What Animals Could Tell Us


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My first interspecies music experience occurred when I was studying traditional Mayan songs in San Crist-bal de las Casas, Mexico, near the Guatemalan border. Every morning I played my native flute for an hour in the backyard. Whenever I hit a certain high note, the tom turkey next door let out a resounding gobble. I ventured next door to meet him: fat and brown, red wattles drooped over his nose, a multicolored tail spread wide like a Spanish fan. When I played the usual song, he responded by shaking his wings before dropping them into the dirt, raising a small cloud of dust. He advanced like a flamenco dancer, four deliberate steps forward, then four steps back. Every so often, the red wattles turned deep blue and back to red again. And every single time I hit a high note at the end of the verse's third measure, he let out a solitary gobble.

Over the next month, I spent an hour a day playing strange songs with that turkey. I soon deciphered the mechanical relationship between loud volume, high pitch, and the turkey's gobble instinct. It was fun and easy to program the gobbling into a song by accentuating certain notes: ta ta ta TA (gobble gobble gobble). But when I accented too many notes in succession, hoping for a crescendo of gobbles, the turkey reached his breaking point and ran.


Our jam session was not exactly interspecies communication. Music involves sharing tones, harmonies, and rhythms. Communication insists on transmitting information, on each party understanding the other's drift. Was I communicating with my plump friend? I was skeptical. Nonetheless, I was collaborating with a bird, who eventually sat beside the barbed wire fence waiting for me to arrive. I grew sensitive to his moods; we shared feelings about the weather and a dislike of quick movements, sounds, change. I learned how to operate on turkey time, how to distinguish between domination and equanimity, control and harmony. By these tools I was transformed; the turkey and I became friends.


Since the mid-1970s, I've explored interspecies communication as music rather than language. I've played harmonica with bobwhites along Ohio's Cuyahoga River, drums with kangaroo rats in Death Valley and howler monkeys in Panama, and mandolin with buffalo in Yellowstone Park. I believe that trying to translate dolphin whistles into English is futile, like trying to translate Beethoven into words and sentences. Animals create melodies, harmonies, and rhythms that evoke rich emotion, instill a sensitivity to surroundings, and satisfy, within the human species, a utopian longing for communion.


Some observers now insist that our civilization's very survival depends on softening our relationship to nature, on each one of us reaching out with compassion to communicate and commune with animals. But seeking communion with an animal is not the same as learning its species name, behavior, habitat, or any of the other characteristics that biology assigns to living organisms. Our longing for contact with nature is more direct than any scientific construct. Although it's often repressed by our rationalist education, this desire springs to the surface the moment we enter the wilderness or cross the path of a wild animal. We know intuitively that we are all connected, but how? Scientists, artists, and mystics all have taken up the challenge to explain the varied ways animals communicate, and to explore whether we, as the human link in the universal chain, are doing our part to understand and preserve this connection.


Animals are wise beyond of language we impose upon Some of the most complex examples of animal communication occur within species relatively low on the evolutionary scale. The honeybee's waggle dance, which Karl von Frisch studied for 40 years, communicates sun position (astronomy), a system of measure (mathematics), precise direction (navigation), and even food source desirability, which denotes a syntax of adjectives and adverbs. Most entomologists explain these messages as instinctual, arguing that honeybees comprehend the footwork without having experienced it before. It is as if French babies were born not only speaking French, but also baking French bread. But the waggle dance endorses instinct only if we reject, out of hand, the idea that bees might be intelligent enough to learn a symbolic language, and then a recipe. There is no conclusive evidence; the argument against learned behavior is mostly a presumption based on what biologists expect, given the insects' tiny brain.

Other animals possess vocabulary. If she sees a weasel invading the coop, a bantam hen emits a high-pitched 'kuk-kuk-kuk.' If the invader is a hawk, she'll shriek a single long note. In the early 1960s biologist Tom Struhsaker discovered that vervet monkeys in Uganda and Kenya possess an elaborate vocabulary denoting their predators. A certain chirp is the word for eagle; when it is vocalized, all vervets in earshot scan the sky. A bark means leopard, prompting the monkeys to scamper to the treetops. Peter Marler, Robert Seyfarth, and Dorothy Cheney went on to learn that vervet vocabulary also includes sounds expressing kinship and social standing. Until the vervet discovery, linguists generally agreed that the use of sounds as symbols (words) was unique to humans.


Communication between species is much less frequent. A robin's alarm call attracts not only robins but also blue jays, orioles, and catbirds, who help drive off predators. Animal rights advocate Michael W. Fox writes that dogs are masters of nonverbal interspecies communication, able to ascertain as much about human happiness, submission, and aggression by reading our postures and facial expressions as we learn about them from watching their tails wag and their ears lie back. What develops is a dialogue of sorts.

Rudyard Kipling wrote of the 'six honest serving-men' of learning and intellect: 'What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.' Dogs, parrots, elephants, and even pigeons have been documented communicating what, where, who, and, arguably, how. But they all lack the other two servants, when and why. No dog has ever asked a person to feed it tomorrow. Besides the dogged quality of unconditional love--as exemplary an expression of loyalty as exists on earth--no dog can tell us why we deserve such unflinching allegiance.

Yet interspecies communication, an infant science, is saddled with more controversy than it deserves. The idea of animals holding abstract conversations with us is met with knee-jerk disapprobation as often as professional inquisitiveness. It doesn't help matters that the few manifested experiments in interspecies communication have failed to unearth much of sublime import. Success is a dolphin that, after five years of rigorous training, vocalizes with less sophistication than a toddler. Or it's a chimpanzee able to sign words in Ameslan, but whose psyche is described as neurotic and 'not much like a chimp anymore.'

Scientific success stories do exist. Koko the gorilla adopted a cat as a beloved pet, becoming distraught when it died. She learned to fib, using sign language to distort trainer Penny Patterson's perception of reality, then skillfully resorted to Kipling's 'why' when Patterson expressed misgivings. And when asked by a a journalist if she was an animal or a person, Koko's response was 'fine animal gorilla.'

After years of lessons, bottlenose dolphins at Hawaii's Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory have learned 60 words and basic grammatical rules that allow them to understand hundreds of sentences. The command 'person (subject), surfboard (object), fetch (verb)' is understood as 'bring person to surfboard,' while 'surfboard, person, fetch' is interpreted as 'bring surfboard to person.' Intriguingly, the dolphins also understand the word creative. When they are separately commanded 'tandem, creative,' they find each other, presumably agree on an action, then respond in tandem, perhaps spitting water and pirouetting or doing headstands and lifting their tails high.

Alex, an African gray parrot, plainly identifies seven colors, five shapes, 50 objects, and quantities up to six. When Professor Irene Pepperberg showed him a green bottle and a green hat, then asked how they were the same, Alex answered 'color.' Asked the difference, he answered 'shape.' He learned the word gray by peering into a mirror and asking a student what color he was. Alex's achievement amounts to cognitive heresy, demonstrating that the neural threshold called consciousness is not limited to beings with human-sized brains. If the walnut-brained parrot can string words together to verbalize inner thoughts, exhibiting as much intellect as a signing gorilla or a nodding dolphin, perhaps beings with brains commensurately smaller than a parrot'--millipedes, octopuses, even oak trees and slime molds--are privy to Kipling's serving-men as well.