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Talking to the Animals
By Jill Howard-Church on Animals and Society Institute
Remember the song from the original movie “Dr. Dolittle,” which wondered what might transpire “If we could talk to the animals”? A recent Associated Press (AP) poll reports that 67 percent of companion animal guardians claim to understand their animals and vice versa, despite the language/species barrier. Women appear to have better interspecies communication skills than men (I’ll steer clear of that stereotype for now), and more people report being able to converse with cats than dogs (with Lassie being a notable exception).
The AP survey was anecdotal, but there have been behavioral studies of language in other species for decades. Apes have been taught how to use American Sign Language and computer symbols to communicate certain thoughts and desires to human beings, and studies of dolphins, certain species of birds and other animals have shown that interspecies communication is indeed possible.
The poll results were no surprise to me, but I’ve been talking to all sorts of animals all my life. It was perfectly normal in my family to speak to our cats and dogs, not just to praise or discipline but for general conversation. Some of them were more vocal than others, but all of them communicated in their own way. As I later discovered with my children (from infancy), communication takes place on various levels, regardless of whether actual language is involved. When you have a special connection with someone, human or nonhuman, you find ways of understanding each other.
For many years I’ve had a plaque on my wall with a quote from Chief Dan George (1899-1981), which reads:
If you talk to the animals, they will talk to you, and you will know each other. If you do not talk to them, you will not know them, and what you do not know, you will fear. What one fears, one destroys.
To me, that speaks volumes about how and why so much animal abuse exists in the world. No doubt fueled by religious and archaic educational biases that put human beings on a pedestal far above the rest of the animal kingdom, too many people are disconnected from how other animals think and feel (or fail to even acknowledge that they think and feel). That said, I don’t find it particularly remarkable that people like those in the AP poll, who live with cats and dogs and other familiar domesticated species, are able to communicate and connect with them. The problem is that those are only a tiny handful of species with which human beings interact; many more are subjected to commodification and other forms of exploitation that result in their extermination.
If more people had the desire and opportunity to interact as closely with cows as cats or deer as dogs, at least some of them would see those animals in a different light and understand that the ones they pet aren’t much different from the ones they eat. Sadly, it would take nothing short of a chicken standing in front of KFC holding a sign reading “Please don’t eat me” for most people to think twice about the practice. Which is exactly why there are activists across the country standing in front of KFCs, stockyards, fur salons, testing labs, hunting preserves and elsewhere, saying what the animals cannot directly say: “You have no right to hurt me.”
Few people aspire to be Dr. Doolittle, so no wonder that so many do little to stop animal suffering. It’s really not so much a question of whether we can talk to the animals – it’s whether we’re willing and able to hear them.
Jill Howard-Church Jill Howard Church is a writer and editor who specializes in animal issues. She serves as the part-time communications director for the Animals and Society Institute, and is the volunteer president of the Vegetarian Society of Georgia.
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