Dr. Michael W. Fox, DSc, PhD, BVet Med, MRCVS is a well-known veterinarian, former vice president of The Humane Society of the United States, former vice president of Humane Society International, and the author of more than 40 books on animal care and behavior, and bioethics.
Dr. Fox is known as a sharp and eloquent critic of the biotechnology industry as a whole and of the FDA and USDA in particular. As a professor, bioethicist, and veterinarian, Dr. Fox has spearheaded the movement to foster the ethical treatment of animals since 1976. Besides writing and lecturing worldwide, Dr. Fox has appeared on The Tonight Show and has spoken about bioethics and conscious food choices on National Public Radio, The Today Show, and National Geographic Society specials.
Animal News Center: Dr. Fox, we know you as a veterinarian, professor, bioethicist - the list goes on. Please tell us where you were born and what led you from your beginnings to where you are now.
Dr. Fox: I was born in England. My closest friends and companions were dogs - strays and otherwise. Both my parents fostered my interest in what nature there was where I lived and in creatures in general. They engendered a sense of respect and wonder and, from a very early age, I wanted, with a passion, to become a veterinarian.
The turning moment for me happened while walking home from school one day; it was during World War II.
I was peeping into the backyard of a veterinary hospital, and I saw two trashcans filled to the brim with the bodies of dead dogs and cats. I couldn’t understand why there had been such a mass slaughter. I realized something really needed to be done for these animals.
When I was much younger - about six years old - I was playing in one of the neighborhood ponds when I noticed a floating sandbag. I got a stick and pulled it toward me, thinking it might be some burglar’s loot.
I cut it open to find it filled with dead kittens - someone had drowned them. I guess this was an earlier lesson to me - that while some people could treat animals this way, I never would.
The cumulative effect of these two experiences resulted in my decision that my best friends needed some help.
In my early teens I saw practice every weekend with a typical ‘James Herriot’ vet, so by the time I got to veterinary college I thought I already had all the answers.
I attended the Royal Veterinary College, London, for five years, then interned as house surgeon at the new Cambridge School of Veterinary Medicine, followed by a post doctorate fellowship to research puppy development at the Jackson Memorial Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine. I moved from there to Galesburg, IL where I continued my research, earning a Ph.D.
After three years of research I taught animal behavior, behavioral development and abnormal behavior at Washington University in St. Louis (1967-1976). My research of wild canids earned me a Doctor of Science degree from London University in 1976.
I joined the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in 1976. I was a vice-president and the Director of their Institute for the Study of Animal Problems.
ANC: What were some of the problems you investigated and what were your findings?
MF: We studied the care of laboratory animals, and [found] that how they were kept produced experimental variables that, when not recognized, made conclusions derived from these animal studies dubious and of limited medical value.
I am an anti-vivisectionist. I have concluded that on a scientific basis it is best to study animals who are already sick and injured rather than deliberately making them sick and injured in the deprived environment of the research laboratory.
It’s an unethical thing too - why should we harm other species in order to cure diseases we primarily bring upon ourselves? This was not a popular decision then, nor, in many circles, now.
I also looked at zoo animals and the behavioral abnormalities expressed in this population and especially how dogs and cats were kept in laboratories.
During much of my time at HSUS, I focused on farm animals, especially upon the so-called “intensive factory farming” industry and how it harms the environment, harms the family farm, harms rural communities, harms wildlife and biodiversity, and ultimately harms consumers. In the late 1980s I focused on genetic engineering, biotechnology, cloning and bioethics. At the same time, I was keeping tabs on the developments in agriculture and food safety, raising questions about what goes into commercial pet foods - again, a very unpopular position.
I left the HSUS in 2001. I continue my syndicated national newspaper column “Animal Doctor” and hold the honor of serving as chief consultant veterinarian for “India Project for Animals and Nature” (IPAN).
ANC: What do you do for them?
MF: My wife Deanna Krantz is founder and director. During two of my sabbaticals from Washington University in the 1970s, I went to south India to study the dhole, the Asiatic wild dog of the jungle. 20 years later, accompanied by Deanna, I was invited back to give the keynote address to the Indian Veterinarian Association.
We visited the local animal refuge and she was invited to take it over - which she did.
