Q&A: Bernard Rollin on receiving renown ethics award

Allec Brust

Colorado State University professor and researcher Bernard Rollin was not interested in a career in veterinary ethics when he first came to the University in 1969. Now, after accidentally falling in love with the subject and CSU’s campus, Rollin is the first recipient recognized for animal care and use to receive the award for Excellence in Research Ethics from Public Responsibility in Medicine & Research (PRIM&R).

In addition to his ground-breaking research and commitment to advancing research ethics, Rollins also teaches a 100 level philosophy class and travels the world giving lectures. Even after being the first in his field to receive the award, he still remains humble and true to his work.

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“If you think I sound enthusiastic about my job, it’s because I am,” Rollin said. “I get to fight for things [animals] that cannot fight for themselves.”

The Collegian sat down with Rollin to talk about his passion for veterinary ethics that earned him the award for Excellence in Research Ethics. Some quotes have been altered for clarity and length. 

To what do you owe your success?

First rate education. I really had a fabulous education at the city college of New York. I also went to Attenborough on a full ride fellowship and then went on to do my Ph.D. at Columbia. Also, my wife of course. People don’t believe me when I say she’s brighter than me, but she is, she got a math degree for fun. 

What got you started in veterinary ethics at CSU?

It was an accident. I came to CSU in 1969 for many different reasons including teaching medical ethics to pre-med students in the early 70s. One day I was at the gym, and you know I was having locker room chat with a guy who was at the locker next to me who was a veterinary professor  concerned about veterinary ethics and that is when it all started.

What was your initial reaction when you found out you were receiving the award?

Well of course my initial reaction was ‘oh wow!’ Later when I thought about it more, I realized that this is an award for my field. This award has been given to around 10 people in human medical ethics; I’m the first recipient in history that’s an animal guy. It’s important because it shows that the veterinary field is being recognized as legitimate. Its also important because things are changing. Look at the killer whales for example, 10 years ago nobody cared about how they were being treated. Now, they are not allowed to be bred and there’s a huge movement in their benefit. Animal rights are changing.

What is your teaching style?

Sit in on a class, you’ll see! I’m very funny. One thing I don’t do is I don’t let anybody get bored. I want to have discussion and debates with my students. You know get them excited. 

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What are some of your strongest opinions when it comes to veterinary ethics?

Most important opinion I have is this: a vet has a primary obligation not to the person who pays the bill, but to the patient… to the animal. 

Aside from veterinary ethics, what are you passionate about?

Justice, helping others, especially helping kids at CSU. A lot of college kids have bad views of themselves, I try to change that by encouraging students. Once, I asked if I could have one of my honors classes filled with regular students instead and they allowed me to. The first day of class I told my students ‘this is supposed to be an honors class, but you are not honors students. I think you can do as well as the honors class, what do you think?’ and they did.  

If they made a movie about your success, what actor would portray you?

Clint Eastwood.

Collegian Reporter Allec Brust can be reached at news@collegian.com or via Twitter at @Brustyyy.