INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL FOX, D.V.M., D.Sc.,Ph.D
Author of the Recently Released book
The Genetically Altered Future of Plants, Animals, the Earth and Human Beings
Michael Fox, VMD is senior scholar in bio ethics for the Humane Society of the United States. His column, Ask Your Animal Doctor, reaches ten million readers weekly. Dr. Fox travels widely lecturing on animal behavior, conservation, animal rights, humane and sustainable agriculture and creation centered spirituality. Dr. Fox has written over forty books, including the best sellers, Understanding Your Dog Understanding Your Cat, The Inhumane Society The Way of Animal Exploitation, and more recently, The Boundless Circle Caring for Creatures and Creation and Beyond Evolution.
Sharon - For those who may not have considered animals on the level you and I have, I would like to begin by asking you if you feel that animals have souls and if so, how you arrived at that conclusion.
Michael - I talk about this in my book, The Boundless Circle. I think it kind of references as a footnote. I don't believe that animals have souls. I believe that they, like we, are living souls. You make a soul by putting a body and spirit together. So they are living souls like we.
Sharon - Have you felt that way, Michael, since you were a child?
Michael - I've always felt that way. The animals, the presence of animals, wild or domestic, has always filled me with a sense of wonder and curiosity and of course concern when they're injured and suffering. And I was always aware that they were feeling souls, they were souls with feelings and so, with varying degrees are intelligent.
Sharon - Just like human beings.
Michael - Some species having in some aspects of their intelligent repertoire far greater intelligence than we. For example, how do monarch butterflies know how to find their way down to Mexico? How do sea turtles know how to get half way around the world to the exact location where they've never been before, although their ancestors have. And so forth. And then of course I started studying animal behavior and discovered that some species like wolves and whales learn from each other and from their social groups. There you have the beginnings of a cultural matrix of learning as well as instinctual memory.
Sharon - In my own life doing animal communication work and counseling with animals--one of the things that I'm interested in are the ways in which animals help us as human beings to grow spiritually and ways in which we can help them. I would love to hear your comments on, number one, how our relationship and treatment of animals relates to our own spirituality but also what we might do to help animals evolve and grow spiritually as well.
Michael - I feel that animals are more finished than we are. We are the unfinished animal. We are the newest mammal on the planet, and we are the most unfinished, the most incomplete. We have an awful lot of growing to do and a tremendous amount of potential to discover compared to our other animal brothers and sisters. But that's not to say that given the right relationship, the right understanding, the right attitude, an animal can blossom to its full potential, to his or her full potential. While one that's kept in an abusive or restrictive environment could be spiritually and emotionally crippled, just like a human being.
Sharon - Yes, that is what I see so often.
Michael - I've seen an awful lot of that, especially in laboratory animals and breeding kennels and so on, but I think it's a question of us becoming open to the animals. Open to nature, open to divinity. And being more mindful. When that alchemy is at work there is magic. I think a lot of nimals are deeply empathic. I speak of the empathosphere, that they are connected with the feeling realm, so that they can feel things across time and space. You can call it a psychic ability if you wish, but I think of it as a biological attribute that we might well have had in earlier times and we have to reclaim it. One term is "remote sensing", clairvoyance, clairaudiance, whatever.
Sharon - People in our time do seem to be interested in things like telepathy, so hopefully, this kind of interest will help the animal situation as well.
Michael - I hope so. And also help some of the human conditions, because I think when young people begin to realize their own inherent divinity, they're more likely to respect it in other beings. I think this access of self-esteem and mindfulness with respect for other sentient beings is very critical in the developmental process. It leads to the ethic of what I call putting others before self. And that is the essence of caring and service.
Sharon - And then hopefully we would move forward and try the best we could on an individual level to bring out the best and highest in every being.
Michael - Yes. And we must overcome so many attitudes such as animals are unfeeling, animals are objects, animals are commodities, pets, toys for children, specimens, subjects. We need to change all of that for our own good, for our own humanity.
Sharon - As we enter this new Millennium in a few days, what do you see as the most important thing we can do to increase our own awareness and then to take that awareness out into the world to increase other people's awareness about animals and nature?
Michael - We have to all move up to a higher octave of resonance, not in a mystical world-negating way, but integrating all levels of being and awareness, from being aware of the ground that we walk on and humility for the humus to connecting with omnipresence, a sense of the sacred, that I call pantheism, God in All, and All in God. It's a much higher level of resonance in which our state of mind and our behavior is more in harmony with the creative processes.
