What Animals Could Tell Us

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.

The problem with most scientific experiments is that they presume that a species’ intellect is best demonstrated through its ability to respond to some form of human language. When researchers are unable to fit an animal’s oftentimes ’round’ response into the ‘square’ structures they develop to facilitate analysis, they conclude that the animal who just failed their elegant but human-focused language test lacks the ability to communicate symbolically. But the animal is never treated as a co-respondent or designer of the experiment; it is forced to mimic human intellectual models in return for the basic necessities of food and companionship.

Clearly, a dialogue that adopted both species’ preferred syntax and vocabulary would demonstrate not only how and what an animal can learn, but also what an animal already knows. But only strict control produces replicable data, say researchers, and without it, scientific credibility evaporates. Yet ‘strict control’ always means research from the cage, the house trailer, the concrete pool. Journalist Wyatt Townley concludes that captive studies create a catch-22 situation. Relinquishing rigorous control nurtures communication even as it invalidates science.

Animals are wise beyond the systems of language we impose upon them, intelligent beyond our training regimens, creative beyond the behavioral tricks we watch them perform. The most sentient forms of communication–Koko’s fib, for instance–are both circular and transparent. When it’s happening, both parties simply feel it. It cannot be measured any more than creativity can be measured. Or love.

Some visionary scientists argue that both sentience and communication are universal within nature, operating as one aspect of ‘nonlocal’ mind. The brain may not be the seat of the mind, but instead the conduit of consciousness, a sort of radio receiver linking us to an external cosmic record where all knowledge and wisdom reside. Every species possesses the ability to tap into any part of it, although the size of an animal’s receiver limits how much can be held at once. When a parrot is taught to think like a human, it is actually learning to tap into the human part of the nonlocal spectrum. This radical concept has been investigated by several noted consciousness researchers, including Rupert Sheldrake, Larry Dossey, and Ken Wilbur, in an attempt to understand such disparate phenomena as species morphogenesis, disease remission through prayer, and the basis of herbal knowledge. The Gaia Hypothesis postulates that some as yet unknown communication linkage among species is responsible for stabilizing the chemical composition of Earth’s atmosphere for a billion years. For Gaia to be true, a vibrant communication network among and between the species would have to be the norm rather than the exception.

must learn that the prevailing’separate but not equal’ worldview is killing the planet and us along with it.

This view, an alternative to orthodox science, is the basis of a growing ethical and ecological perception of nature. In many ways, it takes up a very old cause and recasts it, whether as conservation biology, deep ecology, or other terms familiar to its adherents, who hardly offer a united front: artists, animal rights advocates, scientists, philosophers, mystics, healers, ministers, telepathic pet owners. What they share is a compassionate, humble relationship with all organisms on planet Earth. They reject the anthropocentric society for a biocentric one, regarding nature’s many ‘parts’ not as objects, but as relations–extended family, neighbors, each with a unique gift. The animals deserve our empathy, our compassion, and our ear, but that doesn’t mean they talk to us in English. Nor are they human beings in animal suits.

Some who hold this biocentric view contend that interspecies communication is far more common in nature than biology warrants. Whether it occurs at any given moment has less to do with intelligence than with timing and sensitivity. It depends on how willing we are, as individuals and as a culture, to seek out the unknown, push beyond the quantifiable, and adopt new, ethically based ways for studying the possibilities. Orthodox scientists say this view of interspecies communication reeks of anthropomorphism. But perhaps this criticism is a handy obfuscation that serves to uphold the dogma that keeps humans above and separate from the rest of nature. Transparent communication is nurtured best in an atmosphere of mutual respect; if that means ‘attributing human characteristics to an animal,’ then so be it. Those who hold this alternate view are not unscientific; they stretch the concept of science. While scientists work to keep data free of personal interjection, interspecies communicators have goals that are experiential, ethical, and shamanic. By reporting back to the greater culture, they hope to reconnect ethos to mythos, culture to nature. In so many ways, the difference between the scientific and the experiential approaches to interspecies communication is best understood as a distinction of kind rather than degree.

Our society must learn that the prevailing ‘separate but not equal’ worldview espoused by anthropocentrism is killing the planet and us along with it. The millennia-old oral history of the Kalahari Desert bushmen reveals many instances of animals mauling or trampling humans, but not one instance of a lion killing a person or a person killing a lion. In the 1950s, Western anthropologists visiting the area noted the eyes of many lions glowing just beyond the cooking fire; the animals would cease their roaring when a bushman hunter sauntered off to the edge of camp and asked them to keep the noise down so the children could sleep. Human and lion shared a watering hole, one using it by day and the other by night.

This peaceful coexistence changed when ranching was introduced and cattle began to share the watering hole without regard to schedules. At first lions kept their distance, as if cattle were an extension of the human family. But eventually they attacked. Ranchers reciprocated by shooting the lions, and within a few years lions had killed several bushmen.

An ecological transformation is slowly settling over our lives, affecting all aspects of culture, including economics, politics, community, education, consumption, even religion. A biocentric vision, one that embraces interspecies communication, can help guide this process. Although it seems wildly revolutionary to some, it is mild in practice. It mostly insists that we start meeting nature halfway. Before we meet up with an animal as species, we have to open up to that animal as an individual. It is communion rather than data that finally reveals itself as the basis of a new worldview.

Jim Nollman is director of Interspecies Communication Inc. and author of The Charged Border: Where Human Nature Meets Whales and Dolphins, which Henry Holt will publish in early 1999. Portions of this essay originally appeared in Orion magazine and The Interspecies Newsletter.

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