Do you remember a long ago movie in which Dr. Doolittle, an eccentric veterinarian who talked to the animals, was played by Rex Harrison? It was funny then, and charming. And what a great name for a German Shepherd!
Thanks to Disney, and a few other film-makers, we have grown accustomed to hearing animals speak. In English, of course. In other, less parochial countries, they might converse in French or German, or Russian, or all three. Probably not in Chinese, as the known Chinese relationship with animals is pretty “problematical.” In truth, all countries have “problematical” relationships with animals. Even as you read these words, there is not one country on Earth where animals are not suffering some atrocity at the hands of human beings.
We are no closer to speaking dog or wildebeest or bird or giraffe than we ever were, and many species will become extinct before we ever do learn much about them. We have learned nothing because we have enshrined our ignorance as evidence of our superiority over animals, and we really do not want to see any evidence to the contrary. We have, for example, poisoned and tortured dogs for decades in laboratories, in the name of science, a travesty which has taught us very little about human bodies, and nothing useful about the dogs themselves.
We don’t know how it is that dogs can read our minds, even our intentions, or how they know more about our bodies than we do. How do they recognize cancers and oncoming seizures, nightmares, and suicide? They show us where the drugs are hidden, and the explosives. They rescue babies and kittens from burning houses. They attack the bad guys and take a bullet for their masters, and die of heatstroke in patrol cars because their handlers forget they were there. They are smart and brave, and they are deserving of our study and understanding. We have given them the status of things, and protect them with property laws.
On average, our untutored dogs have a human language vocabulary of 165 words. Some breeds of dogs are a lot better at words than others. A Wofford psychologist taught his dog Chaser, a Border Collie, more than 2,000 words. Border Collies, Dobermans, Golden Retrievers, Poodles are the English majors among dogs. In the vast resources of Muttdom, however, anything is possible.
We talk to the dogs, but we don’t listen. We know how we learn language from each other, but we do not make the effort to learn from dogs and cats, or dolphins and whales, or cows and sheep, or apes and orangutans. They do have voices. They understand each other.
Years ago, thirty or maybe forty, there was a flurry of interest in our capacity for mental telepathy. There was some evidence that it might be possible for certain gifted individuals. Not much chance for the rest of us. I don’t remember any discussion at the time that it was entirely possible for any number of pet dogs and cats to know when their persons were about to arrive home from whatever distance in time and space.
I suspect that all mammals, except humans, communicate with each other by some kind of mental telepathy, both sending and receiving, and perhaps other animals and insects do as well. This notion cannot be proved, or disproved for that matter. It is perhaps one of those jokes that gods like to play on men, a missing synapse for religion makers.
The Jewish god, as imagined in the Bible, gave man “dominion over all the animals” and a fear of snakes, entirely appropriate for desert herdsmen who didn’t encounter many exotic animals, but did see a fair number of snakes. That “dominion” business, however, has proven to be a really bad idea for all living things. Combined with property rights and greed, it has brought us now, all of us, to the brink of destruction.
Animals without owners, feral cats and stray dogs, wild horses, bears in garbage, deer on lawns, Canada geese that don’t fly away, wolves who don’t stay in the park become the property of whatever government agency wants to do away with them as nuisances. Animals with bad owners have no real protection under our laws, owners who are only occasionally charged and brought to court, and even more rarely, heard by a judge who cares. There is some dark humor, but no comfort, in realizing that the starving, flea-infested Pit Bull that spends his whole life on the chain at the back of the lot is superior in character, intelligence, and talent to the human who owns him. And to the politicians who work to keep him right there.
Talk to the animals.
Jay Booth is a retired university professor, a retired newspaper columnist, and the president of the Newberry County Humane Society.