FOR THE LOVE OF THINKING ANIMALS
Bonnie Wyper has had a number of careers – in fashion design, arts, publishing, advertising and public relations. She attended the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and Hunter College where she received an Advanced Certificate in the Psychology of Animal Behavior & Conservation. She is Founder and President of Thinking Animals United, under the auspices of which the Wild Voices interview project was launched. So it is not at all surprising that at one point we decided we wanted to talk to Bonnie about her motivation, work, and exciting plans.
How did Thinking Animals United get started? Where did the initial idea come from?
Well, it was when I was at Hunter College. I had grown up with animals and after having had a life of doing lots things and pursuing a number of different careers, I decided at a certain point that I wanted to commit to one thing for the rest of my life, something that was deeply personal to me and that I was passionate about. So I applied to Hunter’s Animal Behavior and Conservation program. As I was studying and doing research, I discovered an incredible amount of information about how smart and emotive animals are. But it was all behind academic walls. So with Sheila Chase, the founder of the program at Hunter and another teacher there, Diana Reiss, I founded Thinking Animals and we started with a lecture series, Exploring Animals Minds inviting world-renowned scientists to New York to tell the public about animal cognition and behavior, how smart they are, what they feel, what they think, whether they have personalities, how do they communicate, etc. We have evolved substantially since then, but that’s how it began.
How do you see the results of this work after doing this for four years, how have public perceptions changed?
We were one of the first people to bring information about animal intelligence and communication to the public in a systematic and accessible way. Science was at the basis of what we were telling the public. So it was credible information, and in many cases it was information that people simply were not familiar with. To anybody who has a dog or a cat, or who has grown up around animals in farms, stables, or in the wild, those people know intuitively that animals are intelligent and act with intention. But to a lot of other people it was not obvious. And scientists were among this group. For years scientists would not acknowledge that animals have intelligence. Since Descartes, scientists had been declaring that animals were little more than automatons with no thoughts of their own, and behavior that was genetically pre-programmed. That started to change in the mid 1970s with Donald Griffin, who wrote a book about animal intelligence and basically posited the question — shouldn’t we err on the side of assuming that they are intelligent and have feelings, rather than not and therefore causing them the pain and suffering that society was inflicting on them? But for a long time, most scientists didn’t believe that animals had any intelligence, or were even sentient. Now they know that they do and in the last several years this has become a topic that has been picked up by the press, so most people are now aware that animals are intelligent. There is a lot more awareness among the public, certainly among the educated, animal-friendly public, that other species are individual sentient creatures and have the capacity to suffer just as we do, to think, plan ahead and feel love, sadness and altruism, have a point of view just as we do. But we are also realizing that other animals and species–while endowed with similar evolutionary characteristics as us– are not us. They behave and feel in ways that are suited to how they, themselves have evolved. However, in some ways we are very much like the other animals from whom we have evolved. So, whether animals think, are sentient and emotive creatures is no longer a new subject to many people. They do and they are.
We had started Thinking Animals in the hope that if people understood how intelligent animals were, they would get more involved in their conservation and humane treatment. After about two and a half years of doing these lectures, which were done almost monthly, we commissioned an audience survey. We wanted to find out what impact we were having on people’s behavior. Group behavior is very, very difficult to change. What we found out was that people loved coming to these lectures, they loved understanding and hearing about how intelligent other animals were, but they weren’t necessarily donating more to animal causes, volunteering more of their time than they had done prior to coming to the lectures. They weren’t necessarily making the connection between intelligence and welfare. So our challenge was to answer whether knowing about the intelligence and emotional lives of animals was enough to incentivize people to become more directly involved in their protection and conservation. And if not, what could we do to change that?
In trying to answer that question, we realized two important facts:
Other species impact virtually all aspects of our lives but few people have a clear understanding of how broad this impact is, or what the consequences are.
Many people may not care about animals specifically, but may care deeply about their impact on their own daily lives, if they understood the enormity of the implications.
