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What is trans-species psychology and how did you get involved in starting this new field?

Trans-species psychology describes a common model of brain, mind, and behavior for all animals, human inclusive. It draws from research in three main fields: neuroscience, ethology, and psychology. Why “trans” and why “psychology”?

Trans re-embeds humans within the larger matrix of the animal kingdom by erasing the “and’ between humans and animals that has been used to demarcate and reinforce the false notion that humans are substantively different cognitively and emotionally from other species. For instance, we have chosen to create guns and weapons of mass destruction that kill millions of people and other animals. Other animals don’t do that. The significant difference therefore derives more in what we chose to value and do than what we are capable of doing. Other animals certainly have the brain-capacity and many the physical means to kill indiscriminately, but they usually don’t. When there is what we might call a non-utilitarian killing —that is, not for food or to defend—then it happens under unusual conditions, conditions far different from those to which they have evolved and adapted. For example, as discussed in my book Elephants on the Edge, the young South African bull elephants killed over 100 rhinoceroses, but that was “aberrant” and is consistent with trauma-related neurobiological compromise because of the human-caused traumas they endured. Same thing with elephants who attack and kill in captivity. Extraordinary conditions lead to extraordinary behavior and mental states. Otherwise, elephants have the power to kill but rarely do.

Why create a new field of psychology? Because psychology encompasses not only what we think but why and how we think and act the way we do. It integrates philosophy and science. As we transition from one paradigm, call it the Cartesian, to another, trans-species, we are in the process of re-examining fundamental assumptions that we took for granted—specifically those that assumed animals as “less than” humans and are based on animal exploitation. Inadvertently, the science community has set western culture on its head with recognizing human-animal mental comparability. Humanity is challenged to re-think almost every aspect of modern culture. We are charged with a re-creation of ethics and reasons and ways of knowledge-making that reflects our understanding that animals are fully sentient beings. Psychology, and in particular those schools of thought such as depth psychology that are implicitly philosophical and existential, provide a synoptic, bird’s eye view to examine our past projections—what we thought animals were—and deconstruct them. Even science cannot continue as is because it is still driven by a social-political agenda that legitimizes animal exploitation. Animals remain objectified in the frame of conventional science. We are faced with rediscovery and re-inventing human identity.

I established the field of trans-species psychology to bridge paradigms and to represent science accurately— explicitly acknowledge the science that established human-animal psychological and emotional comparability. And there was no working model to fully explain the “bizarre elephant behavior.” Of course, it was common sense to understand why anyone would “act strange” if a population of elephants or humans is subjected to genocide, violence, and trauma of all different kinds, and you break down their society. History has shown us what happens to people, and the elephants are not much different.

It was possible to demonstrate this idea scientifically and not have it dismissed because it was a statistically significant event. Elephants were responsible for over 100 rhinoceroses’ deaths. Anecdote became statistically significant and therefore provided the foundation for a legitimate scientific exploration. Ethology, animal behavior theories, did not explain adequately why these individuals behaved the way they did. The reason is that ethology still largely objectifies other animals and denies they have minds comparable to ours, with feelings and emotions, and consciousness. In order to explain and understand why the elephants were doing what they did, it was necessary to integrate theory and research from neurosciences, psychology, and ethology.

Subsequently, the establishment of trans-species psychology was really an explicit naming of what we understand to be a common approach to understanding animal subjective experience and human subjective experience. This is not really new. You can go back to Darwin, who really came up with the beginnings for what we call trans-species psychology in his book on emotions, which included discussion of animals and humans interchangeably. Subsequent to that, the idea that humans were just part of the animal kingdom continuum went completely underground for obvious social and political reasons. It is critical to note that other human cultures, namely many traditional indigenous peoples functioned very “trans-species.” This has been overlooked as wildlife and indigenous peoples have been simultaneously destroyed with western colonialism.

