Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals

University of Chicago Press, 208 pp., 2009; $26
By Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce
Reviewed by Tom Cushing, May 2009, Updated June 2021

As a child of the ’60s, I learned about humankind’s separation from and dominion over “the animals.” Toolmaking, morality and opposable thumbs were said to be elements of that separation. Well, we still have those thumbs.

Our other human conceits are falling away, however, under carefully devised studies with outcomes that reveal the richness of “lower” species’ lives and social interactions. Sustained observation in native environments, most identified with Jane Goodall’s primate work in Gombe Reserve, has joined statistical analysis in the toolkits of respectable scientists. The approach has proven useful in demonstrating the breadth and depth of animal behaviors as well as variability within species and social groups. It seems that the more we learn, the smarter and more sophisticated our companions on the planet become.

In Wild Justice, ethologist Marc Bekoff and bioethicist Jessica Pierce carefully review and organize the evidence and propound the theory that many species (including, of course, canines) exhibit moral behaviors in terms of their capacities for cooperation, empathy and justice/ fairness. This is no soft-headed, sentimentalist tome. The authors—both of whom are PhDs and take pains to employ the language and constructs of science in their attack on traditions opposing anthropomorphism— argue convincingly for a continuity of morality across species, and for less separation of humans from the rest of the earth’s creatures.

The book is rich with examples of animals acting selflessly or according to species-specific social conventions. We learn the stories of Binti Jua, the celebrated gorilla who rescued a small boy after he fell into her zoo enclosure, and lesser-known tales of elephants protecting an injured comrade; a “midwife” bat (who was observed repeatedly and effectively assisting other bats in difficult births); and Libby, the service cat for Cashew, an elderly dog. In addition, the authors discuss what is not yet known, proposing tests of their hypotheses and avenues for further exploration by their fellow academics.


Sign up and get the answers to your questions.

Email Address:

As dense with information as this book is, it remains readable by nonscientists, and its philosophical implications reach far beyond scientific confines. If Bekoff and Pierce are right—conceptually and /or specifically—their work raises very real policy questions for the broader society. If nonhuman nature cannot be dismissed as mechanistic or just “red in tooth and claw,” then what does that mean for humans as stewards of the planet? Can we continue to rationalize our current approaches in laboratories, feedlots, shelters or the open oceans? If other species share our moral space, are they intrinsically worthy of greater respect in the law than their current status as mere property?

Dog partisans will be among those least surprised by these findings. As a group, we’re not hesitant to ascribe “human” motivations to our canine companions. Although the authors defend their work as much more than “stories told at the dog park,” perhaps it will provoke those kinds of philosophical inquiries in that venue as we watch our charges demonstrate some of the behaviors described in Wild Justice.

Image courtesy of the publisher

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 54: May/Jun 2009

Tom Cushing works to place stray animals and lawyers into new situations where they may prosper. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.