Gay Bradshaw holds PhDs in both ecology and psychology. She’s also trained in linguistics and geophysics and has published, taught, and lectured widely in both the U.S. and internationally. Her work focuses on trans-species psychology—the theory and methods for the study and care of the psychological well-being of animals and of communities of non-human and human animals. She is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us about Humanity, published by Yale University Press, which is an in-depth psychological portrait of elephants in captivity and in the wild. Her research expertise includes the effects of violence on and trauma recovery of elephants, grizzly bears, chimpanzees, and parrots, and other species in captivity.
Bradshaw is also the founder of The Kerulos Center, a non-profit committed to “creating a world where all animals live in dignity and freedom.” In addition to its education and outreach programs, Kerulos cares for endangered, special needs desert tortoises and rescued rabbits at The Tortoise and the Hare Sanctuary and refuge on thirty-two acres outside of Jacksonville, Oregon. Kerulos is the classical Greek word for kingfisher and for the brilliant cerulean blue of their feathers. It conveys the nonprofit’s philosophy that humans and nature are one. Kerulos is explicitly trans-species based on the scientific realization that humans and other animals have common capacities to think, feel, dream, aspire, and experience consciousness.
A frequent contributor to Psychology Today, Bradshaw has also been interviewed by the New York Times, Irish Public Radio, USA Today, ABC 20/20, NPR, National Geographic Explorer, BBC, National Geographic Films, Time Magazine, CBC The Current (Canada), Daily Express, Carte Blanche, Natural Resource Defense Council, Austrian Public Radio, New Scientist, Harvard Mental Health Letters, Reader Digest UK, Weekly Reader, Scholastic, Stern-Neon (Germany), National Geographic Magazine France, Smithsonian, Vega (Brasil), Utne Reader, Outside Magazine, The Sunday Telegraph, The London Times, American Scientist (Germany), 21stCentury Radio, and Wild About Pets.
I discovered Bradshaw and the work of The Kerulos Center while researching Charlie Russell, whose interview in the September 2013 issue of The MOON was our most-read article for nearly a year. Bradshaw recently collaborated with Russell on a book about his work, The Buddha and the Bear: Living Well with Grizzlies, which is due out this year.
Gay was kind enough to speak with The MOON by phone in early December.
The MOON: Please tell us about trans-species psychology and the evidence for animals sharing the capacity to think, feel, dream, aspire, and experience consciousness.
Bradshaw: Formally speaking, trans-species psychology is the scientific recognition that all animals, including humans, are understood using the same, unitary model of brain, mind and behavior. Brain morphological differences means that while information may be distributed and processed differently as a result of adaptation to specific physical environments, there are no qualitative differences among species. This is not new.
Science has run on this understanding for centuries. The “new” field of trans-species psychology merely draws attention to the fact that scientists use science selectively for the purpose of privileging humans and exploiting other animals. Nonhuman animals – rats, cats, fish, monkeys, planarians, frogs and so on – are used to study human minds and bodies because of cross-species similarities, but these nonhuman animals are denied ethical and legal protection granted to humans. This violates scientific principles and logic. So we might ask: Why is this contradiction allowed to continue? Because the engine of modern western society relies on the use and abuse of nonhuman animals. Recognizing that other animals have “what we have” profoundly upsets the capitalistic, anthropocentric, industrialization applecart. Trans-species psychology openly declares that science in its entirety articulates the intellectual architecture of animal rights.
The MOON: How do you define animal rights? What should an accurate and ethical relationship with animals include?
Bradshaw: Animal rights asserts that animals exist for their own purposes and, as a result, they should not be denied self-determination. It involves active deconstruction of all human behaviors, perceptions, institutions, laws, and ethics that impede nonhuman animal self-determination and agency. This means not preventing non-human animals from making their own choices for their own well-being and that of their cultures—not imposing captivity; not hunting; and not tolerating anything being done to other animals that we wouldn’t tolerate being done to ourselves. Neither is forced breeding acceptable; nor keeping animals in zoos; nor eating them. Animal rights acknowledges that the so-called human-nonhuman animal separation is not natural.
Humans have created a vocabulary to separate humans from non-human animals. For example, when we talk about the forced breeding of any non-human animal, we call it animal husbandry; but if we’re talking about the forced breeding of humans it would be rape, slavery, or prostitution. The compulsion to retain split terminologies clearly indicates that we know our behavior is wrong and unethical. We just conveniently create other terminology when we’re talking about non-human animals and justify it by saying non-humans aren’t entitled to the same rights as we are. That is why trans-species psychology was named not trans-species behavior. Psychology acknowledges animal agency and voice, behavior silences. Science compels animal rights and so does common sense.
