What Grinds My Gears

Excerpts from Bryan A. Townsend-El

Animals, Earth wardens. We were supposed to be, according to certain texts and ideologies. I believe we have fallen far, if we are fallen angels, we fell again. Animals are tokened for our pleasure on a daily basis, in more ways than a professional can name. We lock them in grotesque cages and conditions in to view them at our leisure, for our young to view them. At those points we will speak highly of them and sing their praises. Then we will leave and forget completely about them until the young want to see them, or it's free to see them, or we want to go on a date and show a girl/man how much we like them with a distracting background. Them we torture them in inhumane places out of view, and process kill them, then serve them up in McDonalds and our dinner table. If someone with a conscience or ethics comes to inquire about the welfare of these sentient beings, they are assaulted, rejected, banned or ridiculed to discredit the information they ave acquired.

That's what grands my gears. What grinds my gears even more is...most people already know. and will turn a blind eye to the wrongs and injustices done to animals and people alike. We have a voice, they do not. If this happened to people, or better yet you, you would not like it, you wold want justice. Nonhuman animals are no different. It was not so long ago that different ethnic groups were considered "animals" and treated the same. Let's start the trickle down effect we take for granted, because this is serious grinding my gears.

Marc Bekoff
The Great Escape

by Bryan A. Townsend-El

I love going to new sides of towns and exploring and experiencing new things with friends and family. On one such occasion I was with my friend Jon, who is basically my brother, and his fiancé Myrra. We took a pit stop at the humane society, much to my surprise! We are going puppy gazing. Awesome right? That’s what I thought too, until I got to the first puppy. Adorable to the fullest. Just so happy to see a human face and wanting just to be touched and played with. Never happened! It’s basically in jail, clawing at the glass/plexi, wanting to get out, the sound cutting to my heart.

I walk away because I can’t take the sight. I know the feeling. I was just there myself; locked up. I go one to the next puppy. Yay! This one has bars. I can get a finger through to poke and scratch at the pup while she tries with all her might to push her body as close to the bars just to get as close and as much contact as possible. I walk away while the pup whines. This is starting to startle me. More dogs and I go through the same process. The whole time my happiness is fading. A little pup at the gate I’m sitting at wakes up and runs to the bars so quickly I think it seriously injures himself. He is trying to push his paws through the bars just to touch me!

That’s when I realize these dogs want and need us more than we want or need them. This for them is torture, day in and day out. Each time someone walks away it’s rejection. Each time someone stops it’s a promise. They are basically orphans in an orphanage waiting to get adopted. I find the dog has my finger through the bars, but I don’t remember putting it in. He has my finger between his paws in a hug with his head laid on my finger. I try to pull away to leave. He cries loudly like I’m hurting him…I am because I’m leaving a sentient being who’s in need of connection and love.

My heart breaks at that moment. A woman walks up, I get her to pet the dog, and bam, I take off. She screams, “That’s not fair.” I say he’s now in your hands. I leave without looking another dog in the eyes. I just played the pass off game, I’m told. Apparently it’s a learned reaction that grinds my gears. I haven’t been back since.

The next time I go I’m getting a puppy. I won’t go back until I can. Anyone else feel this way?

Marc Bekoff
The Human Zoo

Gordon made this collage because he often reflected that this is how people view inmates and he liked the idea of having people behind bars and having the animals view them.


The Human Zoo, Collage

The Human Zoo, Collage

Marc Bekoff

A Student in Marc’s class who was going to be released soon drew this crocodile and eggs as a symbol of rebirth. He said that when he was released, he would be reborn and vowed never to be incarcerated again.


Rebirth, Pencil

Rebirth, Pencil

Marc Bekoff
The Healing Power of Animals: Moon Bear Has a Place

An essay by a former inmate shows how other animals can help people move on.

This guest essay was written by Kyle Warner, an accomplished artist, writer, and former student of mine in the Transitions program at the Boulder County Jail (Colorado). I am extremely pleased to share it with you.


