Animal ethicist Bernie Rollin’s milestone: 50 years at CSU

Bernard Rollin, CSU
University Distinguished Professor Bernard Rollin, who helped lead the national effort to administer pain management for animals after surgery, is celebrating 50 years at CSU.

Bernard Rollin, who is celebrating his 50th year at CSU, is being interviewed about his earliest memories of campus when his office phone rings.

It’s a complete stranger calling from outside Colorado. He’s read Rollin’s August 2015 article in The Conversation about when to euthanize your pet, and he wants to get Rollin’s advice on his dying dog — and when to make that difficult decision.

“I get calls like that all the time,” says one of the country’s foremost experts on animal ethics and ethics in veterinary medicine. “I’d be a complete jerk if I didn’t talk to people like that. I can’t tell them when to do it, but I’ll discuss it with them. There’s no shame in grieving for an animal.”

Celebrate! CSU Milestones

Colorado State University employees achieving a decade of service or more this year and retirees will be honored at the annual Celebrate! CSU Milestones event at 4 p.m. on Thursday, May 9, in the LSC Grand Ballroom.

Rollin helped spearhead the national effort to administer pain management for animals after surgery, and in the early 1980s successfully pushed for legislation in Congress to protect laboratory animals.

But the University Distinguished Professor’s true passion, just as it was 50 years ago, is teaching.

“I love the students,” Rollin says. “They’re beginning to mature, but they’re still innocent. And they’re not sleazy — what you see is what you get, and God bless them for it.”

He says coming to Colorado from New York was a culture shock, and a positive one.

“What I remember was how polite the students were here, compared to New York City,” Rollin says. “They were very well-mannered. I really like the cowboys. They’re honest.”

Bernie Rollin at conference
Rollin participates in the College of Agricultural Sciences’ annual Fall Gathering in 2017.

He also found the faculty much friendlier and collaborative than at Columbia University, where he got his Ph.D. Willard Eddy, founder of CSU’s Department of Philosophy and the namesake of the building in which it’s based, encouraged working with faculty in other disciplines. Rollin took that advice seriously and began teaching the first veterinary medicine ethics course at CSU in 1978. Today, in addition to the philosophy department, he’s rostered in Animal Sciences and Biomedical Sciences.

“A sage once told me that if you work for multiple departments, you really don’t work for any,” Rollin says with his signature mischievous smile.

When he arrived on campus in 1969, the population of Fort Collins was only about 40,000.

“Nobody locked their doors in those days,” Rollin says. “Nobody was afraid to walk along the street at night.”

One favorite story from his 50-year career is about traveling to the small town of Kiowa on Colorado’s eastern plains in 1982 to give a lecture to a bunch of ranchers.

“I was introduced as the guy who had started the field of veterinary medical ethics,” Rollin says. “They booed and hissed for one minute and 37 seconds. I asked if they had read my stuff or heard me speak, and when they said no, I said, ‘How can you boo my ideas if you don’t know what they are?’”

When the crowd continued to be rude, he got angry and offered to take them outside, one by one. “After all, I grew up in Brooklyn!” he says with a  laugh. That settled them down, as did the next two questions he asked them:

“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 was no.

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

“It doesn’t feel like 50 years. I never got disillusioned or depressed by teaching; I still love it.”

– University Distinguished Professor Bernard Rollin

Rollin ended up answering their questions until midnight, and leaders of the group apologized to him after the event.

He adds that he loves the authentic, honest and friendly environment at CSU just as much as he did 50 years ago.

“I’ve had chances to go elsewhere, and wild horses couldn’t drag me out of here,” Rollin says. “It doesn’t feel like 50 years. I never got disillusioned or depressed by teaching; I still love it.”