Let’s Have a Talk

Empathyem·​pa·​thy, noun, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Back in the early seventies, I read somewhere that you should talk to your house plants to help them grow better. It wasn’t a stretch for me, since I already talked with my dog, and often with my first wife. The plants never really answered, so I got tired of the one-sided conversations. My dog, however, always seemed to listen attentively, often responded with sympathy or enthusiasm. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed relationships with multiple dogs and cats, and found them to be largely conversant. The dogs, of course, have been better listeners than the cats.

Our current dog and two cats are surprisingly attentive and involved with us. I’m sure the fact that we’re retired, social distancing and at home most of the time adds to their belief that we somehow are a part of their pack, and not just a meal ticket and door-opener.

I am acquainted with many of our neighbors based merely on their dogs. I know most of the pets’ names, but I’m a little fuzzy on the people. I speak to the dogs we encounter on walks, and often their companions as well. I have found a few birds that respond to my greetings, and an occasional squirrel will listen to what I have to say — but they tend to be a bit wary and jumpy.

I suppose that if humans were as easy to read as animals, I’d get along with them better.   

Melissa Breyer reports in Treehugger on a study of human-goat interactions by Dr. Christian Nawroth, “The human face can be a bit of an open book. Sure, we can fake our facial expressions, but in general: Smile = happy, grimace = angry. Even our companion animals have our number … But what about other animals? … We already knew that goats are very attuned to human body language, but we did not know how they react to different human emotional expressions, such as anger and happiness. Here, we show for the first time that goats do not only distinguish between these expressions, but they also prefer to interact with happy ones.”

As an old goat myself, I can relate to that.

Most of my social interactions these days — aside from trips to the liquor and grocery stores — are through FaceTime or Zoom video calls. We have a few routinely marked on the calendar so we can stay somewhat in touch with friends and relatives. Dan Nosowitz, in Modern Farmer, reported last month on a study showing, video chat “forms of distanced conversation just aren’t the same, and aren’t as satisfying … cows, too, prefer in-person interaction … the differences between the recorded and live audio do seem to indicate that cows get more relaxation and pleasure from a live human than from a recording.”

I can relate to that, as well.

Some researchers have identified a way to allow animals to more clearly express themselves for protection from predators. Lindsay Campbell reports, “The study compared how predators reacted to cows that sported eyes on their rear end, ones that had “x’s,” and some with bare backsides. The ‘i-cow’ method involves applying acrylic paint on the bums of cattle with foam stencils that look like a sketch of an eye. The eyes trick certain predators, such as lions and leopards, that try to sneak up on livestock, into thinking the animals can see them … Neil Jordan, a conservation biologist, says, ‘All you need is a paint pot, paint brush and a little bit of artistic talent.’” (My experience with my son’s dwarf hamster was less than pleasant. Every time I reached in the cage, he bit me … hard. It never occurred to me to paint eyes on my hand. Now I know …)

Most humans seem able to communicate pretty effectively with our dogs and cats, and with many other animals including goats, cows, leopards and lions. If we could only make that work as well with other people.

Additional information:

Melissa Breyer, Goats Like Happy Humans More Than Angry Ones, November 04, 2020, TreeHugger

Lindsay Campbell, Painting Eyes on Cows’ Butts Can Scare Away Predators, August 23, 2020, Modern Farmer

Dan Nosowitz, No Zoom for Cows: Cattle Prefer In-Person Interactions, October 24, 2020, Modern Farmer

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