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The Health Science Podcast | Episode 046. | September 21, 2023
046: From Childhood Curiosity to Ethological Insights: Marc Bekoff’s Journey into Animal Communication
046: From Childhood Curiosity to Ethological Insights: Marc Bekoff’s Journey into Animal Communication

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Can one truly communicate with animals? When you ask Dr. Marc Bekoff if this is possible, he responds with a resounding yes! In the work he has done, and continues to do, Dr. Bekoff has been instrumental in numerous strides forward for animals.

Known around the globe as an expert on wolves, coyotes, dogs and other Canidae, Dr. Bekoff has worked closely with Jane Goodall and is co-chair of the ethics committee of the Jane Goodall Institute.

Early Curiosity and Fascination with Animals

Marc’s early years in Brooklyn were marked by an innate curiosity about the thoughts and emotions of animals in his neighborhood. This curiosity laid the foundation for his later groundbreaking research. Growing up in a household with an empathetic mother and an optimistic father played a pivotal role in nurturing his deep connection with animals.

The Journey to Ethology

His path to ethology was anything but linear. Marc’s initial research focused on the development of behavior in wolves, dogs, and coyotes. This early work set the stage for his remarkable career in ethology. His passion for understanding animal minds and emotions guided him towards a deeper exploration of cognitive ethology.

Cognitive Ethology and Compassionate Conservation

Cognitive ethology, a term coined by Dr. Bekoff, encompasses the study of animal minds, thoughts, and emotions. His research challenges the conventional view of animals as mere objects, emphasizing the importance of observation in understanding animal behavior.

His work highlights the individuality, agency, and complex emotions of animals, leading to a paradigm shift in how we perceive them.

Play Behavior and Fair Play

A significant portion of Dr. Bekoff’s research has focused on play behavior in animals. He underscores how animals engage in non-competitive play and exhibit fair play behaviors. Understanding these social dynamics among animals is essential in unraveling the intricate tapestry of their lives.

Compassion and Empathy in Animals

Dr. Bekoff delves into the presence of compassion and empathy in animals, showcasing instances of caring, helping, and sharing among various species. These traits challenge the perception of animals as solely driven by instinct, revealing their capacity for profound emotions and social bonds.

The Legal Battle for Animal Personhood

Shifting gears, he touches upon the legal status of animals. Dr. Bekoff discusses the efforts of legal professionals, such as Steve Wise, to establish “personhood” rights for animals.

These legal battles have the potential to revolutionize how we treat animals and address their confinement in places like zoos.

The Vegan Journey

Dr. Bekoff shares his personal journey towards veganism, a transformation that spanned over two decades. While he was always aware of the ethical and environmental implications of consuming animal products, it took time for him to align his actions with his beliefs. His eventual decision to embrace a vegan lifestyle was a gradual process marked by introspection and reflection.

Dr. Marc Bekoff’s remarkable journey from a competitive athlete to a compassionate advocate for animals exemplifies the power of empathy and understanding. His pioneering work in cognitive ethology and compassionate conservation challenges conventional views of animals, calling for a deeper appreciation of their thoughts, emotions, and rights.

Episode Highlights

[03:30]             The guidance of Marc’s parents creating a lasting legacy for the animals.

[06:00]             The intrigue of the study of nonhuman minds.

[08:00]             Play behavior of animals and its importance to humans.

[11:30]             Animals at play… the rules of the game.

[18:30]             Social dynamics of wolves, dogs, coyotes and more.

[20:45]             Why is there such a disconnectedness between humans and animals… for some.

[27:50]             Unlearning the conditioning that extreme athletes need meat.

[32:25]             Going to jail serves a higher purpose.

[42:10]             Compassionate conservationism  

[44:40]             Cognitive dissonance when someone saves some animals but eats others.

About Marc Bekoff, PhD

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has published 31 books (or 41 depending on you count multi-volume encyclopedias), won many awards for his research on animal behavior, animal emotions (cognitive ethology), compassionate conservation, and animal protection, has worked closely with Jane Goodall, is co-chair of the ethics committee of the Jane Goodall Institute, and is a former Guggenheim Fellow. 

He also works closely with inmates at the Boulder County Jail. In June 2022 Marc was recognized as a Hero by the Academy of Dog Trainers.

His latest books include Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do, Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life PossibleA Dog’s World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World Without Humans, and Dogs Demystified: An A to Z Guide to All Things Canine

The second edition of The Emotional Lives of Animals will be published in March 2024. (Many of Marc’s books can be seen here.) Marc also publishes regularly for Psychology TodayHis homepage is

In 1986 Marc won the Master’s Tour du Haut, aka the age-graded Tour de France.

About Dr. Frank Sabatino

As a recognized authority on the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle, Dr. Frank Sabatino has cared for and inspired thousands of people for over 40 years. Dr. Sabatino has a PhD in cell biology and neuroendocrinology and has done extensive landmark research on calorie restriction, stress, and aging. He currently is on staff at the TrueNorth Health Foundation in Santa Rosa, CA, and serves as the Director of Health Education at the NHA.

Dr. Sabatino’s passion and life’s work include raising awareness about the benefits of whole-food, plant-exclusive nutrition (without added salt, oil, or sugar), health rejuvenation, stress management.

About NHA

The National Health Association (NHA), founded in 1948, is a nonprofit organization that promotes the benefits of a plant-based diet. The Association provides educational materials, educational events, and services to thousands of people around the world.

The mission of the National Health Association is to educate and empower individuals to understand that health results from healthful living. The NHA recognizes the integration of all aspects of health: personal, environmental, and social.

The NHA also provides travel experiences around the globe through the NHA Plant-Based Travel and cruise division.

More information:


A unique benefit of the NHA Conference is the selection of two medical students who receive a full scholarship to the conference.

Contact Wanda Huberman for more information on how to apply for the scholarship.  [email protected]

NHA membership

For a very nominal investment, you can enjoy incredible benefits of the NHA membership.

Members of the NHA enjoy a subscription to the award-winning quarterly health journal, Health Science, access to the “Members Only” section of the NHA Website (which contains all 43 years of back issues of the magazine),  the ability to download for free many classic out of print eBooks on the history of the Natural Hygiene Movement, including Fasting Can Save Your Life and The Greatest Health Discovery, discounts on books, and early notice of the NHA events.

Only $35 a year for basic membership within the United States.

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