close

Join Never Apart

close

A Conversation with Animal Rights Activist Leif Cocks

Written by

Emma Dora Silverstone-Segal
February 9th, 2018

Right after conducting this interview with Leif Cocks, I had to evacuate my home in Miami Beach, fleeing from the largest Atlantic storm on record to ever exist in the open Atlantic region; Hurricane Irma. It seemed coincidental and in my eyes, a clear sign that we’re beginning to feel the impact and side effects of global warming.

Irma instilled a great fear in me, because growing up in Eastern Canada; the threat of a natural disaster rarely crossed my mind. I was new to all this hurricane hysteria. However, it’s hysteria for good reason, because as we saw, the results can be devastating.  The panic of having any regular day interrupted by a natural disaster that threatens to destroy everything and just having to pick up and leave your entire life behind, is terrifying. Luckily, Miami came out of another hurricane season relatively unscathed; unfortunately I cannot say the same for other cities and islands destroyed by the many large hurricanes that barrelled through the Atlantic this year. However, after the dust settled, the anxiety dissipated and the palm furans were swept up, I found my self wondering; ‘How many natural disasters does it take until people wake up and realize the severity of today’s environmental crisis?

The problem is, if you are not directly affected by the changing climate; then it’s hard to fully comprehend its consequences.  Leif Cocks stands apart from other animal rights activists I have met, because he has the rare ability to step back and look at the big picture issues at the root of the problems affecting his very focused work with saving the orangutans. He is able to step outside of the situation, and realize that the problem is deeper than just saving a species on the brink of extinction; it’s about saving the land and the people that inhabit that land as well.

He also has the unique ability to be an expert storyteller—to be a scientist who is also able to connect with people is rare. His latest book, “Orangutans. My Cousins, My Friends”, which he is touring around North America this month, with appearances even in Toronto, was one of the best books I have read this year. He draws you in right away with his captivating stories and intellectually stimulating worldviews; and when you finish reading the book, you have a genuine empathy for our animal relatives and a complete understanding of these larger than life environmental problems. I caught up with Leif just as he was about to head back into the heart of the jungle.

Emma Dora Segal: Do you ever go back to the zoo and visit the orangutans that you took care of for so long?

Leif Cock: No, it’s a bit hard I guess, you know.

EDS: When you left the zoo, did you leave on bad terms?

LC: At first they gave me leave without pay. It got to a point where my conservation work was just getting bigger and bigger, and trying to do it around the zoo work, I ended up taking a year off. Then I took 2 years off, and in the end it got a bit ridiculous, in the sense that they were still holding my position for me, but I couldn’t keep stringing them along. The conservation work was just taking over my whole life. So I resigned.

EDS: Do you ever miss the orangutans you worked so closely with and think of going back to the zoo and saying hi? I mean from what you wrote in your book, you seemed to have a very strong bond with all the animals you cared for.

LC: I do, but the trouble is why. You go back and then you don’t go back again, and it’s just hard. So I’m worried it would be more upsetting than never going back at all.

EDS: Just after reading your book, I truly believe they would recognize and remember you, and I felt the deep emotional bond you had cultivated with them.

LC: Exactly, I guess in some ways I stayed on in zoo world a lot longer then I should have. I probably should’ve left a long time ago, and gone strictly into the world of conservation—but it was the orangutans that kept me there. The need to save orangutans in the wild and the importance of the conservation work I was doing was pulling me in one direction, and my desire to stay with the orangutans in the zoo was weighing heavily on my conscience. It was almost a 10-year internal struggle to make that decision.

EDS: When did you become aware that orangutans were self-aware, sentient begins?

LC: When I started working within that zoo, and at the time there wasn’t the health safety they have now, and I used to just go into the enclosure with the orangutans. When you actually go in with an animal such as an orangutan, and you’re not just dealing them from behind bars or a cage, you really get to know them on much more personal level. Yet, after spending time with them, communicating with them and working with them, it becomes intuitively obvious that they are persons and that they suffer like beings; they are just like we are.

EDS: Why do you think it’s so hard for people to realize that they’re conscious and self aware enough to deserve basic human rights? What is the main reason for this disconnect people have, even though there is mounting evidence out there proving otherwise?