Such states of mind that condone vivisection or factory farming or genetic engineering--putting human genes into animals and plants and so on--is complete anathema to that higher resonance of being in awareness. It's unethical. I foresee people all over the world rising up and saying "what are we doing? Where are we going? I see it as one of the historic points in the evolution of our species at this time is the movement from the Age of Science and Industrialism to the Age of Ethics. I call it the Ethicalzoic Age. Like Paleozoic, the other ages, the Ethicalzoic.
Sharon - Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
Michael - Homo sapiens means "wise man", and we have to wise up! And part of wisdom is not just simply instrumental knowledge and reason alone, you have to have empathy and feeling. And from the combination of reason and feeling, you can elaborate a whole code of bio ethics to live by, for governments, for corporations, and for one's own personal lifestyle. I see bio ethics as a cornerstone for more enlightened humanity entering or creating the Ethicalzoic Age.
Sharon - Do you think, Michael, that the average person in, say, the United States, who isn't as involved in these issues as you or I are insensitive to animals through ignorance, or is it really that they just don't care?
Michael - I think it's a combination of things. There's a level of disconnected ness, people not really connected with animals and nature, except in theme parks, amusement parks, zoos, circuses and their little surrogate animals at home, and there is just a level of sentimental attachment, which isn't all bad, and some understanding and often deep devotion, but it's very compartmentalized. It needs to be opened up.
Sharon - In your book Beyond Evolution, one of the things I loved the most was your talking about spiritual anarchy in people's personal lives. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Michael - I think Jesus of Nazareth said it one of the passages where he alluded to not coming to make peace, but "I come with a sword to divide father against son and mother against daughter." He meant that in a very creative way. We have to break old, habitual connections that are self-limiting and harmful and we have to become fully responsible for ourselves.
Sharon - It seems like such an enormous task when you think of all of the distortions that people live under already and the low self-esteem that seems so rampant with youth and so forth. How do you see that we can overcome those kinds of things and move toward a spiritual anarchy soon enough that it will make a difference?
Michael - I think that we have to create not only experiences but opportunities for the youth to feel their lives are of value. The greatest values that I find in my own life is in being able to serve, in being able to give, in being able to heal. Now, that takes some training, it takes some understanding, but primarily, it's a question of opportunity. I think society has to create opportunities, really needs to create opportunities. I like the idea of an environmental youth corps that adolescents could go out and start tree planting, start cleaning up some park and wilderness areas. And with the proper supervision and the instruction of enthusiastic adults who don't do see this as a chore, but a way of giving.
I see in this time frame some significant changes in public attitudes, but we still have a lot of obstacles to overcome. We need to really keep alert to how establishment values keep resurfacing and confront them and explore the root of the values and attitudes behind these presumptions that are keeping us at a Neanderthal stage of spiritual development.
Sharon - If we were to go back to considering the average person that wants to do something to make a difference, what do you feel is the most important thing the average person can do in their own life.
Michael - Eat right. Vote with your fork. Vote with your [belly]. Eat with conscience.
Sharon - I'm all for that! I don't really thing that the average person has any idea of the implications of doing that. They're enormous, aren't they?
Michael - They're enormous because everything is connected with everything else. Everything begins and ends, from one point of view, on the end of our forks. The Dalai Lama said to me one time, laughing, he said if people must be selfish, then at least they must be altruistic. And altruism is really the most enlightened form of selfishness. So the most enlightened selfishness, one of the most enlightened forms of selfishness, is to eat with conscience because your health will be much better. If you eat lower down on the food chain, eat less or no animal products and look for the organic label and support your local farmers' cooperatives and local producers.
Sharon - Would you also extend that concept to say the wearing of non leather and things like silk that also create tremendous suffering.
Michael - I think where there's suffering involved, like the commercial production of silk and fur coats, the Humane Society is endorsing what they call evolutionary fur and had a wonderful gala evening with the designer [Oleg Cassini], these are faux furs, and they look beautiful and you have the look of the animal skins, but it's for those who really want to look that--this is a humane alternative. I think creating market niches for things like this that gives consumers choice is enlightened self-interest.
Sharon - Someone like [Oleg Cassini] can do a tremendous amount of good by bringing people's attention to the fact that fur is not a good thing and if people do want to look like that, as you say, there are alternatives.