Over the last few decades, the force of evidence from neuroscience, ethology, and psychology has made it impossible to retain the idea that only humans have emotions, culture, and all the other attributes that are used to justify human privilege over other species. Trans-species psychology actually rectifies a profound inconsistency in science, what I refer to as “unidirectional inference”: the idea that we can make inferences about human minds from animals (using so-called animal models which are animals in experiments in place of human subjects). Yet, it is considered inaccurate to make inference from humans to animals (called anthropomorphism). Why? So that researchers can use animals can in experiments in ways they wouldn’t do to humans. If we did, it would be considered illegal and unethical because humans would suffer. Instead we subject animals to it. However, the convention of unidirectional inference is not consistent with scientific evidence and theory, i.e., unitary models of brain and mind. So trans-species psychology, then, names and recognizes that it is valid, correct, and accurate to talk about bidirectional inference: what we learn from animals, we can look at humans, and what we learn from humans, we can look at animals.  This is the scientific basis for deconstructing the conceptual, perceptual, and political barriers that segregates humans and animals.

In my book Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us About Humanity, I talk about a pivotal event in my life. I had been working in the environmental sciences and conservation as a government scientist.  As a kid, I always wanted a career to “help animals.”  So, I went to Africa.  It became clear that the approaches and tools and ways in which science was being used were very ill-advised. When in Africa I had this profound wake-up call only a few days into the trip. There were two male lions in a reserve and the ranger explained that they had been originally an alliance of three. They were such a powerful alliance that whenever they were challenged by younger males, they would drive the younger males out and then the younger males would go to the periphery of the park where some got out. The surrounding community and people became very upset.  It got very political and the park wanted to avoid any more escapes. The idea of a lion being loose in Africa and being regarded as unusual was disturbing. Just like here in the US in the case of cougars and bears, African lions had been driven out of the everyday human lives and culture. The animals had been extirpated for so long that most people there, I was told, had never seen lions, had never seen elephants: a sad state, like here with bears. As a result, the park decided to shoot one of the three lions and break up this very formidable alliance, so that they would not be able to push out the younger males. The ranger described one of the older males shot and killed and saw the two remaining males.  He said they basically fell apart, describing them as “broken” and that they “howled and wailed,” that they became almost sickly.  They were grieving for their companion.  He said that they lost their power.  They were physically capable of holding the alliance and keeping their territory, but they were broken in spirit.  The park ranger described all of this to me.  It really hit me that western civilization has really broken the backs of animal societies.  I realized why I had not gone into veterinary work or biology because it felt so objectifying. The role of scientist seemed so violating, like being a voyeur and seeing all of these lions up close just to satisfy my own, humanity’s, lust for visual or actual possession of a “wild animal” and justifying it by calling it “research.”  That precipitated my change.

I quit my job and started investigating how to help this pathetic situation that we were in: killing wildlife in the name of saving them and for science. I was steeped in Carl Jung at the time ( and I still am).  I consider his views very synoptic and quite compatible with other worldviews that are not based on this particular socio-political and epistemic paradigm we’ve been laboring under for the last couple millennia. That’s how I got into trans-species psychology and why I continue with it in the function of the scientist. Science provides a powerful bridge and legitimizing way and also creates an intellectual and therefore psychological scaffolding to move from one paradigm (that is, a human and animal separation) to an integrated vision. When anyone pays attention to their own sensibilities to recognize another’s suffering in the world and what’s wrong in the world, the path forward becomes clear—or clearer. By being open and honest one can achieve a clarity of heart.

Can you talk about why you founded the Kerulos Center?

Basically to support and respond to those disheartened by science. Our current education system is very ossified. Emerging graduates are not using tools that are suited to solve the profound issues at hand. Over and over students and others tell me that they don’t learn anything in school that can help put the world back on a better, more compassionate course. Well, that’s not exactly true. All the information is there, but the way in which education is shaped and the requirements to succeed (if measured in terms of making a living and “a name” for instance) strangle the truth. The way science is taught is selective and therefore very political.  So like your education in natural resources, wildlife biology is very brutal.  With fish and wildlife agencies, most of their activities involve “managing” (that is, killing, subjecting animals to contraception, restricting them to reserves) rather than supporting wildlife.  In most cases, conservation is actually facilitating humans, and a particular human agenda, not all peoples such as I mentioned per indigenous people). Many indigenous people consider themselves part of nature. So when you’re looking at the breakdown of wildlife, looking at the colonization of nature, you can see it side-by-side with the colonization of indigenous peoples.  It’s one political movement.

