For 14 years, I've been teaching animal behavior and conservation biology at the Boulder, Colo., county jail as part of the Jane Goodall Institute's Roots & Shoots Program. The course is one of the most popular in the jail - students have to earn the right to enroll, and they work hard to get in it.
While there's student turnover, my fellow teachers and I are all pleasantly surprised at how science connects the inmates to various aspects of nature, and that many find it easier to connect with animals than with people. Animals don't judge them, and many of the inmates had lived with dogs, cats and other companions who were their best friends. They trust and empathize with animals in ways they don't with humans.
Nonetheless, people, including those in prison, often have a distorted view of how animals treat one another. At one of the first meetings, someone was talking out of turn as I was setting up the curriculum. One of the guys yelled, "Hey, shut up, you're acting like an ass. This guy's here to help us." I responded, "You've just paid him a complement," explaining that animals could be kind and empathic. While there's competition and aggression in nature, there's also a lot of cooperation, empathy and reciprocity. I explained that these behaviors are examples of "wild justice," and this idea made my students rethink what it means to be an animal. They've had enough of nature in tooth and claw, and many lament, "Look where that 'I'm behaving like an animal' excuse got me."