My Philosophy

My Philosophy

While I certainly don’t feel I have all the answers or a monopoly on the truth, this article simply reflects, as stated on the heading, that this is my philosophy. I have spent a great many hours a week throughout my life in the company of many, many varieties of animals, and I feel that they are the most mischaracterized beings in the world.

As hard as it is to believe, there are some people still debating the question of whether animals have feelings. Some even question whether animals can feel pain. Undoubtedly, the position of those that question this fact is based on some self-centered agenda such as medical research, hunting, abandonment, etc. I have found deep and sensitive feelings and emotions in even the most aggressive wild predators. The most obvious examples that are identifiable to almost everyone are the pet dog or cat. I don’t believe any dog or cat owner that cares enough about their pet to spend an hour a day with it would question that their pet has feelings and emotions. The latest surveys even show that most pet owners do feel their pet is a member of their family.

I find deep and abiding sensitivity in every animal with which I have contact. I work with a very aggressive and dangerous tiger named Caesar that has a sense of humor. He will play games with me, acting like he’s asleep-lying on his back with his eyes tightly shut-until I get within several feet, at which time he’ll spring up on all four feet and stare me in the eyes. Then, just as quickly, he’ll “chuff,” (a tiger’s way of saying everything’s okay) and rub up against me, happy in the knowledge that once again he’s shown how stupid humans can be.

The white tiger to whom I used to belong before her death, Sabrina, was taking a nap with me one day in her cave. I got up and quietly walked to the gate, about twenty feet away. Since she was sound asleep, I didn’t bother to look behind me as I walked. Just as I approached the gate, I felt a bump and turned to see Sabrina right behind me bumping my back with her nose and looking at me as if to say, “Well, I got you this time. Careless, aren’t you?” For two months after that day, whenever I lay with her in her cave, she would wait a few seconds after I walked out then peek around the corner to see if I was looking behind me.

I am appalled at the large number of people that think nothing of using violent physical force on whatever animal with which they have contact, whether it’s a horse, a dog, or a farm animal. When I was growing up, most horse trainers took the attitude they had to “break” a horse in order to ride it, especially a stallion. I started training horses when I was twelve, and I never wanted to “break” a horse, preferring to “train” a horse and take the time to make the horse feel secure and comfortable with me handling it and getting on its back. I was ridiculed and laughed at by many old-timers. Now, of course, thanks to people such as Monty Roberts and others using gentle and affectionate training methods and writing and doing television appearances, this method of training through positive reinforcement has become much more “mainstream.”

I believe in treating all beings with the same dignity and respect that should be given between good friends and close associates. I believe all beings are entitled to their place on Earth, and they are to be accorded the dignity and respect that civilized society is supposed to represent. Unfortunately, I have found much more character and respect from wild animals than I have found with many well-educated humans. There is a favorite quote of mine from Teddy Roosevelt, “To educate a man in mind, and not in morals, is to educate a menace to society.” There are many menaces to society. I have seen studies that have shown the relationship between people mistreating an animal when they’re young and growing up to be violent criminals of various types. I have also seen studies that show people that abuse their spouse and/or children quite frequently abuse animals-even their pets-as well.

That brings up a subject that frankly amazes me. We read so much today questioning how violence in games, movies, and television might incite violence in our youth and later as they become adults. The media violence is virtual violence. Yet there is almost nothing written or said about how the American tradition of taking an impressionable child out and teaching him/her that it is supposed to be fun to kill a living being might incite violence later. Think about it. Many people are making killing of an innocent being a fun way to spend a day or weekend. Now, I understand that people with character, stability, and well-adjusted lives can differentiate between that and killing or harming a human. But, there are many, many children and young adults that aren’t so well-adjusted. And, from a moral perspective, is there that much difference? I understand that people can differ philosophically on this subject, and I know some people that are hunters that seem to have character and principles towards humans, but can one really find a moral difference? Virtual violence is unmistakably not real. However, killing an animal for pleasure is very real. And, when a parent or contemporary praises one for doing the killing, how big a leap is it to jump the gap to then kill a human? Killing has already been glorified as fun and admirable; it’s just a change of victim.