The Kerulos Center is an effort to create an umbrella, space and place, that brings in a diversity of creative committed people and animals who articulate and live a “trans-species episteme” of knowledge-making and decision-making. Kerulos seeks to provide a space for creative thought and action in service to animals and help people who want to help animals regain their ability to individuate and exercise self-determination. That’s why a lot of our faculty don’t have formal  degrees.  That’s not the point, to have a college education.  We’re trying to emphasize this notion of experience as knowledge by directly bringing in animal voices and animals as leaders to create a new culture: our vision is a world where animal lives in dignity and freedom. Our work is animal-directed.

In your essay “Transformation through service: trans-species psychology and its implications for ecotherapy,” you made a point about the importance of service through giving care and community involvement in a trans-species framework on healing trauma.  Can you explain that more?

The tenet of ecotherapy is that building connections and spending time with nonhuman nature are beneficial psychologically, socially, and emotionally for humans. There are a lot of different kinds of programs, ranging from therapists taking patients for walks in the woods to wilderness vision quests and retreats, and people using animals in animal-assisted therapy (AAT).  A number of colleagues and I are concerned that AAT and ecotherapy are just other ways of exploiting animals and other nature. We may not be eating animals in ecotherapy but we are using them to make us feel better without much concern about what their needs and values are.

The same ethical standards used to protect people are not typically being used to protect animals in ecotherapy or AAT. For example, take equine-assisted therapy where people spend time with a horse to heal themselves. If the horse were a child, there would never be the same kinds of programs.  You wouldn’t say, “I’m going to use a child to make me feel better.”  It would be very politically incorrect (and probably illegal and certainly unethical) to say “I need to spend five hours on a retreat with kids so I can feel better emotionally.”  I’m not equating kids and animals in a developmental way but rather in the sense of disempowerment, that there’s an implicit power and inequality with domesticated animals and wildlife in captivity and children because of their dependence on adults/humans.

Being in service to animals levels this historic inequality. Think about how you might start to interact in a positive way that is mindful of another animal, how to be in service and help that individual by listening, being more of a respondent rather than an actor. Josephine Donovan and others are calling for an ethic of care. I think that is beautiful. It’s a very non-egocentric alternative to the dominant “me-me-me” individualism in our society. It’s more relational-based. That’s being in service.

Nancy Cater, the editor of the Journal Spring invited me guest edit a special issue of that came out this summer, called “Minding the Animal Psyche. It’s a terrific issue from a range of scholars who live and work the trans-species ethos with parrots, chickens, rabbits, bears, and others. We asked authors to reflect and write on these questions:

  • What concepts and practices enhance our abilities to hear and understand animal minds and feelings?
  • What are necessary changes in human perception and action that revitalize mutually respectful interspecies relationships?
  • How do we create ways of living that serve other animals as equal partners in knowledge and culture making?
  • How can we increase other species’ participation in guiding human culture?
  • What are the material and psychological implications—for ourselves and for other animals—of archetypal ways of understanding animals?

We did this as a way to encourage psychologists and others to shift the dynamic from being anthropocentric to relational and animal-centric.

What challenges have you faced personally since you’ve been working with traumatized animals?

If you talk to people in the animal community, many might tell you that life gets harder with greater awareness of how extensive animal suffering is and there is greater heartache. As I delve deeper, that is, as I drop and shed my culturally-derived psychological defenses that keep me separate for animals and keep me from grasping the profound injustice and suffering we mete out to animals, it becomes increasingly more painful to witness the horror that animals experience daily. I think one becomes vicariously traumatized from the violence in which we live and the horror that is imposed and has been imposed on others who aren’t “like us”—and that’s a lot of beings.  Take for instance, American Indians.  Americans have not dealt with the Indian genocide. In fact, when one talks about genocide, people get all nervous about it.  It’s a huge issue, a huge dark shadow that underlies a lot of pain and conflict. I believe it was the scholar Carolyn Merchant who said, or quoted, that when Europeans first came to North America, people talked about virgin land.  In actuality, the land is a widow because of all the death that colonization brought. We need to recognize this past in order to reconcile and revitalize our present and future.