It’s in Tamil Nadu in the heart of the 260-square km Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, in a UN-designated global biosphere reserve which is one of about 400 recognized biodiversity hot-spots on the planet. It is rich with wildlife and a diversity of indigenous people too - the so-called “tribal” people.
She became the first international voice for the entire bio-region to help stop the demise of the wildlife habitat and the demise of the elephant. It has the largest wild elephant population in India, as well as tigers and tribal peoples like the Kurumbas.
The beauty of this project - and we need many more like it - was that, unlike these rich organizations that hold international conferences on how to save the last of the wild or how to foster the humane treatment of domestic animals, we were infield. We saw to the veterinary needs of the villagers and tribal communities dependent upon their livestock, and cared for the village dogs and few cats that are around.
We helped these people economically through addressing the problem of zoonotic diseases like rabies and mange. Scabies, a particularly devastating type of mange, can leave children permanently disfigured. By controlling the spread of these diseases, we were protecting the wildlife as well.
Because our efforts won the trust of the people, they became a wonderful network of informants regarding illegal practices carried out in the forest and jungles from the killing of elephants and tigers to illegal land encroachment and cutting of trees..
Our project was illegally taken over in the winter of 2004, a consequence of putting trust in those who were ultimately corrupted by their own self-interests. We continue to fund a full-time Indian veterinarian, who works in the same locale where his services are sorely needed. He reports to us on a weekly basis and has video documentation of the suffering of our beloved resident donkey herd, and rescued ponies and race horses that are simply let out to forage for themselves along the roadside from village to village, even raiding farmers’ crops, and are clearly neglected and famished.
ANC: Have you taken many detours in your professional career, and did they impact your philosophical perspectives along the way?
MF: My aspirations in vet school were to work with sheep - on the moors, a romantic, James Herriot version of vet practice. Yet once I saw “real” practice, I realized there was no future in the kind of practice I wanted to follow - treating the individual animal. Sheep practice is population medicine - you treat the flock. By the time the sick individual is seen to by a Veterinarian, if at all, a lot of people may have been making a mess of it.
I became interested in canine neurology and behavioral development while a house surgeon at the Cambridge School of Veterinary Medicine when a little dachshund puppy presented with hydrocephalus. My interest in neurological development in puppies unfolded into looking at behavioral development.
But my aspirations changed when I realized the dearth of any basic understanding of animal behavior and abnormal behavior in my own veterinary education and in the veterinary profession.
One of the first papers I wrote in a professional journal was about “sympathy lameness” in dogs, published in 1962. It was quite controversial at the time, with some veterinarians saying, “What are we going to need to be - psychiatrists next?” Yet, others wrote in saying this was very important and something they never considered - that animals can suffer emotionally.
ANC: Is it only now that people are coming to this realization?
MF: It’s catching on now. Some of my graduate students are editing and writing books dealing with animals and emotions and awareness and cognitive ethology; opening the window on animal sentience, on animal emotion and abnormal behavior.
This field has borne fruit after some ridicule because of entrenched anthropocentrism and what I call “mechanomorphization” - the regarding and treating animals as unfeeling machines. My work provides a very firm scientific foundation for animal rights philosophy and bioethics.
ANC: Who were some of your mentors while you were in school and now?
MF: They were more in the realm of philosophy - Tielhard de Chardin, Thomas Berry. And one of my most important mentors has been my wife, Deanna Krantz - in the way in which she has turned her love of animals and respect for life into direct action in India, against extremely difficult odds - logistical and financial. We continue to pass the prayer bowl around - all donations will be well used.
ANC: In your book Eating with Conscience you discuss not only factory farming but the spiritual bond between humans and animals. How does this relate to pantheism and Christianity?
MF: The spiritual bond has become another cliché today, but for me, Mahatma Gandhi got it right when he said, “what is spiritual but not also political is the pie in the sky.”
Panentheism - the term I use in my book The Boundless Circle - is not a new word or “neologism” I coined myself. A German philosopher coined it many years before me.
It’s quite distinct from the more primitive “pantheism.” It essentially acknowledges that “all is in God and God is in all.”
As a world view it breaks down the hierarchic view of the monotheistic tradition, especially the Christian tradition, that states that only man is made in God’s image.
