by Marc Bekoff

For 15 years I’ve been teaching animal behavior and conservation biology at the Boulder (Colorado) County Jail as part of the Jane Goodall Global Roots & Shoots Program.

The course is one of the most popular in the jail. It is part of the jail’s transitions program, and students have to earn the right to enroll; they work hard to get into the class.

While there’s student turnover as inmates come and go, we’re all pleasantly surprised at how science connects the inmates to various aspects of nature and that many find it easier to connect with animals than with people. Animals don’t judge them, and many of the inmates had previously lived with dogs, cats, and other companions who were their best friends. They trust and empathize with animals in ways they don’t with humans.

But as with many people, there remains a distorted view of how animals treat one another. At one of the first meetings someone was talking out of turn as I was setting up the curriculum. One of the guys yelled, “Hey, be quiet, you’re acting like an animal. This guy’s here to help us.” I responded, “You’ve just paid him a compliment.”

I explained that animals can be kind and empathic. While there’s competition and aggression, there’s also a lot of cooperation, compassion, empathy, and reciprocity. I explained that these behaviors are examples of “wild justice” — and this idea asks them to rethink what it means to be an animal. Many go on to lament, “Look where that ‘I’m behaving like an animal’ excuse got me.”

Topics we actively discuss include general aspects of animal behavior, the evolution of social behavior, evolution and creationism, biology and religion, sustainability, extinction, animal protection and environmental ethics, eugenics, environmental enrichment, balance in nature, complex webs of nature, cultural views of animals, and who we are in the grand scheme of things in an epoch called the anthropocene, the so-called age of humanity.

We’ve also spent a good deal of time discussing the growing international field called compassionate conservation. Our exchanges rival those that I’ve had at university classes.

Many of the students see the class as building community with animals and with people, and I stress just how important humane education is for all of us. From time to time a student tells me that he’s talked with his children about this. That makes me incredibly happy!

The inmates want to build healthy relationships. I use examples of the social behavior of group-living animals, such as wolves, as a model for developing and maintaining long-term friendships among individuals who must work together — not only for their own good, but also for the good of the group.

From time to time I ask the inmates what they get of the class. Here are some responses:

  • The course is healing.
  • I’ve learned a lot about understanding and appreciating animals as individuals.
  • The class balances scientific rigor with social consciousness.
  • The class gives us a sense of connection to webs of life.
  • What I do counts. I now have a vision for the future.
  • The class models healthy, positive ways of living and working in the world.
  • The class makes me feel better about myself.
  • Learning about animals shows me that I need to extend more compassion to
  • I can’t wait to tell my kids about this.

It’s clear that science and talking about humane education inspires the students and gives them hope. I’ve been told that because of the class some of their kids are more likely to go into science. I know some students have gone back to school, while others have made contributions in time and money to conservation organizations. Some have gone to work for humane societies. One student went on to receive a master’s degree in nature writing.

Science and humane education have helped the inmates connect with values that they otherwise likely wouldn’t have. Science opens the door to understanding, trust, cooperation, community, and hope.

There’s a large untapped population of individuals to whom science means a lot, but they haven’t had the exposure needed to further their education. I continue to get as much out of the class as the students, and it’s made me a better teacher on the outside.

It really is true that humane education is a wonderful way forward for all people. Indeed, as Zoe Weil notes, “The world becomes what we teach.”

For more on this class please see “Nature Behind Bars: Animal Class Helps Prisoners Find Compassion.”

Contact me at or @MarcBekoff.