It’s a very difficult when you start to live in the reality that a dog, a parrot, a deer, and a turkey are people with comparable sensibilities and potentials and dreams: when you understand that a turkey “flock” or a bison herd are really distinct cultures, societies with history, traditions, and consciousness, and then you see violence done to them. Even indifference is extremely difficult to accept. That is one reason, I think, you see human people feeling very righteous to fight back, like breaking animals out of a lab. Everyday becomes an ethical and moral challenge of figuring out what is the right thing to do or say. What is the right action? If a person sees a child being brutalized and they go in and try to stop the person inflicting harm, they may end up going to court or jail but there would be tremendous amount of social sympathy for that person.  On the other hand, if a person does that on behalf of a chicken, then they would not receive sympathy whatsoever, or perhaps only a glimmer.

This is  the ethical crucible for people who work undercover, animal attorneys, and people who work in shelters and sanctuaries. What they can do for animals in need is very limited by law to prevent cruelty, and it is exceedingly difficult emotionally. More and more, I hear people say, just in casual conversation (not just from people working in animal protection) that people can’t stand other people.  Wow! We are starting to hate our own species. This is scary, sad, and a sign of a turbulent critical paradigm shift. Intuitively, we’re rediscovering and recognizing this profound connection with animal kin and how we’ve wronged them. We’ve traded connection with animal kin for what we think is security, like having air conditioners and houses and fancy medical stuff. But as a result, we’re experiencing the cost of that trade-off; we have not escaped the misery we have sought to avoid.

We are not only a culture in crisis. We are a species in crisis. This is why we do what we do at the Kerulos Center. The center seeks to facilitate and support a space for a diversity of people seeking to create new and also not-so-new ways of peaceful co-existence and connection with nature and other animals.

Limited to the scale of American society or civilization as it stands, what changes in society do you think are necessary for trans-species compassion and this new paradigm to flourish?

At heart, I feel that it’s up to every individual to look inside their heart and to deeply examine and reflect what they truly believe. Then they will have an ethical responsibility to put those beliefs into action.  I say that because I don’t believe in prescribing ethics. I believe that with the trueness of being and ethical living means bringing congruency between your true inner beliefs and soul and what you say and do. What does that mean?  I think the first step is recognizing our mistakes and embracing them.  I think it’s up to every individual to start making those changes immediately in their life that move in a direction that brings peace and connection with other species. And how does one do that?  Well, again, there are a lot of different ways. First of all, what we do to stay alive.  I believe everything/everyone is “sentient”—rocks, air, even things we don’t see.  It’s logical, that’s just my personal belief. Since I have decided to live on the planet, I beg their forgiveness, but eat them to sustain myself. Become vegan. Do I think eating meat is wrong?  Are cougars wrong to eat deer? I don’t think that is our place to judge.  But we modern humans, at least a lot of us now living on the planet, have the ability to readily stop eating meat and stop killing animals. So let the cougar do what he/she needs to do but meanwhile let’s focus on what we can do to help all of nature. Being vegan will decrease impacts on the ecosystem, help other people, and save billions of animals from suffering. It clears the way to start changing and figuring out other more complicated questions.

Another important thing we have to start to doing is decide on what our ultimate goal is. What do we want the world to be?—again look to our heart of hearts. Knowing what we do about other animals, how do we want the world to look? A beautiful ultimate goal is to cultivate a culture of compassion and peaceful co-existence with other animals. Learn to live like animals again. If you keep that goal right in front as a constant reminder in terms of everyday decision-making, then that’s how we eventually get there. I think we need to learn to live like animals again and see it as a positive thing. It’s rich; it’s incredible, just to be able to be connected in that way. It’s fantastic.