That was an indication to us that we had to do things differently. So in the summer of 2015 we had a new board with some really fabulous people on it, very talented and smart, and we repositioned the company. We looked at our mission and thought that we really needed to broaden the concept behind what we were doing – to include the impact of animals on our lives, the ethical basis of our relationship with other species and why we need to protect them and care for them. So we created a broader vision for the company.
We had started Thinking Animals in the hope that if people understood how intelligent animals were, they would get more involved in their conservation and humane treatment.
Is there something that makes it more important for the modern society to be aware of these issues than ever before?
Well, I think that we’re living in a perilous time. We’re living in the middle of a huge extinction of plants and animals that has been driven by us. We at Thinking Animals United have been focusing on getting across the message that the nature of our relationship with other species really has enormous and quite quantifiable impacts on our health, on the environment, on global security and the economies of the countries around the world, and qualitative impacts on the moral imperatives that we need to listen to and live our lives by if we are going to fix what’s happening to the planet. Understanding this is incredibly important.
The nature of our relationship with other species really has enormous impacts on our health, on the environment, on global security and the economies of the countries around the world…
For instance, 75 percent of all emerging diseases in the last twenty five years are zoonotic diseases, they come from animals. And they pass through vectors like mosquitoes or bush meat or the international trade in endangered species. They push into the human arena. Zika, rabies, AIDS, avian flu, anthrax, ebola, rabies toxoplasmosis (which comes from cats) – all of these are zoonotic diseases and are increasingly becoming global and have the potential to create major pandemics. Eating red meat as we know has caused enormous impacts on obesity, diabetes, various cancers, and antibiotic resistance because these animals are fed antibiotics which then are passed to us, creating resistance to their effects to cure bacterial diseases. That is becoming one of the major health issues of this century – that we are not going to be able to cure disease because of the food that we are eating. The food that we are eating is making us sick. And the government is subsidizing its manufacture as well as the horrendous conditions for the animals, costing us millions of tax dollars! In addition, you have chemicals that are sprayed on the fodder that is fed to these animals which then leeches in to the soil and into the rivers and ultimately into the ocean. In the Gulf of Mexico there is a 500 mile wide hypoxic zone, dead zone where no fish can live. The economic impact of those (550 dead zones) around the world is enormous. It cost the fishermen in the Gulf region about $183 million a year because of the fish that they lose. The US government subsidizes the agricultural business to about $250 -275 billion a year. If a hamburger were not subsidized, it would cost $35 a pound. The global subsidies to fisheries are estimated at $30 billion a year, 16 of which goes to companies that make diesel. This is destructive to the ocean and is contributing to overfishing. We are subsidizing industries that are making us sick. The avian flu alone cost US taxpayers an estimated $950 million and involved the killing of over 42 million egg-laying hens and 7.5 million turkeys. The wider impact of just avian flu alone was $3 billion and it never reached even pandemic levels in human beings, but other zoonotic diseases will eventually. So the economic costs of these things are phenomenal in terms of environmental sustainability, global security, etc. – I can go on and on but we will be discussing all this at our ReThinking Animals Summit next May!
What are you hoping to achieve with the Summit? What could be its outcome?
We’re hoping to have people think about animals in a different way. People change when it’s in their self-interest to change, and believe me, it’s in everyone’s self-interest to change the consequences of our relationship with animals in terms of their own health, security, pocket books and the planet their children will inherit. International crime syndicates, connected to terrorists, are killing elephants and rhinos and lions and tigers and pangolins to trade for arms. These animals have become the commodities that are fueling the arms trade, they are connected to the trade in humans, and all these groups are connected to each other. Without going into the specifics, what we want is for people to look at why it’s important for them and what can they do about preventing this from continuing. We need to address these issues now, not wait for the next generation. There are a lot of programs in humane education and in conservation for younger kids, but honestly, it could be decade before those kids have the skills to go out there and do something about what’s happening to the world. We need to do it ourselves, now. We do not have the time to wait or have the oceans wait for these kids to grow up. Oceans are being destroyed now. Forests are being cut down, the habitats are being overfished and development is creating human-animal conflicts. People, landscapes and other animals are being destroyed by what we’re doing. So if we want to live healthy lives, if we want to be secure, if we want to have a solid economic foundation and an Earth that is healthy, we’ve got to create a world that our children can live on by rethinking how we are dealing with other species.
