Weird & Wild

Nature Behind Bars: Animal Class Helps Prisoners Find Compassion

Professor Marc Bekoff teaches a popular animal behavior course at the Boulder County Jail, which has helped some inmates bond with the natural world—and ultimately reconnect to society.

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Colorado inmates write essays and draw as part of the animal behavior class. One student, Jeff, drew Fifi, a favorite chimpanzee of Jane Goodall. The drawing won an award at an art festival.


Next Friday at 8:30 a.m., if you happen to be an inmate at the Boulder County Jail in Colorado, consider going to the animal behavior class taught by Marc Bekoff. But be prepared to stand, because seats fill up quickly. It turns out that guys in prison love learning about animals, and sometimes it changes their lives.

Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, has been teaching "Animal Behavior and Conservation" to male prisoners for over a decade (that's more than 600 classes). It's part of Jane Goodall's global Roots & Shoots Program, and has been a model for similar projects at other jails. (Also see "5 Unconventional Ways to Get People Hooked on Nature.")

National Geographic spoke to Bekoff about why the inmates bond well with animals, what issues upset them the most, and how animal videos can soften even the hardest felon.

When you first suggested teaching animal behavior to inmates, what was the response from the jail?

First, they laughed. I wanted to do what? But I pushed because I knew it would be well received. I explained that 90 percent of animal behavior is positive, [and] that the basic nature of, say, primates and dogs is friendly and open. So calling someone an animal is actually a compliment! They liked that message. I was sure a lot of these guys grew up with an animal and would want to talk about that. Within a month after starting it, everyone wanted to take the class! I was overwhelmed by the response of both jail administrators and students.

Can anyone in the jail sign up?

The class is part of their "transitions program"—for people who are either transitioning in or out of the jail. We have guys in there who have committed all sorts of crimes, even violent offenses.

Have they given you any trouble?

No. I hang around and schmooze before and after class and they really open up. Sometimes there's tension among them, but when I start talking about animals, it's like the air goes out of the balloon. You can feel really the change.

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Troy drew this picture of a wolf in Bekoff's class. Troy has also helped teach art classes to other inmates. 


Have most of the inmates had pets?

Many have. Dogs, cats, gerbils, lizards, snakes—all kinds. One guy told me how much he bonded with a fish as a child. But many had a dog as their best friend who, they told me, was able to read them better than people could. With all the issues about trust and being judged that these guys have, many bond best with nonhuman animals. Some talk about wanting to move to the country with a dog and enjoy nature when they get out. (See "Connecting With Nature Boosts Creativity and Health.")

What class subjects generate the most discussion and emotion?

Recently they've been into compassionate conservation, where individual animals matter. They're appalled at the possibility of removing wolves from the endangered species list, and at local killings of coyotes and black bears. Many are from rural areas, so they're sensitive to human encroachment on wild lands. They resent it when animals are cast out and labeled as the problem. And despite the bad things some have done to people, they get extremely angry about animal abuse.

How do you think the class affects them?

They get excited over the animal videos, and love talking about pets and wild animals—it softens them. It gives them the chance to discuss the importance of social relationships and compassion and empathy. They find common ground. And it connects them to the outside world and to nature. I've had the most violent guys say what a positive effect the class had on him. One said talking about dog behavior helped him realize he needs to extend more compassion to humans. Researchers refer to animals as "social catalysts" when they help people connect and reconnect in this way.

Have you seen any lasting effects on guys who get out?

It's hard for them to get jobs after prison, but some have gone on to be dog walkers, to assist groomers, to volunteer at an animal shelter. Things they say they never would have thought about doing before. And they tell me they carry what they learn in less obvious ways, too, even into their interactions with other people. (Learn more about efforts to save wild animals.)

And what have they taught you?

People who haven't worked with inmates [can] have a very distorted view of who they are. Yes, some have done horrible things. But they're still people—and very curious about a lot of things—and there's nothing wrong with enriching their lives. It's actually in all of our best interest to do so, and I've repeatedly seen how much learning about animals and nature can do for them.

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