The name Bernie Rollin is not as familiar to the American public as Temple Grandin, but when it comes to matters relating to animal welfare, it should be. Bernie Rollin is the Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and University Bioethicist at Colorado State University (CSU), and in his latest book, Putting the Horse before Descartes, he’s written a memoir, but also a chronicle of some of the most important ethical issues swirling in the modern debate over animal protection. And interestingly, Rollin has played a significant role in many of these debates, influencing outcomes that have helped animals in tangible ways.
Rollin migrated west from New York and landed in the university town of Fort Collins, Colo., in 1969. That was a time of tumult on college campuses, but that upheaval was modulated in small towns like Fort Collins so strongly influenced by agriculture and other conservative elements in the heart of the West. Rollin has now been at CSU for four decades, and in that time, he’s written about animal protection, veterinary ethics, agriculture, and other bioethics issues, producing 17 books and winning a string of awards from parties on all sides of these often acrimonious debates.
His success reflects not only his keen mind, but also his adaptability. Indeed, Rollin is a rara avis—a Brooklyn-born Jew with a philosophy Ph.D. from Columbia University but whose uniform has become cowboy boots and broad-legged, worn-out jeans, a man who writes about philosophy part of the day but then spends time lifting weights with the CSU football team and driving around the wide-open roads of northern Colorado and southern Wyoming on his Harley. At one point in his weightlifting career, he benched more than 500 pounds.
Now in his 60s, he’s still at CSU and still possesses a barrel chest. But today, his heaviest lifting is done for animal protection. In his book, he discusses his role in pushing the ball forward for the benefit of animals—from his support for efforts to amend the Animal Welfare Act to improve the treatment of laboratory animals, to his role in criticizing industrial agriculture and its demonstrable negative impacts upon the health and well-being of individual animals. In his new book, he writes,
“…traditional agriculture was roughly a fair contract between humans and animals, with both sides being better off in virtue of the relationship. Husbandry agriculture was about placing square pegs into square holes, round pegs into round holes, and creating as little friction as possible in doing so…The rise of confinement agriculture, based in applying industrial methods to animal production, broke this ‘ancient contract.’ With technological ‘sanders’–hormones, vaccines, antibiotics, air-handling systems, mechanization—we could force square pegs into round holes and place animals into environments where they suffered in ways irrelevant to productivity.”
For someone who has moved easily between different academic disciplines—veterinary science, agricultural economics, and philosophy, to name a few—Rollin has best shown his versatility and appeal by acting as a bridge between the agricultural and animal protection communities. He’s won the trust of so many influential people in both camps. At the same time, he’s not pulled punches in advocating squarely for animal protection, and he played important role in the landmark report produced by the Pew Commission on Industrialized Farm Animal Production, upon which he served as a member.
But it was always more than about academic philosophy with Rollin. It was always about practical ethics, and I have seen that firsthand. In 2007, after The HSUS won a blow-out victory in an Arizona ballot measure to phase out the use of gestation crates and veal crates, we did more than flirt with the idea of a ballot initiative in Colorado to stop the extreme confinement of calves, sows, and laying hens. Eventually though, as the sides were lining up for political battle, Rollin and also then-Gov. Bill Ritter helped to get the sides to sit down and discuss the issue. In the end, I sat down with Rollin and the leaders of Colorado’s agricultural community. We had some awkward moments, as Rollin recounts in his book, but when it was all said and done, we forged an historic agreement to phase out the use of gestation crates and veal crates in the state. The HSUS and the state’s agricultural commodity groups locked arms and urged the legislature to take action on the issue. It was the first in a series of agreements The HSUS reached with state and national agricultural leaders, and it showed all of those involved a new way forward.
Rollin has been doing important spadework for a long time on animal protection. Now he’s pulled so many of his thoughts together, and I am grateful for it. Those tracking the debate will want to look at this important book.