Jane Goodall visiting my class at the Boulder County Jail (Source: Marc Bekoff)

Jane Goodall visiting my class at the Boulder County Jail (Source: Marc Bekoff)

Jasper  Source: Michael S., a former student of mine at the Boulder County Jail


Source: Michael S., a former student of mine at the Boulder County Jail

Oscar, Jasper, and BeaRtrice (Source: Kyle Warner)

Oscar, Jasper, and BeaRtrice (Source: Kyle Warner)

Jane Goodall’s Card to Kyle congratulating him on his artwork

Jane Goodall’s Card to Kyle congratulating him on his artwork

My personal hero, teacher, and dear friend, Marc Bekoff, comes to the jail faithfully every Friday to facilitate just one of Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots groups. We engage in a lot of profound, meaningful discussions and he helps us to really understand just why animals matter. He also helps us to take part in many causes and worldwide issues between nonhuman animals and humans. With Marc's help, we have had our voices heard within many discussions, court battles, online debates, and protests. Some of these include whether we should reintroduce wild wolves here in Colorado, how to stop the potential trophy hunting of grizzly bears in Wyoming, what to do about the mass killing of elephants, the injustice of rich people hunting majestic lions for sport, and other similar topics.

One issue that stands out for me is the moon bear. Since learning about this beautiful crescent-stamped animal, I have felt drawn to them on a deep level. There is an industry in China where people keep them in small cages to harvest bile out of their gall bladders for Traditional Chinese Medicine. With the help of an organization called Animals Asia, these bears have hope. Animals Asia rescues these bears from coffin-like cages, attends to their medical and psychological needs, and provides them sanctuary in their very own paradise.

In 2017, I drew a few of these beautiful animals. In one was Jasper, who passed away not long after I took on this project. Also in that drawing was Oscar and BeaRtrice, whom Marc named after his parents. He was happy to share my art with Animals Asia and many throughout the world. Since then, I have had an opportunity to share my art with Jane Goodall, probably one of the most fulfilling moments of the last three years for me. Recently, in one of the other amazing groups I get to attend here at Boulder County Jail, I embarked on a brief vision quest during a guided meditation. The gentle, soft-spoken instructions began with an ascent.

A card from Jane Goodall to Kyle Warner

Source: Kyle Warner

Meeting my spirit animal

I imagined my conscious awareness being granted liberty from the limitations and confinement of my body I first hovered above myself before floating up to the ceiling, above the jail, higher and higher, hoping to come back with an animal name. 

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I was instructed to fly west toward the Rocky Mountains and to proceed past the foothills, deep into the jagged, snowcapped Rockies. I landed in a clearing, perhaps some sort of valley surrounded by mighty aspens on high mountains. It was an almost-familiar place, but nowhere I’ve been before. Everything was much bigger and the colors more vibrant. Most of the mountain peaks were hiding in the heavens, camouflaged by clouds. 

I walked for a while, grateful for every stop I took. I found a cave. My group leader, who was guiding the meditation, instructed me to go into the cave. I really wanted to see what was in there or find out where it would lead me. The cave had to be a mile long. The light pouring in from its entrance was quenched by the darkness in minutes. The cool ceiling was dank and the floor slick. I could hear the faint sound of dripping water all around me. 

The ceiling dropped lower with every step I took until I was ducking low. It wasn’t long before I was crawling. Eventually, it was so cramped I was using my knees and elbows to proceed. For me, this was a nightmare come true. I’m claustrophobic. A decade in a jail cell will do that if you’re not naturally predisposed to having an aversion to spaces tighter than coffins. No turning back now!

Finally, there was room for me to breathe. A few more yards and I was crawling. Soon the ceiling was high enough for me to walk. What a relief! Now I could see light in the distance and I knew I was approaching a way out. After exiting the cave, I quickly realized that I had just traveled through a portal. I’m not sure if it was a portal leading to somewhere on earth or some other dimension, but I knew I was no longer in the Rockies nor anywhere in or near Colorado. 

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I proceeded into a strange forest and decided to sit on a tree trunk. I was at a resting place where at least I was able to intentionally appreciate my experience, even the claustrophobia I had felt in the middle of the cave. The beauty around me was indescribable.

I heard rustling up ahead where there were many trees. I could see movement and be able to connect it with what I was hearing. Something was emerging. The first thing I saw clearly was the crescent. It was a moon bear and it was approaching. He came right up to me and we made eye contact. 

After that moment, we consented to one another’s presence with empathycompassion, and understanding, validating each other’s very existence. We accepted one another and connected at the level of consciousness and spirit.