I truly believe that killing should never be perpetrated for pleasure. To me, the only justification for killing should be to survive, self-defense, or to protect one’s property or other beings. Under that umbrella one can place killing for food, catching fish for food, killing a wasp that attacks, killing a mosquito that bites you, etc. So, it’s not that radical a position. But, I can’t understand getting any pleasure out of killing, even in self-defense. It should be the last option and done with reverence and sober reflection. How can one justify enjoying seeing another sentient being die?

I have had many occasions to see complex emotional makeup of animals. As an example, my Canadian timber wolf, Cleo, had a playmate when she first arrived; a very large male German shepherd named Caesar. Cleo had more sensitivity and deep emotions than almost any human I’ve met. Caesar became very ill about four years after Cleo arrived and had to stay in my bedroom for several months until he ultimately died. Before taking him for burial, I brought Cleo up to see him one last time. She sniffed him, looked at him, then sat back and commenced to make long, soulful howls unlike anything I have heard from her before or since that day.

On another subject, segregation became so widespread from the middle 1800s to the middle 1900s that it was an accepted practice in the South, and it wasn’t questioned for almost 100 years. Killing animals for sport or vanity has similarities; it has been accepted for so long that rarely does one stop to think about the morality of killing a sentient being just for pleasure or ego. Careful analysis would show that such an attitude could easily desensitize one to killing of any sort. Either killing for pleasure or vanity is universally wrong, or it can easily be condoned no matter who or what the subject of the killing is. This falls under the heading of theoretical ethics (Is any one of these standards really right or are they all just arbitrary?) Normative ethics aims to prescribe; it searches for norms, not in the sense of what is average and in that sense normal, but in the sense of authoritative standards of what ought to be. Therefore, under a normative ethical standard, killing for any reason other that self-defense, defense of another being, or in order to eat cannot be condoned under any standard of accepted behavior. Certainly not killing for pleasure or vanity.

The same types of labels are used to describe extermination of animals as were used early in the last century and in the century before that to describe the killing of other humans. Such words as “control the species,” “thin out the population,” “manage their numbers.” etc. I lived through segregation. I have seen how man can rationalize even the arrogant dehumanization of one’s fellow man. I never understood then why another race should be treated differently than my own, and I don’t understand the same sort of treatment to other species of animals now. We killed many other races, enslaved them, kept them subjugated, and we were able to rationalize that the same way we rationalize killing of animals for a variety of reasons. It seems that if we can’t communicate with a being, it is then fair game for mistreatment, or worse. Does that really make ethical sense? We somehow differentiate “our” group or race based on three to six generations of history. This is an arbitrary way of deciding what we are; why not go back ten or twelve generations? One might find that there isn’t as much difference between races at that point. Going back 15,000 years, we might learn that we aren’t too different from those animals we are killing without a thought.

Alternatively, I believe in treating animals just like I would treat any other sentient being, including another human. They should be treated with dignity, respect, and understanding. I have received unbelievable responses from even the most seemingly ferocious of animals when they know I respect them and do not wish to impose myself upon them. I actually spend more time around wild animals than I do humans, and I have found their character and principles to be admirable. It is a very rare animal that will harm a human that isn’t irritating, agitating, or angering the animal, even if the animal knows it could kill the human without a problem. Can we say the same of many humans towards animals?

