Aug 302011
Authors: Erin Udell

Not many people have seen as much as Bernard Rollin has. And as one of the most well-known and well-respected professors on campus, this University Distinguished Professor and bioethicist has seen quite a lot.

Rollin first came to CSU as a philosophy professor in 1969. Now, 42 years, 17 books, 500 articles and more than 1,600 lectures later, he shows no signs of slowing down.

How did you end up at CSU?

Rollin: I was living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. At that time it was a pretty s****y neighborhood — the drug distribution center of Manhattan.

For my wife to do the laundry in our apartment building safely I had to go with her and guard her.

Out of our whole circle of friends, we were the only ones who never got mugged.

At the same time, the air in New York was horrible. It had the most beautiful sunsets but it was from all the pollution. It was beautiful, but not good to breathe. And so I said, ‘s***, I gotta get out of here.’

I had grown up in New York but spent a year in Edinburg, Scotland before coming back to Columbia. I thought to myself, there must be other places (besides Edinburg) that weren’t like New York. So I only applied to places I hadn’t heard of, particularly in the west.

I applied to Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and Oregon. I actually got two offers back, one from Wyoming and one from CSU. Wyoming was offering $10,000 (back in 1969) and CSU offered me $10,500. So I chose Colorado and we came here sight unseen.

Q: You originally came here as a philosophy professor, how did you get involved with animal ethics?

R: I’ll tell you the truth, which I don’t really talk that much about. I got to be a full professor when I was 35, and I had a couple books and had done a lot of lectures and I was thinking to myself, could I do this for another 35 years?

I think everything important takes place in the gym because you’re thrown in with other people and you’re all sitting there bare-ass naked so there’s no hierarchy.

I met a friend there who was a professor. He asked me what I did so I told him that I taught medical ethics to undergrad, pre-med students. So one day he asked if I could teach ethics to veterinary students.

I didn’t know what vet med was but I figured there would be a textbook somewhere that I could learn from. That was my mistake because there were no textbooks, articles or anything on animal ethics. He basically asked me to create the field of vet med ethics.

*Q: *How do you think the field of animal ethics has changed since then?

R: When we started it, I wrote the second book that had ever been published on it (animal ethics). The third and fourth books came out 30 to 35 years later.

The purpose of our book was to prove that ethical theory belonged to animals, that animals belong in the moral arena. Now, we’re in the second or third generation of animal ethicists and they’re taking it for granted.

A lot of it focuses on different degrees of obligation to different animals. If someone saw a guy ignore a litter of abandoned puppies in a dumpster they would think he was a monster. If there was a group of wildebeest drowning in a river, though, nobody would think that man had the same obligation to help those wildebeests.

The field has gotten more specific and it’s academically serious. You kids are really interested in it.

Q: You’ve given more than 1,600 lectures. Of all of those, what is the most important point you’d want people to take away from your messages?

R: I lecture on a lot of issues but if you press me, it’s to teach people to change how they think about animals.

Most people just sort of take animals for granted the way you would take a car for granted and I want them to think of the fact that animals are capable of feeling pain and, more importantly, that they think about what you do to them.

I want more people to become sensitized to that because behavior gets better if they do.

Q: After 42 years at CSU, what’s your funniest story?

R: There was this very famous philosopher from Germany, Hannah Arendt. One of my colleagues at the time, one of those boy-scout type of guys, had this real obsession with her — she was his hero.

He wanted to bring her to CSU to lecture and speak to his class. So finally, he got the money together from the fine arts series and decided to bring her out.

He was really nervous about her coming because she was older, like 75 at the time, and very elite, so he kept telling me how nervous he was and how he was sending a graduate assistant to pick her up from the airport and that he would take her to lunch at noon.

I thought she would be late, and I could do a perfect imitation of her because she had this low German accent, almost like a man.

I called him up in his office around noon and said ‘Hello Professor, this is Hannah Ardent, I have only now arrived here in Fort Collins.’

And he started stammering and just prattling on about her flight and, at that point, I had no plan on what I was going to say because I was so surprised I had fooled him.

He asked, ‘Well, look is there anything you need or need me to tell you to make your visit happier?’ I responded, ‘Well, soon we will meet for lunch and get acquainted but there is one question to ask you that is important to the success of my visit, it is of a personal nature.’

And you could hear his voice go up and he kept asking me what it was and I said, ‘This is a very simple question. How big is your schwanz?’

It was like I broke him because he just kept saying, ‘My what? My what? My what?’ At that point, I cracked up and he found out it was me. But the best part is that after he hung up, she actually called him and he told her ‘What, you think you’re going to get me twice in five minutes?’

He ended up going to lunch with her and said he couldn’t stop giggling the whole time.

News Editor Erin Udell can be reached at

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