In Memoriam: Bernie Rollin, PhD

The world of animal welfare lost a giant last month with the passing of Bernie Rollin, PhD, “who alleviated more animal pain than anyone in history,” on November 19. The philosopher was a pioneer of veterinary ethics and a critical architect of modern animal welfare regulations. He was 78.

Rollin was trained as a philosopher, earning a PhD from Columbia University before accepting a professorship at Colorado State University. There, he quickly focused his philosophical thinking on the welfare of animals, a field and a cause to which he would dedicate the rest of his life, teaching at Colorado State until he retired. Rollin was the first person to teach a course on veterinary ethics and a strong advocate for the well-being of veterinarians as it related to the well-being of the animals in their care. In a People & Perspectives video, Rollin describes his role in the late 1970s helping veterinary students advocate for a much more humane surgery pedagogy after discovering that dogs had been subjected to nine surgeries in just a few weeks; intolerable treatment of the animals, of course, but also deeply damaging to the veterinary students who were forced to perform the procedures.

Rollin’s fight with his university to reduce the number of surgeries on dogs was just one of a huge number of adversarial positions he would find himself in over the course of his career. He describes this in the early pages of his memoir, Putting the Horse Before Descartes, as a lifetime “of combat on behalf of animals.” As an advocate for animal welfare, he found himself toe-to-toe with ranchers and farmers routinely, particularly given his location in Colorado. In Rollin’s obituary, Colorado State tells a story of a confrontation with rural Coloradan ranchers hostile to his message. After dealing with several minutes of booing, he leveled with the audience:

“Do you believe in right and wrong?”

“Yes,” audience members replied.

“And would you do anything to an animal to increase your profit?”

The answer from the crowd was no.

“So I said, ‘Good. Now we’re just haggling about price.’”

Rollin sat astride a transition from veterinary focus on farm animals to companion animals, and his writing, lecturing, and advocating played a role in that shift. In a 2015 piece in The Conversation about pet euthanasia, Rollin describes the callous circumstances in which families would put down pets during the early years of his career, juxtaposed against the extremes that pet owners would take to prolong the animals’ life (sometimes unethically so) just a few decades later.

Rollin received a Lifetime Achievement Award from PRIM&R in 2016 in acknowledgment of his unparalleled advocacy for the moral consideration of animals. In awarding Rollin the honor, we acknowledged that “Dr. Rollin moved ‘ethics’ squarely and comfortably into the lexicon of veterinary medicine,” where, prior to his work, ethics had been “rare and nearly invisible.” He described his relationship to research animals in a 2016 video for Colorado State, “I’m not naïve enough to think that everyone’s going to stop using animals. But if you’re going to use them, use them with compassion, with some sense of what their needs are.”

In the closing of his memoir, Rollin wrote, “I am often asked, ‘When will you retire?’ My reply is ‘When they carry me out.’ As long as I’m physically and mentally healthy…I will continue my battle for what Gandhi called the ‘most disenfranchised members of society.’”

Rollin made good on this promise. His achievements were enormous, and he will be missed.

We encourage you to read Rollin’s obituary on Colorado State University’s website.