But we need partners and we need to partner with the other species. They revitalize the earth, they fertilize the soil, they can make the land healthy, they guard the health of ecosystems, the oceans and forests. If we can convince people to open up their own creativity to become part of the solution, and recognize that they individually can make an impact, we actually could save the planet, but it’s up to all of us, now, to get on with it.
As far as after effects of the summit–we will publish a soft-bound edition of transcripts from the discussions. We would also like to do some longitudinal studies to test if we have made a difference in people’s awareness and activities in relation to other animals. There will be other events flowing from this. We would like to start a “Smartest Thinking Animals Award” for thought leaders in these areas under 21. Our dream however, is to use this as the basis for a film showing the facts and some of the solutions we will be presenting. Human ingenuity would be the star!
People change when it’s in their self-interest to change, and it’s in everyone’s self-interest to change the consequences of our relationship with animals.
As far as I know, the Summit will focus not only on problems, but also on solutions…
We also will have speakers who are doing incredible things to mitigate the negative effects of our presence on the Earth. Entrepreneurs, scientists and businesses that are doing some really exciting things that can change the future, and which are in some cases things that almost all of us can do ourselves. That is the key. We all have to get involved. So we’re showing how some people are actually doing it.
But in fact all of the people that will be speaking in their respective fields in four or five silos of interests are people who are working alone or with organizations to mitigate the negative consequences of our relationship to the other inhabitants of the planet. In addition to that, we’re bringing in speakers who look at nature and animals from a different perspective, from ancient cultures for instance, from religions that have a different perspective on the benefits of having good relations with animals and nature. We’re bringing in entrepreneurs who are working to use nature in the design of cities and creating new kinds of foods for people to eat that don’t involve harming or torturing animals. We’re bringing in businesses that are creating wonderful products that don’t hurt the landscape and don’t destroy the habitats of other species. We’re looking for the game changers of the future. What we have to understand is that we all have a stake in this, we all need to take responsibility where we can– and if we don’t–there are the consequences.
We’re looking for the game changers of the future.
In interacting with wider audiences, what does Thinking Animals United do differently from others – scientist, conservation activists, celebrities, international organizations, etc.? What is your angle?
Instead of looking at just one issue or just one species, or just the economics, or the value of conservation, we’re trying to show a comprehensive picture of things that are important to people’s lives, the major concerns of their lives, their health, their future, their money, and their safety. Those are primary concerns for people, and we need to look at everything in an interconnected way because they are interconnected. There are conferences for some of these things among academics, but most of them work within their own particular areas of interest, they don’t cross boundaries, and nobody’s really going out there to tell the public in this way. So the public does not have a chance to see the whole picture. I’m not a trained scientist, I’m a generalist who comes from a lot of different perspectives. It’s important to me that we bring things together in new ways because the old ways are not necessarily working quickly enough right now. So that’s what we’re trying to accomplish: to show both how important it is that we understand the interconnectedness of these things and the enormity of the issues at stake, and to show what people are doing and what each of us can do to mitigate the negative impacts. Our role as Thinking Animals and the ReThinking Animals Summit is about helping animals. We want to see animals treated better but we have to give people a reason to do so, we have to show them that for many reasons it’s in their self-interest to do so.
They make us realize that we are part of a larger continuum and that we are not alone on Earth as long as they are here with us.
Why are animals so important to you? You already mentioned the childhood, but why have they remained important?