I then realized that my physical self, far away and still in jail, was crying, releasing a whole world of griefloneliness, abandonment, betrayal, fear, and suffering. This was a moment where I knew my experience would have been incomplete without purging the poison inside me. 

I leaned into the feeling of deep sadness, grief, and attachment, but more than anything, I was saturated with gratitude. That’s when I knew it was time to say goodbye. I really didn’t want to leave and as I’m sure you can imagine, I was reluctant to return to jail. I was so free and for once I felt validated. I was glad to hear my brother who was guiding me say that even though I had to leave, my new friend would forever remain with me. 

This is my spirit animal—the moon bear. I came to know that regardless of how some of these bears are treated in captivity, even they have a place in the world. I, too, have spent much of my life in captivity and confinement. I’ve done a lot of damage in this world, but deep within I’ve known all along I have a place and it is my calling to be part of something bigger than just me.

I have ventured far away for these affirmations and am returning with a new name: Moon Bear Has a Place. 

Posted with Mr. Warner's permission. I'm not the only person who was moved by Mr. Warner's essay. So too, were many other students and jail administrators. Another essay to which students in my class contributed is "Among Homeless People, Dogs Eat First and 'Absorb Empathy'." 

Marc Bekoff
Inmates, Animals, and Art: Creative Expressions of Hope
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In my Roots & Shoots class at the Boulder County Jail students do amazing work

By Marc Bekoff

For more than 15 years I've been teaching a class at the Boulder County Jail that centers on animal behavior, conservation, and humane education(please see "Animals and Inmates: Science Behind Bars" and "Nature Behind Bars: Animal Class Helps Prisoners Find Compassion"). It is part of Jane Goodall's global Roots & Shoots program.

The class and the students' artwork give me hope, and in their drawings, sculptures, and writing, they express hope and trust. The work they do provides a forum for deep and informative discussions about other animals, nature, their connection to the outer world, and themselves. They also have written many beautifully composed essays and poems that express close connections with other nature. Many of the students find solace when they talk about animals and are outdoors. 

This essay is the third in a series of pieces concerning hope for the future. The first, "My Basket of Hope I: BeaRtrice, Oscar, and Asian Moon Bears," dealt with how the plight and recovery of bile bears in China adds to my "basket of hope" for future generations, and the second, "The Nonhuman Rights Project: An Interview with Steven Wise," considers the work of the Nonhuman Rights Project, the only U. S. civil rights organization working to achieve legal rights for members of other species. 

Animals are "safe" because they don't judge the students and they trust them.

Here, I simply want to show you some artwork from some of the men who have taken my class at the jail. When we talk about it, many of the guys tell me how nonhuman animals were their only friends when they grew up or how, when they get out, they want to work with animals. They often tell me how they felt the animals trusted them and didn't ever judge them. I'm including one of Gordon's motorcycle and a soap sculpture of the Buddha, because they show just how creative the students can be. (For more information on Gordon's motorcycle, please see Note 1 below. The sculpture took months to complete and was formed from hundreds of tiny bars of soap that were warmed up in the artist's hands.) Gordon's motorcycle also is an expression of freedom and his "human zoo" (sixth from the top), not surprisingly, generated a good deal of discussion about life behind bars.

The fifth drawing from the top, by Cody, is of a classic picture of Jane Goodall. The bottom picture, by Michael (who drew it in 45 minutes!), is of Jasper, a moon bear who lived at Animals Asia's moon bear rescue centre outside of Chengdu, China. You can read more about this most amazing bear being in my essay called "My Basket of Hope I: BeaRtrice, Oscar, and Asian Moon Bears" and links therein.

All in all, these pieces and other artwork and many essays I've received, speak for themselves. I thank, with all my heart, the wonderful men in my class for sharing their art, their feelings, and their words of wisdomover the years. I hope you find their work as incredible and inspiring as I do. The guys and their art give me hope for a better future, and I know our discussions about the importance of humane education and compassion do the same for them. 