Michael - I think this is happening. There is a glimmering of enlightened corporate self-interest. Coming out with goods, products, and services that have a green label or humane label or a no-child labor label--this is the beginning of the Ethicalzoic age.
Sharon - Michael, if we went back to the concept of eating right and so forth and the whole concept of non-harming, how would you respond to the person who says, for instance, We can't live and we can't exist in the world without harming anyway, even if we were to wear nothing but cotton clothing, for instance, we would certainly be harming, because there would be small animals and insects that would be killed in the process of harvesting the cotton.
Michael - Absolutely. This is the nature of reality and then you might say, Well, what kind of God could create that kind of reality. I think that's kind of begging the question. We need to simply endeavor to live as harmlessly as possible, accepting the fact that part of the nature of reality is suffering and we don't need to add to it. We can help minimize or reduce that. The more we can serve to help to alleviate the suffering of other sentient beings, whether it's our own species or other species, we're kind of paying our dues for being alive.
Sharon - What do you say to the person who says they feel that as an individual they're not big enough or good enough to make a difference, or, the person who just throws up their hands--it seems all too overwhelming to them.
Michael - I think that's all part of the process of denial and desensitization. I'm thinking of a poem that goes something like, "When the love one/becomes the love of all/then the power of all/becomes the power of One" In other words, a sense of being overwhelmed and of being helpless shouldn't paralyze us from trying to do something. Because that is the coward's way out. We have to have courage, we have to have faith, we have to have commitment.
Sharon - It seems to me that in this particular time that we're in where we really are in a state of chaos, that there is a way we can take that energy - the energy of chaos - and use it for positive good in an enormous way. It seems to me that energy is simply energy and that people, rather than becoming overwhelmed that the chaos energy can be used for positive ends.
Michael - Yes, it's kind of the aikido of tai chi - you take the negative energy and turn it around. A friend of mine said when he was asked, Aren't you just going to burn out? How do you do it day in and day out, dealing with all these issues? We're talking about genetic engineering and biotechnology. And his response was, It gives me life. I can't see burning out because my life is my work and I love my work which is my passion. And it renews me. And that is the spirit of the warrior. To keep on against incredible odds.
Sharon - It seems to me it's far more worthwhile to burn ourselves out, if that's what's necessary, rather than exist as a dimly burning lamp.
Michael - Yeah. Every time I prepare to go to India, I pull out Tolstoy's book, My Religion, where he goes on page after page referring to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus speaks about resist not evil, "and I say unto ye, resist not evil"The meaning there, I interpret it being don't use evil means to overcome evil means, to overcome evil. But rather we must, we need to confront the evil that is inherent in human nature, it's a very Christian term. We can call it karma from the Hindu point of view, or whatever. But our inherent selfishness that causes so much harm, and selfishness is another form of ignorance, to confront that.
Let me just add to that a cross cultural thought. In India, there is a fatalistic view toward animal suffering. Well, what can we do, there's so many animals, theres so many people, and anyway it's karma. In the West, suffering of animals is denied in a different way, or rational way, saying that it is necessary for the economy so that people can have cheap meat, or to find cures for diseases which we bring upon ourselves. But suffering is suffering.
Sharon - Michael, with the work that you have done over the years in India, (Dr. Fox's wife Deanna Krantz runs an animal sanctuary in Southern India) do you really feel that you're able to make some headway as far as that point of view that you're describing?
Michael - We shall see. We're going back to the wisdom of Mahatma Ghandi. He said we must embrace satyagraha. Satyagraha is "the power of truth in action", and that is what our work is all about in India. The power of truth in action--doing something to help animals who are suffering. Now this concept of welfare is so alien to that culture because of the caste system, their view of karma, and fatalism. But we're following Ghandi's lead, satyagraha, and it's very interesting that the etymology of that term coincides with satya, the next cycle towards a golden age of wisdom and compassion.
Sharon - Michael, how long have you and Diana been working in India now?
Michael - We're entering our fourth year. She spends most of her time there. And, or course, I've studied the Hindu scriptures, the Veda, and studied the wildlife in this region in India over twenty years ago, so in many ways I'm more Indian than I am English. I love that country, I love the indigenous people, and I love the religious teachings.
