Ring Ethics”
Fred Allison was among Rollin’s long-ago star pupils.
Allison did not pursue the career in agribusiness he was developing when he took Rollin’s “Ethical Issues in Animal Science” course.
Instead, following other career opportunities, Allison joined the staff of the Genoa National Bank, in Genoa, Nebraska.
Meanwhile, though, Allison wrote a term paper for Rollin entitled “Show Ring Ethics.”
Allison argued that the lessons in citizenship and responsibility that 4-H and county fair competitions are supposed to teach can only be learned if competitors do not take shortcuts at the animals’ expense.
Rollin remembered Allison years later, in the mid-1990s, when a series of scandals involving use of the banned growth-enhancing drug clenbuterol hit the show ring circuit and the headlines.
National Show Ring Code of Ethics
At Rollin’s urging, Allison joined Barney Cosner of the State Fair of Texas and Barbara Wood of the State Fair of Oklahoma in drafting the National Show Ring Code of Ethics.
To animal rights fundamentalists including Francione, cleaning up the 4-H circuit––which still has some of the same problems despite having now had a code of ethics for more than 25 years––is beside the point, since in their view cattle should not be bred for slaughter or exhibit in the first place.
Some even argue that such reforms inhibit the progress of an animal rights ethic, because they lead people to think that problems are being solved, when the greater problem is simply that animals are slaughtered.
“I’m not going to touch that,” Allison told ANIMALS 24-7 when the National Show Ring Code of Ethics was first introduced. “That’s maybe too deep for me. But I think we have to teach some humane values and maybe even some animal rights values in teaching good husbandry, because this is also part of teaching good human citizenship.
“Raising & bonding with animal is learning experience”
“Most of the children who raise animals in 4-H,” Allison pointed out, “don t grow up to be ranchers, but they do grow up to be fathers and mothers, and raising an animal and even bonding with that animal is part of their learning experience.”
Said Rollin, “That is what is changing society. He’s talking about teaching society, including the animal industry, to expand our circle of moral consideration. When an advocate talks, the people who are most responsible for how animals are treated in our society may turn off. When Fred Allison talks, they listen.”
Allison, unfortunately, was in 2005 charged with theft and forgery in connection with his dealings at the New Frontier Bank in Greeley, Colorado. Allison pleaded guilty to theft of between $500 and $15,000, a Class four felony, in return for a maximum sentence of two years in the Department of Corrections, and was banned from the banking industry by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
“Animal ag has behaved like foolish athlete”
Rollin, however, returned to the theme that when “a rancher talks, they listen” again and again, including in an April 20, 2009 guest commentary for the animal use industry periodical Feedstuffs.
“The animal agriculture community has behaved like the foolish athlete in a manner disdainful of its adversaries,” Rollin charged. “Instead of fully understanding what is arrayed against it, it is satisfied with simply dismissing the opposition or stereotyping and lampooning them in ways that fall far short of the mark.
“When one looks at Proposition 2 in California,” Rollin pointed out of a 2008 ballot initiative that purported to improve the lives of farmed animals, but mostly did not, “it passed with 67% of the vote. No one can say the majority of people who voted for it are vegans or vegetarians. Plainly, they are people who consume animal products, but are concerned about how those products are produced.
Did not foresee rise of plant-based food industry
“They are no more out to destroy animal agriculture,” Rollin contended, “than the people who worry about steroid use in baseball are out to destroy baseball.
“Rather, they are sufficiently concerned about how animals are raised that they voiced their concern, even in the face of threats that food prices would go up. People will not even give up meat, milk and eggs when told to do so by their physicians, based on claims that their health is at risk, so they certainly won’t do so because some vegans tell them to.
“Certainly, activists do attempt to sway public opinion in favor of their agenda,” Rollin acknowledged, “but they do so by appealing to concerns already there in the general public. And surely, while they hope that more people will become vegan, the chance of moving large numbers of people to radically change their eating habits is vanishingly small.”
The next dozen years proved Rollin far wrong on that point, as plant-based alternatives to animal products are now found in every major supermarket, with global retail sales of $29.4 billion.
“Being caught in falsehoods is a sure way to lose credibility”
Continued Rollin, “People wish to feel that the animals they consume have led decent lives under conditions of good husbandry, and the industry knows this, or else why would Perdue poultry run ads for 15 years showing chickens in a barnyard while the voiceover intones ‘At Perdue, we raise happy chickens’?
“Similarly, recall the California ‘happy cows on pasture’ ads. Being caught in falsehoods is a sure way to lose credibility.”
Rollin, unfortunately, no more heeded his own advice when he took up pit bull advocacy than agribusiness had heeded it when he warned industry leaders, again and again, that propagandizing instead of responding to animal welfare concerns would erode their market share.