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Jonathan Balcombe a Passionate Ethologist

An excellent, concise essay about ethologist Dr. Balcombe and some of his remarkable work.

TAGS: WHERNTO: erudite 

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Former senior Research Scientist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), Jonathan Balcombe, born in England and raised in New Zealand and Canada, currently presides in the United States and is Chair of the Animal Studies Department at Humane Society University. While Dr. Balcombe holds three biology degrees total, he specializes in the study of animal behavior, or ethology, and has a PhD in this area of study. As a leading animal behavior researcher, Balcombe, who is also an accomplished author and public speaker, is an animal-rights activist and chooses a plant-based, vegan diet. But his compassion for animals soars higher than his dietary choices; he centers his career on the ethical and fair treatment of all living things. Seeing and appreciating animals for the wide variety of notions and emotions that they are fully capable of experiencing, he has dedicated many of his studies to debunking the common human assumption that animals' lives are just a bleak "struggle for survival".

"It's easy to come away with a sense that it's a hard-struggled life out there, but it's a life worth living," observes Dr. Balcombe. He has found that many species share related physiologies and behavior patterns as humans, and are thus able to feel such emotions as pain, pleasure, and passion. In fact, in Balcombe's book, Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good, he expresses how animals 'have fun' by getting intoxicated, delighting in play with each other, and even engaging in sexual activity for enjoyment rather than just reproductive purposes. Pleasure, he has found, compensates the behavior that allows animals to subsist and reproduce. Dr. Balcombe has performed studies on other animal behaviors aside from their emotional aptitudes; he has also dug deep into the mental and intellectual capacity of animals, as exposed in his book Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals. This book captures animals' ability to think and reason, an idea that many scientists in the past were skeptic about, and reveals animals' perceptions, awareness, and social skills. Among these social skills, Dr. Balcombe favors mutualisms - not the conflicts humans tend to think of, like predation or parasitism - but the "many forms of mutually beneficial behaviors in animals". Balcombe gives the example of flowers and fruit evolving to attract and reward animals who pollinate and disperse their seeds.

What's more, Dr. Balcombe firmly believes that animals have many lessons that we humans can learn from. "I am an avid animal watcher… they teach me new things every time I watch them carefully and the more I understand the more there is to learn," says Balcombe. For example, he has observed starlings "[using] their beaks as tweezers… [sticking] them in the grass closed then [opening] them to pry apart the grass and look for morsels inside." His focus on animal pleasure holds another message for humans: that "animals' lives are of value to them, [adding] to the moral responsibilities we have towards them," such as not caging, torturing, or killing them, as Balcombe suggests. His choice of a vegan lifestyle (one that abstains from the use of any animal product), directly reflects this message, which he has given several lectures about, such as one entitled 'Why Vegan? Lessons from an Animal Scientist' that he gave to the Vegetarian Society of Hawaii.

Over the course of a year, Dr. Balcombe travels regionally in the United States and Canada a dozen or more times and travels internationally two or three times, on average. While he has done book tours in South Africa, India, and Australia and New Zealand, Balcombe conducted most of his professional work in the United States. Much of his work as a student dealt with bats and their behaviors, and his first published paper was on the nesting habits of turtles. But Balcombe's animal studies expanded to a many animal classes and species thereof, including studies on swine, primates, cats, rodents, canines, and even fish. As mentioned before, Dr. Balcombe is a prolific author; he has published over forty scientific papers and has written four books discussing his studies and theories on animal behavior and protection.

Though varying in topics and ideas, all of Dr. Jonathan Balcombe's studies, papers, lectures, and books demonstrate his undeniable passion and respect for all the creatures we share this Earth with. His work shows us that the way we treat and regard other animals is in need for serious renovations; they, too, feel, think, and value life just as humans do.


Balcombe, Jonathan. E-mail interview. 23 Apr. 2012.

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