We ran a story in the MT. Shasta Magazine a story on Barbara the elephant who is in the sanctuary in Tennessee. People have a tremendously wonderful response to elephants. Can you say something about the situation with elephants in India?
The situation for elephants is very, very bad and nothing significant is being done about it. Our area in India has the largest remaining wild elephant population yet there is not one adult male left. They have all been poached. The elephants are treated miserably. They're not given adequate food, there beaten and starved during "training" and because the captive Asian elephant population in the US is estimated to be going extinct in 50 years because they don't breed in captivity, India and some other Asian countries are now gearing up to start breeding in semi-captivity where we have our captive females being led out into the forests on drag chains at night to be breed with wild tuskers and then to export the offspring who've been broken and beaten, to the United States for zoos and circuses. Elephants should not be in zoos or circuses!
Sharon - I'm rather shocked by that. I thought that the import of elephants into this country had been stopped.
Michael - It's being opened up again in the name of conservation management.
Sharon - What can people do who want to object to that? Is there is a way to write letters of protest?
Michael - They need to be informed. I can point them to the right direction. It is absolutely outrageous--these are the most magnificent, fantastic animals. They're absolutely extraordinary. And incredibly intelligent. I feel humble in the presence of these beings and I feel great shame of my own species when I am in the presence of elephants.
Sharon - For people who are interested in taking some action, writing some letters and so forth, can they contact you?
Michael - Yes. The e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sharon - If we move for a moment back to the US and to people and the animals in their own care I always feel that one of the places we need to begin to be sensitive toward animals is to perhaps change our perspective about the animals that we live with. Then take that out and expand it further and further until we're including all sentient beings. What do you feel people can do, people in the United States? There's a kind of a tendency in this country to over dote on pets, to project an awful lot on them which I consider to be a burden, as well. What can people do, or what would you suggest that people do to change their attitude, to expand their perspective a little, as far as their companion animals and the animals that they come into contact with on a daily basis.
Michael - I've always felt that it's understanding, understanding, understanding. And that's why I wrote in the seventies my two little books, Understanding Your Dog, and Understanding Your Cat. Once people, and especially young children, have a better understanding of how animals communicate, how they express their emotions, their needs, and their intention, then you start to open up. And when I give my popular talks on cat and dog behavior the common response is, "Well--I've always known that, but I haven't really paid attention!" or, "Wow, so that's what that means!"
Sharon -And that begins to increase the sensitivity and awareness.
Michael - And that is mindfulness again.
Sharon - With your work and the work that you and Diana do, you're really on the front line, so to speak . . .
Michael - And very vulnerable in some ways. Vulnerable from those who, for various reasons, want to avoid responsibility for animal suffering, want to deny the tragedy of reality. I'm vulnerable from the other point of view because of people who are looking for a nice little quick spiritual fix--feel good--feel that we just drag them down. There's no escape from being responsible for your own growth, and that growth entails involvement, it entails participation.
Sharon - I was just reminded of your presentation at one of the earlier conferences on Animals and Spirituality. As part of your presentation you showed a film of the situation with animals in India. Animals that were dying in very dire circumstances. I was really very shocked by people's response. There were people that actually got up and left the room. There were people that contacted us afterwards and thought that it was inappropriate - but my feeling is that if we can't look at what is happening, we can't change it. Would you agree with that?
Michael - If I thought it was wrong to show that film, I would say, Let's close down the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. We need to look at ourselves in the mirror of others' suffering. I remember at the Conference one elderly lady came up afterwards in tears and said, "Dr. Fox, I don't what to say, whether I can ever forgive you, you've broken my heart."
Sharon -A broken heart that's good!
Michael - I said to her, "I want to hold you, because my heart is broken too. But remember, a broken heart is an open heart." And she thanked me. Now, Gautama Buddha said that the end of suffering is in suffering itself. This is where the courage of the warrior comes in--we have to be prepared to suffer, to go where angels fear to tread. We don't have to keep slamming our heads into it all the time. We need to keep our own lives in balance and not get obsessed by it. But I think it was not inappropriate for me to show that video--
Sharon - No, I thought it was quite wonderful. The thing that shocked me so much was the unwillingness on so many people to stick in there with you.
