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January 01, 2022

Obituary: Bernie Rollin, ethicist who wanted a better world for animals, dies at 78

Published on December 02, 2021

Bernard “Bernie” E. Rollin, PhD, was a weightlifting philosophy professor fond of motorcycles and horseback riding who was considered by many as the father of veterinary medical ethics. He died Nov. 19, 2021, at the age of 78.

Dr. Rollin wrote “Animal Rights and Human Morality,” one of the first books exploring humanity’s moral obligations to animals, published in 1981. During the ’80s, he was instrumental in amending federal laws that promoted the humane treatment of animals used in research.

Temple Grandin, PhD, a professor at Colorado State University, where Dr. Rollin taught for more than half a century, said, “All of my graduate students were required to take a class from Dr. Rollin because he really made them think deeply about the ethics of how animals were treated.”

Dr. Grandin, a noted animal scientist and behaviorist, added, “He would always ask students, ‘Just because we are capable of doing something, should we do it?’ He was a supporter of animal agriculture, but he made it very clear that some practices need to be changed to improve animal welfare.”

Mark Zabel, PhD, associate dean for research at the CSU College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, worked with Dr. Rollin on the university’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee for nine years.

“He was smart and salty and not always easy to work with, but he genuinely cared about animals and students,” Dr. Zabel said. “I loved him. He is missed already.”

Born in New York City on Feb. 18, 1943, Dr. Rollin was a Fulbright Scholar and an alumnus of Columbia University, which awarded him a PhD in philosophy in 1972. Two years earlier, he had accepted a professorship at CSU, where he would spend the next 50 years, retiring as a university distinguished professor in 2020.

Dr. Rollin taught the first class on veterinary medical ethics at CSU and wrote prolifically about the history of philosophy, ethics and bioethics, and animal consciousness.

Among his many published works are “The Unheeded Cry: Animal Consciousness, Animal Pain and Scientific Change,” “Farm Animal Welfare,” and “Putting the Horse Before Descartes.” He also edited the two-volume “The Experimental Animal in Biomedical Research,” first published in 1989 and republished in 1995.

He traveled the world lecturing about the importance of treating animals humanely. Dr. Rollin spoke often at veterinary conferences, including the AVMA Annual Convention and AVMA Animal Welfare Forum.

Dr. Rollin did not believe animals were equal to humans or that it was immoral for humanity to use animals in ways contrary to the animal’s interests. Rather, he thought animals were more than just resources, that they were complex creatures that humans should treat with care and dignity.

In a commentary titled “Euthanasia and quality of life,” published in the April 1, 2006, JAVMA, Dr. Rollin wrote: “I strongly believe that animals enjoy a rich mental life. It is also clear that animals have some concept of enduring objects, causality, and limited futural possibilities, or else the dog would not expect to get fed, the cat would not await the mouse outside of its mouse hole, and the lion could not intercept the gazelle. Animals also clearly display a full range of emotions, as Darwin famously argued.”

Dr. Rollin is survived by his wife, Linda; a son; two grandchildren; and a brother. Memorials may be made to American Humane, 1400 16th St. NW, Suite 360, Washington, DC 20036.