LC: There are two aspects to it. One, is that we have developed into what I call the tribal clan line—our fall back position is almost always the sense of tribe, the sense of oneness and all else is other. We have this capacity to exclude value and worth to even human persons outside our defined tribe, weather that’s religion, country, or ethnic group; so unfortunately our evolutionary mind has restrictions, which don’t bare well for us living in a high technology global level. The second aspect is that intuitive empathy is the key to understanding, and that requires a change of heart. So, all the scientific knowledge and intelligence you can have, doesn’t often allow you to connect with another person and see the pain of another person, unless the heart is involved.

EDS: Do you think orangutans are more intuitive and compassionate than human beings? You certainly have a lot of stories regarding orangutans’ highly developed emotional awareness in your book.

LC: Yes, the problem is we tend to value intelligence only in comparison to our own values. So even though some animals are more intelligent than we are in social or cognitive aspects, by our standards, we do not consider this intelligence. We have this delusion of superiority, and we even see this when comparing intelligence among other humans with IQ tests that have huge social and cultural biases.

So orangutans, in some aspects are even more intelligence than us, and one of those aspects would be that they are nobler than us, for lack of a better word. They don’t seem to have that ‘kill switch’ like humans do. Also, we have killed millions of orangutans, and no orangutan in recorded history has ever killed a human being even though they’re 7-10 times stronger than us.  It seems that although humans have the capacity to just switch off and kill other beings and other humans without compassion, there is a sense of otherness within them that orangutans don’t seem to have. They may want to hurt or force their will to get what they want, but they never seem to turn on one another—orangutan or human—into something they want to ultimately destroy.

EDS: In your honest opinion, how bad is the situation for orangutans at the moment?

LC: I think it’s very bad. We are fighting over the last chance to save viable populations of orangutans. What everyone freaks out about is, will the orangutans be extinct in X number of years? Realistically, in 200 years time there will still be some orangutans in a zoo or hiding in the forest no matter what we do, but the species will be doomed because there isn’t enough genetic diversity within the population for that population to continue. So our challenge at the moment is to save enough orangutan habitats, so orangutans can live in a viable population, so in 200-300 years, there will still be orangutans living and thriving. And that’s the real challenge; we are really in some ways fighting for the traces of rainforest that’s left.

EDS: How much rainforest is actually left?

LC: We’re fighting over the scraps. There aren’t vast tracks of wilderness left in general. In the next couple years, we will know if we will succeed in our mission or not. It will soon become clear.

EDS: Palm oil plants are a major cause of rainforest destruction; why don’t they just implement more sustainable business practices, like replanting tress? I mean it’s in their best interest as well, to have more trees to cut down, and ultimately be able to continue producing more of their product.

LC: It’s really about extracting the maximum income possible from a third world country. The time, scale, and concern are not there.

EDS: I guess what I don’t understand is that destroying the rainforest is not in the company’s best interest, because eventually it will lead to the company going out of business if they have no more material to make their product.  You would think that these palm oil plant owners would at least have concern towards the longevity of their enterprise.

LC: No, because you can keep a palm oil plantation plant going for 50 to 60 years before it’s basically just soil. That’s ample time for them to live their lives and extract the income. You have to remember, the human capacity to cognitive dissonance is huge, and so they just ignore the facts that don’t suit their own personal interests. You see this with climate skeptics, those who are benefiting from the destruction of the planet, are burning the fossil fuels, and in this case destroying the rain forest. Probably now, about 1/3 of global warming is coming from the destruction of the rainforest. Then they would say global warming isn’t really even an issue, it’s some lefty green conspiracy, and they simply ignore the facts.

EDS: It seems more like they pick and choose their facts.

LC: That’s what everyone does, it’s kind of interesting, and again it actually comes back to our evolution where it’s more important for us to ignore certain facts and agree, than it is to be right. And so, they will all sit in company offices, and all be agreeing on an approved set of facts, so they wouldn’t be going home thinking ‘oh my god we are horrible people and we are destroying the lives of the Indonesian indigenous communities’. They would simply be ignoring those facts and within their tribe, within their cult, everyone will be supporting this set of beliefs and values. And this is not just people destroying the planet; this is in the nature of all human beings. We are almost in some ways, fighting basic human nature.