Michael - It's pretty common across the board, the Humane Society of the US, its magazines and its publications deliberately avoids pictures that will hurt people's sensitivities. I think there is a certain wisdom in that, but I don't think we should go too far in protecting people, especially children, from the dark side of human nature that is responsible for the holocaust of the animal kingdom. For example, I firmly believe that if a family chooses to eat meat, the child should go to the slaughterhouse and see how these animals are being handled and the father of the house should kill at least one animal that the family is going to eat.
Sharon - I would agree. I can remember when I was probably five or six years old and I went into a butcher shop with my grandmother and it was my first experience of understanding where meat came from. At five years old, my eye level was right at the level of all these tongues and brains--it just suddenly struck me that was what we had been eating. And I was absolutely in shock.
Michael - This is the problem--traditional children, they're out there hunting, or they're raising the animals and they see them being slaughtered, and they give thanks and so on, but we're so disconnected--the milk comes in the carton, and downhill from there. And the meat is wrapped in cellophane. I think part of the problem with adults is that they want to, in quotes, "protect" children from the dark side. So they essentially live in ignorance and in a lie.
Sharon - And I would suppose that trying to introduce any of these things into schools would be right up there with trying to introduce sex education - that you get a tremendous amount of opposition.
Michael - You would have tremendous opposition from the meat and dairy lobbies, too. They have run interference on humane education programs that I've been involved in the past. Very, very serious interference
Sharon The more we talk, the bigger the challenge it seems to be.
Michael - Because of vested interests and those interests need to be changed, confronted. And, it's back to the fork. We don't have to put pork on the end of the fork if it's a poor pig from a factory, but we'd rather not know. And we'd sooner believe the misinformation from the industry saying these don't really suffer, they're in controlled environments, they're fed good food, and so on.
Sharon - For our readers, the biggest thing that you could see that they as individuals can do to effect change is to change their eating habits?
Michael - Change their eating habits--that's one of the most critical things. And then, get involved in some community activity that is of service, whether it's for the homeless, for abused spouses, for homeless animals, or to protect the last of the wild. There's always something that needs to be done and there are a lot of people of similar spirit. We're not alone.
Sharon - Could we go back for a moment to your own personal life--I know that you have a number of animals -- Would you comment on your relationship with the animals in your care?
Michael Yes. I have three dogs. Lizzie from Jamaica, and Batman and Xylo from India. My relationship with my animal companions is I think, very similar to my relationship with my children. I treat them with love and respect. I don't 'train" them. We simply have a relationship of convenience and companionship. We've developed a mutual understanding. And they are quite extraordinary animals. They are "natural" dogs and have a purity of language and spirit and native intelligence that is almost embarrassing in contrast to the sweet pureblood dogs that they play with in the park who really just wouldn't quite know what to do having to care for themselves.
Sharon - The domestic ones become an awful lot like people, don't they?
Michael - Yes. Over civilized, over bred.
Sharon - Michael, would you comment a little bit on your newest book, Beyond Evolution, so people have an idea of what that's all about.
Michael - It's an expose on this new technology called genetic engineering, where the genetic composition of plants, animals, and people, are being altered, and what this means if it continues and is not confronted by an informed public. This book is really a call to public conscience and to corporate and government responsibility.
Sharon - I know on reading the book, the thing that impacted me the most was just the thought that of all the things that people are fearful of as far as things that might eliminate our life on earth, this seems to be it. It seems more likely to me that through genetic engineering, we're going to cause our own demise. Much more so than the thought of a bomb or anything else that we usually worry about.
Michael - Exactly. The whole approach is not giving a litany of what's being done and why genetically engineered crops--sixty per cent of processed foods now contain genetically engineered ingredients, and we don't know how safe it is for consumers or the environment--the main grasp of my book was to try to understand the mind behind this technology, the attitudes and values. Because it's that that we need to address and change. I do believe with the right mind set, some aspects of genetic engineering, biotechnology, could be used in very beneficial ways.
Sharon - And you cover all these topics in your book?
Michael - Yes.
Sharon - I think this will be the topic for our next interview. Who is the publisher of
Michael - Lyons Press, New York. Beyond Evolution; The genetically altered future of plants, animals, the earth, and humans .
Sharon - You're taking part in the Kinship Conference in San Francisco in July 2000. What do you feel that the significance of such a conference is?
Michael - I think the significance of it is many-fold. The personal significance I think is of meeting kindred spirits, people of like mind. I think another significant point is that, as a culture, we are really beginning to address what spirituality means, and a spirituality that excludes animals isn't spiritual.