I also don’t understand how someone can watch a tiger or other cat leap through a flaming hoop at a circus or some such venue and not be embarrassed to be a part of such an exhibition. Or see an elephant made to stand on one leg or roll over while a dog or something of the sort climbs on it. I know I’m not the only person that abhors such venues, but I’m truly surprised at how many people don’t. I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to have animals involved in educational or entertainment-oriented venues, but I do believe it should only be done in a manner that is also fun and enjoyable for the animal. And, I believe only the use of positive reinforcement training methods with rewards and without punishment is morally justifiable. If one has to use punishment as a training method, either the trainer is poorly trained, the animal is the wrong animal, or the activity to be performed is inappropriate. There are some good examples of positive entertainment venues: I personally know that SeaWorld utilizes only positive reinforcement, and the trainers spend a great deal of time when shows aren’t being performed in affectionate interaction with their animals. I know the “Tiger Island” venue at Marine World in Vallejo, California used to be a venue in which the tigers are exhibited while doing only natural tiger behavior in a manner that is fun for the tigers as well as the audience. My dear friend Andy Goldfarb is one of the creators and helped operate both that facility and a similar venue in Australia at a facility called “Dreamworld.” Anyone that thinks all trainers operating entertainment facilities are only exploiting animals should see videos of the sleepless nights and countless days Andy has spent caring for his animals, sharing space affectionately, and giving them the love and attention that makes the animals enjoy performing on “Tiger Island.” The Steve Martin bird show that is performed in several different locations utilizes positive reinforcement methodology and uses birds that enjoy performing for an audience. There are undoubtedly many others, but those come to mind. It can be done appropriately.

While I used no discipline or rewards in working with wild animals, preferring to have the purity of just coexisting in the same environment on the animal’s terms and having the animal interact with me because it chooses to, I have no problem with using food and treat rewards for positive reinforcement of a specific action in an educational venue. As long as the animal is not doing anything it really doesn’t want to do, but is doing it at a specific time for a reward, that is still a positive activity. I just don’t like seeing animals put in positions or activities that diminish their dignity and magnificent bearing.

As to those people that buy and wear furs, they have my contempt and disgust. Yes, we all make some compromises in the purity of our lifestyle choices. However, to callously know that many animals were killed just for one’s vanity and ego is disgusting. In the distant past using fur for warmth could somewhat be justified, but in today’s world with so many fabrics and choices of material that create very satisfactorily warm clothing, I don’t believe supporting the killing of beautiful animals so one can wear their fur for ego and vanity can stand any sort of moral evaluation.

My basic philosophy of life is that one is entitled to do whatever one chooses to do with one’s life as long as it does not harm or endanger that of any other being or intrude on another being’s right to do the same.

All living beings have some inalienable rights. Animal rights means that animals deserve certain kinds of consideration-consideration of what is in their own best interests regardless of whether they are cute, useful to humans, or an endangered species and regardless of whether any human cares about them at all (just as a mentally-challenged human has rights even if he or she is not cute or useful or even if everyone dislikes him or her).

There is a distinction between animal rights and animal welfare: animal welfare theories accept that animals have interests but allow these interests to be traded away as long as there are some human benefits that are thought to justify that sacrifice. Animal rights means that animals, like humans, have interests that cannot be sacrificed or traded away just because it might benefit others. However, the rights position does not hold that rights are absolute; an animal’s rights, just like those of humans, must be limited, and rights can certainly conflict.

Louis Dorfman - Animal Behaviorist specializing in interaction and positive reinforcement with wild predators.

Louis Dorfman was previously Chairman of the Board and Animal Behaviorist at International Exotic Animal Sanctuary and has been associated with this facility for 25 years. 

He has worked with many species of wild animals for over 60 years, both in protected and unprotected contact. At IEAS he rehabilitates exotic cats that have been abandoned, abused, and/or confiscated and in most cases changes the reactions of the cats to humans from one of fear and hate to an attitude that the humans are there for security and support for the resident cats. Over the years, he has worked with over 150 exotic cats at the sanctuary alone.

He also worked with the 31 black bears that were all orphaned and placed with the sanctuary by state agencies. He habituates the bears so that they are habituated with their human caregivers while remaining essentially wild bears in their 10 acre compound.

He has made appearances on all national in many international television networks including ABC, NBC, Fox News, CNN, BBC, and E! Networks on various animal issues.