The MOON: I presume you include domesticated animals in your definition.
Bradshaw: Yes, of course. Many say that this kind of logic should not apply to so-called domesticated animals, insisting that, “Cats and dogs and sheep wouldn’t survive if we weren’t here to care for them and how could they live on their own and outside of captivity?” To which I answer: Domesticated animals are dependent because we’ve rendered them so. This does not deny the existence of profound, meaningful, wonderful emotional relationships that make animals part of our families and vice versa; relationships between species are not always about servitude. But the practice of domestication imposes a power differential. It is true that in many, maybe most, cases, domesticated animals would have extreme difficulty “living on their own.” The so-called “wild” is not even really their culture any longer in the same way it is for wildlife. Over millennia, domesticated animals have become bicultural and been assimilated, through no choice of their own, into human culture. In essence what has happened to domesticated animals is referred to as historical trauma.
Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Braveheart coined this term to describe American Indian experience. She defines historical trauma as a cumulative emotional and psychological wounding across generations that emanates from massive group trauma and genocide. Similar to “Complex PTSD” that was created by psychiatrist Judith Herman to describe devastating effects of trauma on prisoners of war, concentration camp victims, and genocide survivors, historical trauma recognizes widespread, sustained, chronic trauma that comes to define individual and cultural identity. Historical trauma takes hostage the past, present, and future largely because it remains unrecognized, pervasive, but denied by the dominating culture of occupation. American Indian genocide, wildlife genocide, and domestication have been ignored by re-writing history and normalizing traumatogenic practices such as relocation, translocation, zoos, reservations, and mass killing. It creates systemic unreconciled grief.
As Dr. Braveheart explains, historical trauma can’t be adequately dealt with, or healed, within the locality of an individual life. Historical trauma spans generations and communities. Importantly, the nature of these traumatic losses is unappreciated. Forced relocation of American Indians ripped individuals from their ancient soul homes – the places that were foundational to their physical, emotional, spiritual, and cultural meaning. Wildlife also has been pushed out of their lands, waters, and skies until there is no place left for them to go. They are facing mass genocide. They’ve been hunted to the point of extinction year after year after year for centuries. The threats are only increasing due to human population growth, habitat appropriation, dissecting roads; increased access of humans to wilderness areas, increased facility with which humans can hunt animals—with automatic weapons, planes and helicopters, and so on. Essentially all wildlife are refugees – strangers in their own homelands.
Domesticated animals experience their own brand of relational trauma. Babies are torn from their families, forced to live under horrendous conditions, and in the case of farmed and other commodified animals such as greyhounds, eventually killed. Even in the case of “companion” animals such as cats and dogs, kittens and puppies are prematurely stolen from their parents, their natural social and emotional processes are ignored. From the perspective of attachment theory – the science of how minds and emotions are shaped through early relationships –“breeding” and “husbandry” practices comprise violent relational trauma.
I describe domestication in terms of trauma because of the extreme differential between the life of a domesticated animal and what that animal would normally anticipate from his or her environment. A sheep or turkey who was once wild and free-living, has been subjected to generations of successive radical changes—traumas—to his or her environment and his or her ability to move and behave freely within that environment. So most of these individuals are not equipped—socially, emotionally, or physically—to revert back to the wild, although some are. Some chickens, for example, who have been rescued and taken to a sanctuary setting become feral and are able to have what seems to be a good, healthful life. This brings up an important point: while there are general patterns, each individual is unique with a unique biography and unique aspirations.
One of the things I try to encourage is, rather than simply talk about the things we don’t want, let’s imagine the kind of future we do want for other animals. This pulls us to a better, new future. The onus is on humans because we appointed ourselves in charge. It is up to us to identify steps to prevent further animal suffering – prevent the future from repeating our past. I see the biggest change for our modern day species as relinquishing dominance and giving up our privilege to get who and what whenever we want.
We may not be able to accomplish it all overnight, fully reverse the damage we, as a species, have caused. But as individuals, can do a lot, such as creating safe havens that enable other animals to express themselves as individuals, offer a substantial level of freedom and self-determination, and, importantly, restore their dignity. One more thing – when we talk about “humans,” it is important to acknowledge that the profound destruction and problems facing the planet today were initiated by colonizing Europeans. The forced acculturation through violence and genocide on indigenous subsistence humans has globalized destruction and conversion to create a human monoculture – that of domination and exploitation of nature.
The MOON: More than “caring” for domesticated animals, food writer Michael Pollan says that most domesticated breeds wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for domestication. What do you say in response? Just as there is nowhere for even diminished populations of wild animals to live, where would populations of formerly domesticated animals live?