Conversations

betty-and-jane-window-1… It is not a sentimental but a grimly literal fact that unless we share this terrestrial globe with creatures other than ourselves, we shall not be able to live on it for long.

Joseph Wood Krutch

The other night our big cat, Betty, sat by the closed French door staring out through the glass. She emitted a long and low growl. When we went to see what was up, we found a full-grown raccoon sitting just outside the door staring back in at her.

The giant old pear tree has been shedding pears this fall, creating loud thumps whenever one of the pears too high to harvest smashes onto the roof of our bedroom. The patio just outside the French doors has been littered with pear parts all Autumn.

It was clear they saw each other from less than a foot apart through the glass and that Betty was trying to explain to the raccoon that this was her territory. I suspect the raccoon was trying to explain that, in the night, it was his.

This morning, our younger cat, Jane, was frolicking at the back of the yard when she interrupted a couple of squirrels chasing each other — who disturbed a magpie when they fled. The magpie dropped to a low branch in the crabapple, and observed Jane intently. Jane responded by walking directly under the magpie, sitting down and craning her neck to look directly back.

I imagine they conversed, I could certainly hear the magpie’s cries, and see Jane turn her head for a better view. Soon they were joined by a couple more magpies that stayed on higher branches. After a bit, Jane wandered off and the squirrels moved back in, dispersing the birds.

I routinely talk to animals I encounter. Our cats will talk back, telling us about food shortages or their need to go outside or come back in, or sometimes just to complain about some grievous oversight on our part. The younger cat will talk to us early in the morning to wake us up, and sometimes if she fails, she will join us in bed for an apparently much-needed “head scrunch”. Betty will also call for attention, particularly if you are reading or playing cards at the kitchen table, where she can disrupt your activity to be brushed.

Most of the dogs we have had understand many words and certainly respond to visual signals. Unlike the cats, they can be trained to certain actions in response to commands. They also comprehend different emotions and respond appropriately. When I proposed to Merrilyn, our old dog came over and put her head in Merrilyn’s lap, eyes pleading for her to agree. Dogs will comfort a sick or tired person, and endeavor to perk you up when you are tired from a long day at work.

I have associated my failure to train the cats to verbal commands with the cats’ higher intelligence. Indeed, it seems that the cats consider us just slightly above the dogs in smarts, and use big words when trying to explain things to us.

It’s known that animals communicate with each other, bird calls, growls and howls and yips and barks, but I’m convinced that they communicate with other species as well. It may not be all verbal, the same as for us. But we don’t always know what the sounds or the signs mean. For example, a human smile is considered a friendly greeting among humans (okay, I know some of those people, too), but dogs bare their teeth in an approximate smile when they are warning you away. It helps to know the language.

All kinds of data have shown that animals are much more communicative than we humans have suspected. Ravens can identify a specific person at a distance as friend or foe. Apes and monkeys, dolphins and whales, various birds and rodents all have been shown to communicate socially. Recent studies have also confirmed that trees communicate among themselves in forests.

It may be that in some ways, animals are better at communication than we are. They seem to be able to communicate the really important stuff: food, danger, sexual attraction, survival. On the other hand, human communications seem to completely bollox up even these basic needs.

Ever try to go to lunch with your work buddies, and spend half the time trying to pick a place that works for everyone? We have traffic laws, signs and cops to try to tell us that some of our driving behaviors are dangerous, but we consistently ignore them to our detriment. The ‘battle of the sexes’, sexual harassment, online dating and the divorce rate all attest to our difficulties around sexual attraction. Nuclear weapons, climate change, air and water pollution, and electing bad leaders eloquently demonstrate our inability to assure our own survival, much less the survival of our species and all the others on earth.

With our huge brains, opposable thumbs and all our knowledge, we still cannot communicate effectively with others of our own species. We cannot even understand other races within our species, and seem to feel the need to compete with (or obliterate) them.

It’s a common theme in science fiction that an alien race will invade the earth, uniting us all against the common enemy to save our species and our planet. I guess I’m of the belief that we already have that common enemy, in fact, numerous ones that we need to band together to oppose. Nuclear weapons, climate change, and air and water pollution are all threats to our existence that we should oppose together.

As for the bad leader thing, that may be a problem that animals could teach us about, although their systems are not necessarily applicable to us. Wolves will gang up against a bad leader, birds will shun or ignore bad leaders, and in the US we can just agree not to choose them, or keep them from doing too much damage until we can get a new one.

And that’s a conversation we need to work on.

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