As a small child I used to visit my grandparents who had a 400 acre farm outside of Buffalo where they spent the summers and where my grandfather raised horses and my grandmother had swans and beehives, and there were chickens, they were very proud of their animals. The chickens were shown in Madison Square Garden and they had a portrait book of the winners, they were all Bantams. They had portraits done of the horses and the dogs and we played among the chickens and the little frogs, and the bees and we saw the swans honking and I had my own horse growing up. Then, as I grew up, I grew away from that. I went to Europe, to Paris and became a fashion designer and spent several years in the couture business, then went back to school and went to the Rhode Island School of Design and studied sculpture and ran art galleries in New York and in Rhode Island. Gosh, I did a lot of things: I had radio programs, I created an office of cultural affairs, I ran the Rhode Island State Arts Council and created new programs that were used as national models by the National Endowment for the Arts. I worked in the advertising business and ran public relations, I started two businesses of my own: a magazine on new technologies and how they were going to affect us as consumers and an internet company – we did a lot of consulting in the very beginning for companies who were trying to get up on the internet. But I got to a certain point when I said: wait a minute! I’m going to be hitting the last third of my life at a certain point here, and I’ve done a lot of things, but I want to do one thing now, and what is it at my core that really is something I value and care about and I could see myself devoting the rest of my life to? And that was ultimately helping animals, helping other species. We grew up with them, we always had dogs and cats, and I remember every single little animal that even as a child I rescued and that didn’t make it (and they never do when you get them out of the wild and they’re little babies), but I remember every single one of them.
With a friend, Deede White Quinones at the show of Beverly and Dereck Joubert’s photographs of African elephants.
It has remained important because through all the different careers I’ve had and skills I’ve used during them, at a certain point you say to yourself: what do I want to leave behind, what is it that is important to try to change in this world to make it better? I happen to think that changing the world for animals is incredibly important for us, for our children because of the enormous and positive impact this would have on the world. Our future literally depends on doing this. But again, most people don’t understand the enormity and interconnectedness of animals to our health, our security, our economy and tax dollars, and the environment. The livestock industry alone is the second largest contributor to greenhouse gasses. That alone is reason enough. But we live in a terror-filled and complicated world that requires that we look at solutions from many different angles.
That’s the reason for the ReThinking Animals Summit. We can’t keep viewing the world from our little silos of self-interest if we are going to save it. To understand this through animals is second nature to us. Young children first learn about the wonder of nature from animals. Whether they be stuffed or real, animals become their friends and teachers in learning about the world beyond their home. Likewise, ancient cultures imbued the environment with agency, and spoke with animals on a daily basis, invoking their blessing, teaching and help. Even today, when we talk about the perils of declining ice in the Arctic, we frame it in terms of the loss felt by the endangered polar bear. The face of the movement to stop the use of DDT was the American bald-eagle whose eggs were being destroyed by the chemical’s application in the environment. In fables and fairytales, with which we have been familiar since childhood, animals were the vehicles used to express larger issues of character development. We share not only neural and evolutionary connections with other species, but emotional ones. We empathize with other species. Beliefs and stories about them passed on by thousands of individuals are important factors in shaping our understanding of the world. We now need to create new stories to address what is happening to our world. Animals and their ability to move us beyond the limitations of our humanness need to be a part of that narrative.
Do you think animals can actually help us, actively ‘cooperate’ with us in creating a better world for them and for us?
Oh, there have been so many studies done on the human-animal bond. There are a lot of programs now that use animals, not only dogs, but parrots and other species to help vets deal with PTSD, and they’ve been amazingly successful. There’s a wonderful place in upstate New York, in Brewster called Green Chimneys where children who had learning disabilities or were socially difficult would come up and work with farm animals who have been abused. The kids learn how to feel compassion and how to care for something else. It is a place where absolute miracles daily happen to these kids because of their relationships with animals who they care for and care about, and because of animals so sweetly respond to them. The animals come running up to them, give them unconditional love. For the human spirit that is extraordinary – it makes us feel more than human. They make us realize that we are part of a larger continuum and that we are not alone on Earth as long as they are here with us.
Interviewed by Nik Makharadze, freelance writer living in Moscow.
All videos on this page are from an earlier interview for ‘Behind the Shadows’ series hosted by Susan Finelli.
No part of this interview can be reproduced without citing Thinking Animals United.