Gary Larson,The Far Side
“Doctor Doolittle” lyric by Leslie Bricusse
While adding more seed to the bird feeder, I had a conversation with a curious Chickadee who scolded me for letting the feeder run out. As I left, a young squirrel added his opinion from a low branch in the pear tree, and I apologized to him as well.
People that have pets — dogs, cats, pigs, hamsters, birds, anything really, except maybe reptiles — know that they understand you and can convey their needs to you. YouTube is full of singing dogs, piano-playing cats and all kinds of creatures that interact with humans. You don’t have to be Dian Fossey to see that chimps can talk with us and understand it when we talk to them. Remember Flipper — that sixties show about the dolphin? Mister Ed, the talking horse or Francis the talking mule? And certainly, Timmy would never have grown up if not for Lassie; I wonder if he keeps falling into that well?
We tend to anthropomorphize the things we love and the things we hate. We love animals of all kinds and feel we have a special bond with them. On the other hand, we can attribute evil intent to poisonous snakes, wolves, deep-sea creatures, giant ants and the like. We say “Good boy!” or “Bad dog!” or “Speak!” and they get the message because we have a personal relationship with them. They aren’t human, but they have the ability to communicate and learn, even if not to the degree that we (or most of us) can.
Hiking a trail alone, I came upon a doe feeding just a few yards off the trail ahead. Approaching, I was careful not to make eye contact or sudden movements, and started talking to her in a low voice. She moved a few paces further away, watched me go by, then resumed feeding.
I don’t believe that it’s inappropriately anthropomorphic to believe that she heard me or felt from my behavior that I wasn’t a threat and so was not alarmed by my passing. That’s communication, if not a complete conversation.
My family does have conversations with our animals, but it requires one of us to voice the role of the dog or cat. We will say something to the dog like “What are you doing?” and the other will answer in the dog’s voice, “I’m trying to get you to refill the food bowl.” This is fun and engaging, depending on the sometimes disagreeable opinion of the animal (and person!) in question. It can be confusing if a visitor is present who does not understand that you may need to help the animal with their side of the conversation. We do get strange looks occasionally.
I also believe that interaction with animals improves our communication with and empathy for other humans. Clearly, much of the communication we have with our animals is non-verbal. Our posture and facial expressions send messages that our pets can read. We use hand signals to provide direction, and we watch them closely to see how they feel, if they understand us or what may be troubling them.
All of this is valuable when communicating with other humans (and occasionally co-workers). We invite interaction with an open demeanor; we repulse interruption by our closed body language. We show connection by looking into others’ eyes as we talk or listen, and smile or frown to convey our reactions. The empathy we share with animals works the same way with humans, but we have the added value of actually speaking together, too.
Many human problems revolve around communications. Too much, too little, too misunderstood. We use all kinds of techniques and tools to facilitate our communications with each other and spend huge amounts of money to do so. Buying or selling something? Pay a broker or agent or just negotiate yourself. Have issues with a spouse, co-worker or boss? Get a mediator, counselor or shrink. We write contracts, love letters and other communications that are hard to verbalize. Some doctors ask visitors to talk or read to coma patients, on the theory that it will help guide them back to consciousness.
A recent article encouraged parents to talk with their infants. Apparently, talking to your kids is a good thing, even when they are too little to talk back. I suspect that is no surprise to most parents (but acknowledge that teenagers are in a class all their own). There’s no joy like getting your tiny baby to smile or laugh at you. We croon, we sing, we make faces and we jabber baby-talk. It’s as though we think that babies understand our baby-talk better than they would understand our adult-talk.
But, they say infants learn words and language from us that help to structure how they think and grow. Language skills and vocabulary are thought to come earlier to kids who hear more at an earlier age. (I will note that until junior high, my mother took me every year to the hearing doctor to complain about my inability to hear her when she spoke to me. Apparently, content may have something to do with cognition.)
My cat tells me that if I can have a conversation with a squirrel, having one with an infant should be easy. I think I’ll ask the dog.
“Scientists have recommended talking to infants – the sooner the better,” Lauran Neergaard, The Denver Post, February 18, 2017