Note: Gordon's motorcycle sculpture was inspired by the Eagles' songs Take It to the Limit and Hotel California, and was made as follows:

  • HUBS: toothpaste caps and tops of tubes

  • RIMS: combs and cardboard

  • TIRES: folded edges of rags turned inside out - stuffed and dyed with colored pencils and shavings

  • FRAME: plastic spoon and a few dead tree twigs -- covered with stained pieces of rags and toothpaste

  • ENGINE: shampoo container, tooth paste tubes for pistons; heads from bar soap, toothbrush handles, chip bags inside out for pipes and push rods, glue caps for air intake and battery

  • SEAT: cardboard wrapped with dyed rags and toothpaste

  • LIGHTS: caps wrapped in chip bags and candy wrappers for color

  • FORKS AND SHOCKS: pencils wrapped in chip bags inside out 

  • WHEEL FENDERS: straps from old shoes dyed and plastic strips for shape

  • HANDLEBARS: dyed twigs wrapped in chip bags inside out

  • HAND GRIPS: foam earplugs

  • GAS TANK: deodorant containers

  • SIGNS: pencils, light cardboard, colored paper

  • CACTUS: tube edge of rags stuffed and dyed and tooth paste

  • FLOWERS: rags and toothpaste dyed to color

  • RABBIT: rags 

  • TOP HAT: eraser wrapped in colored paper

  • SNAKE: wrapped up paper colored with tooth paste

  • SKULL: carved bar of soap

  • ROADWAY: cardboard, black marker for line; brick red colored pencil, lines yellow colored paper, road gravel and sand

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Marc Bekoff
Roots and Shoots - Boulder County Jail

A unique program at Boulder County Jail has inmates learning from nature

By Caitlin Rockett, Composite by Susan France

Marc Bekoff, as my grandmother would say, is a card. He’s the definition of good-natured with an easy smile. He’s quick to lovingly tease, has gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, a silver cuff around the cartilage of his left ear, socks with the PETA logo barely visible above his Converse high-tops. An original hippie to be sure.

We’re stuffing backpacks and saddlebags into shabby blue lockers in the waiting room at the Boulder County Jail.

“Remember to leave your knives and brass knuckles in the locker,” he cracks — but seriously. Leave those here.

He’s done this hundreds of times over the last 16 years — more than 700, he guesses. Marc’s retired after 32 years at CU as a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. Not one to let his zeal fade into oblivion, he comes here once a week to teach an animal behavior class to inmates in the jail’s educational and life skills programming. His is the only class of its kind for inmates anywhere in the world, save for one class in Italy — and that one’s modeled off of Marc’s class.

Our driver’s licenses come out at the check-in window. My belt keeps setting off the metal detector.

“It’s the knife. I told you. Let me get mine out of this bag.” Marc gives me a wink.

Leslie Ogeda leads us back to the module where the class is held. She’s a program specialist for the jail through Community Justice Services. She helps inmates into what’s called the “phases” program, which guides inmates through the process of changing their behaviors. There are classes in art, graphic design, mindfulness, job skills, money management and victim impact. There are parenting classes and yoga classes and classes based around addiction. And there’s Marc’s animal behavior class.

The program carries inmates from their initial decision to change their lives, through their first year after release. During that period, they have access to mental health care, and assistance with housing and food stamps. It can take months for an inmate to be accepted into this program. They’re required to finish a 25-hour independent study book, and even then the program might be too full to take them.

There are dozens of volunteers like Marc who lead classes at the jail. It’s an impressive operation.

Kyle’s not going to be able to join us today, Leslie tells Marc as we walk down a series of hallways between locked doors. She says Kyle had an altercation yesterday.

A buzzer goes off. We walk through another door.

Marc is visibly disappointed, worried even. He’d mentioned earlier that Kyle had drawn a picture of a sloth especially for today’s class. Much has been made of Kyle Warner’s talent. He picked up all his artistic skill over a decade in correctional facilities, Marc says, and he currently teaches an art class at the jail. He’s been given a booth at this year’s Denver Comic Con, and Marc worries a setback like this could end all that.

Leslie assures him everything will be OK, and Marc seems relieved. He’ll ask about it again later, double-checking that everything really is OK. Marc is rooting for Kyle, but then again, Marc is rooting for all the inmates. Frankly, Marc is rooting for the whole world.

We pass a series of cell blocks, each block clearly visible through panes of glass, each virtually the same — cells grouped in twos in an upper and lower level — until we reach our block.

Everything is either bright or dull. Day-Glo orange shoes pop against khaki uniforms. Fluorescent lighting aggressively highlights off-white walls.

This is Transitions.

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Marc Bekoff