EDS: If in essence we are fighting human nature, how do you make someone realize that they need to make these changes and then actually take action to do so?

LC: Well that’s a very valid question, and I can tell you as someone who has been turning people off conservation for 20 years, and the reason is, that facts don’t change people’s minds. Research says that facts actually harden people in their previous position. The way you change people’s minds is through their heart, you get them to care; so I guess the answer to your question goes back to the purpose of my book, is if you throw facts at people, they don’t care.

EDS: Seriously your book blew me away; I was drawn in by all the stories you told. Then once I was drawn in, BOOM it was like these are the facts, and I was like, ‘I’m a vegetarian now’.

LC: Yes exactly. So to get across to people in your own life, make them care. And that’s the communication problem I am having as well, is how do you reach people to make them care and that’s what I was trying to do with my book.

EDS: In your book, you take some time to dispel common zoo myths. I was wondering what your take would be on the widely held belief that zoos are actually beneficial as a modern day form of education for the younger generation to learn about and help them create a lasting bond of empathy with these animals. What’s your take on this logic—that zoos are actually educational centers for our children?

LC:  It could possibly be an overstated fact, and I’ll give two examples of that. One is how much young people know about dinosaurs, but they have never seen a live dinosaur, yet they have huge interest in them.  The second example would be the great support for saving whales.

EDS: Well, I think your first example is an extremely eye opening point, however, I don’t really understand or agree with the second example, because you can see whales at Sea World, which is again, a type of zoo.

LC: Yes, but look at the enormous support against the Japanese whalers, an issue that is far removed from the western world.

EDS: But that still involves dolphins and other marine mammals.
The counterargument to that point could be that the only reason people care in the first place, is because that bond and attachment was formed by connecting at a young age to these marine mammals in Sea Worlds and the like.

LC: I would say it’s not a black and white issue. The example I would give would be that a good zoo, evolving to connect people with wildlife and animals is certainly possible. An example I often give is giraffes. If they live in a herd in an open field zoo, and they have top veterinary care and food quality, and someone said we could send them back to Africa to have hyenas noising at their heels, fighting off predators, and scavenging for food; I would say the zoo is a by far better place for them. There are a lot of animals that can live better lives in zoos, if cared for properly.

EDS: So your saying that animals that have a more sedentary lifestyle versus animals that require much more space to hunt and migrate, can actually benefit from zoos?

LC: Exactly. However, zoos are still in the mentality that they have to provide a large plethora of animals in order to be successful. And some of those animals that they think are the main attractions, I would argue, are totally inappropriate to keep in captivity. Whether they need to keep a large range of animals so there is a more of chance that people will connect with at least one animal; it is more likely for that connection to happen with animals that are perfectly happy within the environments they create, and that way there will be an ethical and a deeper meaningful connection with people. Often, for example, people go to the zoo and laugh at the orangutans, and the reason they laugh at them is that if you take an orangutans out of its natural social system and its environment, it becomes an ugly caricature of the magnificent animal it really is. So people see orangutans as a comical joke to laugh at, an unintelligent, funny monkey to laugh at, which is not providing them with empathy. They see them in the wild, and they’re healthy and they can be seen in all their glory. By keeping inappropriate animals and displaying them for amusement, I don’t believe you’re getting empathy or connection. You are simply getting base amusement, like the gladiators or the animals in pits to mock at. But if you keep happy, healthy, and appropriate animals, they can connect with people in the right way. That’s when you get the true education and empathy for real change.

EDS: So, for my last question, I would like to turn the stage over to you and ask, if you could drive one point home with our readers, what would it be? What message do you want to leave them with?

LC: We are all living in the western world, the highest standard of living, because the true cost of production of goods and services we consume are passed on to the powerless; the powerless being other beings such as orangutans, indigenous communities, third world communities and future generations.  Therefore we have a moral obligation to use some of our benefits to make meaningful changes in the world, to insure that we are not benefiting from the exploitation of other human beings and the powerless, which include orangutans and other wildlife; who will be left with a planet that is less productive due to our over consumption.

Feature image from Orangutan Foundation. All other photos are a courtesy of The Orangutan Project

View Comments

No Comments (Hide)

Leave a Comment

Required fields are marked with a *.
Your email address will not be published.