I see St. Francis of Assisi as a panentheist. He said through animals and by way of nature we realize divinity.
I think lots of people with dogs and cats call them “little angels in fur.” They sense some kind of presence.
We don’t have to unnecessarily mystify it, but I think we are part of a realm of great mystery and beauty that we are defiling and exploiting and not treating with appropriate reverence, accord and concordance - harmony. We are causing more harm than harmony in maintaining an increasingly depraved existence.
ANC: Are there any countries that practice humane farming?
MF: It’s a movement that’s gaining momentum in the UK and in a number of other European countries: Switzerland, Germany, parts of France, and Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Sweden with organically certified produce. The Swedes and Brits are leaders in developing humane ways of raising farm animals and getting them out of factories.
There is strong, strong opposition in much of Europe to American agricultural practices. Both the public sector and European economic community oppose the use of bioengineering and biotechnology of food, the genetic engineering of food and animals and the use of growth-stimulating hormones, especially genetically engineered bovine growth hormone.
The US claims this is market protectionism. I like to remind the marketers that there are deeper ethical underpinnings to this public concern.
ANC: What animals do you share your home with?
MF: Three dogs that my wife rescued. One is Lizzie, nine years old, from Jamaica; then Xylo and Batman from the streets of India. Having three dogs is quite different than having two because three makes them a pack - a wonderful dynamic.
ANC: How can we reach more people and imbue them with a sense of conscience to protect the planet?
MF: All of life is interconnected. Whether it’s spiritual or ecological, it’s all the same. When we harm the environment, we harm ourselves; when we dump poisonous pesticides out, we put them into our food chain.
Industrial pollutants like mercury and dioxin end up in mothers’ milk and feeds our babies; when we cut down trees, the mass deforestation changes our climate; global warming/climate change increases the planet’s metabolism which produces increased CO2 and other greenhouse gases; the oceans are dying from overfishing and incredible pollution.
The present administration and other industrial nations seek to avoid any responsibility and obfuscate any concerted action to defend the planet against these environmental assaults, which means future generations will suffer even more.
So, we are in a very serious mess. Once people get the big picture, they feel overwhelmed, paralyzed and depressed… but there are many avenues for action.
ANC: Do you see any hope?
MF: The first thing is to decide what you put on the end of your fork; it’s not what comes out of our mouths that counts; it’s what we choose to put in them. What or whom is on that fork can make a big difference.
Support local farming cooperatives. Buy organically certified produce. Eat lower on the food chain.
Consider the animals in your community - the wildlife. How well protected are the woods on your path? Are they mowing everything and spraying everything? Get together as a community and protect what you can.
We are all part of the same life community but everyone is cocooning and isolating, waiting for someone else to take charge. It will take a lot of effort and commitment to put compassion into action.
ANC: Is there any hope that we’ll come to our senses in time?
MF: Yes, I am a long-term optimist. I encourage people to support their local humane society and local chapters of Natural History, Audubon Society and Sierra Clubs.
Get involved - start networking - and recycling and consuming less. Much more can and needs to be done.
As Albert Einstein observed, the problems of the world cannot be solved by the same consciousness that caused them.
He and others also emphasized that the evil that people bring into the world is not the main problem. The real problem is that good people stand by and do nothing.
The lack of vision, the values and corruption in government, in the corporate world and in so-called non-profit organizations claiming to protect animals, the environment and human rights, also need to be rectified.
Born in Bolton, England, Dr. Fox earned his degree in veterinary medicine from the Royal Veterinary College and his PhD and DSC from the University of London. He currently resides in Washington, DC.
His books include:
- ‘The Healing Touch for Cats/ The Healing Touch for Dogs’
- ‘Bringing Life to Ethics: Global Bioethics for a Humane Society’
- ‘Beyond Evolution: The Genetically Altered Future of Plants, Animals, the Earth and Humans’
- ‘The Boundless Circle: Caring for Creatures & Creation’
- ‘Eating with Conscience: The Bioethics of Food’
- ‘Inhumane Society: The American Way of Animal Exploitation’
- ‘The New Eden: For People, Animals & Nature’
© 2004 Animal News Center, Inc.
By Animal News