He comes walking along the path, licking his lips and I look at him as he looks at me and as he catches my eye he gives me that quizzical look.
Wishful thinking. So I ask him, pointedly:
“What did you just eat?”
He looks at me, still licking his lips. Says nothing. I turn around and keep walking. Of course he says nothing. He doesn’t talk. The reason he doesn’t talk is because he can’t talk: he’s a dog. My dog, and a smart standard poodle dog, but a dog nevertheless.
Contrary to the growing cadre of animal communicators having fireside chats with countless critters and the explosion of videos on YouTube that show all sorts of animals talking in mostly English let’s be crystal clear here: animals do not talk. What they seem to do is convey information to each other and to others in the vicinity, although vicinity is relative since sound and vibration that we can’t hear is transmitted over a fair number of kilometres, and underwater too. So while we talk, animals communicate.
As an aside, if you do not believe that animals communicate, might I suggest spending time with an open mind to check the last few years of scientific research?
Beyond communication, some species seem to exhibit behaviours that we interpret as reasoning, problem solving, happiness, fear, boredom, contentment. There is now serious credence being given to the notion of animal suicide. Some like to play games. Some are in the business of prediction — that famous octopus, for example. Some can use sign language and are teaching their offspring to sign. It’s not that researchers are humanizing animals; it’s more that researchers are not taking received wisdom as gospel any longer to bias their perspectives. Which is not to say that their perspectives can’t be biased in other ways.
So the evidence is fairly straightforward: animals cannot talk, use words the way we do. And why would they want to? Words so get in the way some days. Curiously, knowing that does not seem to stop me from behaving as if they do. The truth is that in addition to many hand gestures, kneeling down to their level for some one-on-one cuddle time, I regularly talk with my both of my dogs and ignore the look that passes between them when I do.
I ask them what did you just do? Or I tell them please walk on the boulevard and not on the lawns. Or we’re going out the front door, not the back door. Or some particularly exciting things to them seem to be would you like to go in the car? and which cookie would you like? and guess who’s coming over? When I ask them to walk on the boulevard, they do. They seem to know the difference between the front and back entrances. They make a choice of which dog cookie. They never guess who’s coming over.
And every day, it seems they find a way to let me know what they want and how they’re doing without speaking my language.
Big poodle does ‘speak’, making sounds that people in the dog park say they have never heard a poodle make. He makes ‘gestures’ too. And uses his paws to indicate what things he would like. Little dog is a quiet but persistent communicator. Big yellow bird is full of words and sounds that he’s learned, but I can’t say he knows what they are. At the same time, he’s quite capable of letting me know what he wants, or needs, including his need to be grumpy at times. I would say how human of him, but that’s a silly thing to say. We’re all of the animal kingdom, and some of us are grumpy.
The question about what’s so special about us, what distinguishes us from other animals is not what it used to be: other animals use tools, some seem to take pleasure in non-procreative sex, some are good at solving problems, some are bullies, and there are ranges of personalities within groups and tribes. Perhaps the difference between homo sapiens and others might best be a question placed within the realm of ethics and philosophy rather than the physical sciences. Or perhaps it’s the wrong question entirely. In some instances, there aren’t any discernible differences.
When I was a kid and full of kid logic, I thought Dr. Doolittle could be a true story. I wanted it to be, talking to animals would be cool. I thought superheros were real and that I could grow up to talk to the animals and have some special power, that I could somehow get pointy ears, and work on a starship in space and never come back to earth and along the way, become a superhero too. Other times I wanted to be a robot and spend my time wondering what it was like to be human.
Then I grew up. I had to face the truth: animals do not talk to humans. Not only that, they don’t talk at all. I would never be a robot, superheroes are all only children and orphans or aliens, and I would never qualify. I wouldn’t have pointy ears and superior logic no matter how hard I tried. I would never travel on a starship. Yet out of some rebellious petulance, I didn’t abandon all that my child self believed. I figured that adults might be wrong. In fact, I desperately wanted them to be wrong about everything because I knew in my heart of hearts that it is possible to know things that people don’t say out loud; it is possible to have pointy ears and not be burdened by silly emotions and it is possible that animals are not dumb, unfeeling, unknowing, creatures. It is possible.
To my kid mind, there was no way that adults — mostly teachers — were right when they said animals, including fish, do not feel pain, and animals do not experience what we would say is fear, or contentment, or fun and play. No way: adults were wrong, wrong, wrong a gazillion times, flat-out and plainly wrong. No one could convince me otherwise, which was no mean feat given that each of my parents were born under the very stubborn sign of Taurus, the Bull, although secretly, my mother, who went through life with her own special brand of kid logic, supported my belief about animals.
And science is finding stuff, too: seems kids can understand dogs better than adults can. Vocalizations of other animals are being studied as well and raising questions about what it is that we believe about our fellow creatures. We now know fish do feel pain when they’re hooked.
Of course, learning more about all the different creatures in the world won’t necessarily translate into more humane behaviour and treatment by us: agribusiness and the meat, fowl and fish industries and outsourcing of some things is leading to practices that I can’t think about without ending up in tears. And it’s growing. Let us not speak of that.
Let us not speak either of our fellow humans, those people whose brains lack something called sensitivity or empathy, or common decency sometimes result in strange and horrific cruelties: like those two men in British Columbia who purposefully starved, then hung a horse. (Which is not to say that there aren’t people who do strange and horrific things to other people, but that’s out of scope for this post.)
I wish I had a wand. I wish I had a wish that would end all of that cruelty and deprivation. Now. For all creatures including human creatures, including the living, breathing planet. Are we not all in this together?
These days, as winter steps in to take over from fall, I am making a big space for my kid self with her stubborn wish for magic. The magic to make bad things go away, to fly with the birds and ride with the unicorns and step into a time machine, an invisible cloak in my purse just in case, and land somewhere to sit for a while and have tea with my mother, wherever she is, who will say, “Nice ears” when she notices that my ears are pointed, and we’ll laugh at something silly and maybe we’ll talk. I’ll tell her how the last few years have been. Maybe my father will wander over for tea too, and he’ll tell us more stories that I once called lies, but would now say are just not true.
Allie the little red poodle will come running full speed from the rainbow bridge, all happy to see me, and ask me to take back a special word to a special someone and of course I will. From there, I’ll step into a starship and gain some very cool superpower when a star goes nova right in front of us, and that superpower means I can help people and creatures when they need it, and then go back to my quiet, unassuming life in a neighbourhood filled with lots of other superheroes.
Then, when that wishful thinking — that dream — comes to an end, I’ll sit cuddled up and close, and have another sip of wishfulness, not thinking about time, place, space; feeling the magic of life and heartbeats and breath as I listen to my dogs and my bird tell me about their day in their very own language that I, as one who carries on with Dr. Dolittle’s methods, actually and instantly understand. And I will be content with that magic, too.
Tweety did not wish to pose for the camera. We used a stand-in: