Under the bright lights, Toby’s sweat seemed to make his skin glow. The tent was hot, almost baking. Londoners had crammed the small space to see him perform, but he didn’t seem interested. Instead, he turned his head from side-to-side in what could either be boredom or nervousness. If any members of the audience were still entertaining thoughts about eating him, then they were in for a rude shock. Toby the Sapient Pig was to prove to be smarter than most of their children, if not themselves. There was a hush as Nicholas Hoare, illusionist and professional pig trainer, took to the stage.
“Hwhhatt is your name?” he asked, and Toby introduced himself by way of hoof and voice, oinking his way into the hearts of millions.
Before he was exposed as a scam, Toby was one of many in a long line of animals bred by wishful thinking and clever training rather than actual language skills. But just like famous singers caught lip-syncing, regardless of actual skill ‘Pigs of Knowledge’ were still incredibly popular – some performed for royalty. Posters of the time even claimed the pigs could read a person’s thoughts.
Even before Toby, humans have been preoccupied with the notion that animals just really want to talk to us. This conceit is justified in some cases, at least now that we know adult cats don’t actually meow at each other, just at people – though that’s more likely to be manipulation than communication. But some people back in 1817 even believed that Java sparrows could learn seven languages, including Chinese and Russian.
Thankfully we’re a lot smarter now, and wouldn’t fall for anything like that.
Communicating with your pets through the help of Animal Telepathy has all the sincerity and well-meaning of After the Rapture pet sitting. According to the Animal Telepathy website, “just by speaking with the owner, a direct telepathic connection can be made to that exact animal”. Despite the fact that their logo looks like a woman ejaculating from her forehead onto a pigeon, Animal Telepathy is a serious business, with practitioners able to even commune with dead animals across the phone.
For those whose pets are alive and not possessed, you might wish to try BowLingual. Made by Japanese company Takara, BowLingual claims to be able to translate barks into one of two hundred phrases, with the aim of being an “emotion analyser”.
Developed with a little less faith and a bit more science is the ‘Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry’ (CHAT) device – because talking to dolphins is so much more interesting than dogs. Doctor Denise Herzing, head of the Wild Dolphin Project, has been testing her translation interface on a pod of dolphins she’s been tracking for twenty-five years.
The idea of dolphin communication was popularised by Doctor John Lilly, and while his methods were rigorous, they weren’t exactly scientific. He once flooded a house to keep a captive dolphin, tried and failed to teach dolphins spoken English, and even gave them LSD (while also taking it himself). In contrast, Dr. Herzing simply uses a pair of hydrophones (underwater microphones) to capture the range of clicks and whistles made by dolphins. This technology has been successful in the wild, with a bottlenose dolphin pointing out a piece of nearby seaweed to a scientist in the water. However, when it comes to animal language, this is just the surface.
The communication methods of animals are even more broad and rich than our own. Besides the cacophony of sounds that we hear, animal language can be made up of every sense that we possess (and some that we don’t). Whales have sonar; lizards bob their heads up and down; squid change the colour of their skin cells. There’s the smell of skunks and the odour plumes of bees. In amongst all this, it’s not simply that we’re lacking a common tongue; it’s as if we’re lacking a tongue in the first place.
Because of this, we’ve naturally been drawn to talking parrots. Stories like that of Alex, the African grey parrot, whose last words to his owner were “You be good. See you tomorrow. I love you” are touching, but don’t go far enough to indicate whether or not this is genuine communication. While dolphins and chimps are often seen as having the cognitive ability for complex language, it turns out that the key to understanding animal conversation comes from an unexpectedly cute source.
Though looking far more like meerkats than canines, prairie dogs have a complex and descriptive language that enables them to distinguish between predators and humans, and even what colour clothes they’re wearing. For the past thirty years, Professor Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University has been studying prairie dog language and behaviour, hoping that decoding the speech patterns of these animals will give us greater scope to understanding our own pets.
Slobodchikoff told Minneapolis’s The Current radio how:
We could potentially have something maybe the size of a cellphone in five to ten years where a dog would say, ‘Woof’, and the device would say, ‘I want to eat chicken tonight’; or a cat could say, ‘Meow’, and the device would say, ‘My litterbox is filthy, please clean it.’
As convenient and entertaining as such a device would be, the main justifications behind animal translation and research seem more to do with empathy and furthering awareness of our world than with finding out why pets are so weird. Knowing that creatures are capable of complex thought has the potential to change how we interact with them – perhaps even to go as far as to not eat them.
Once we go beyond the myths and inaccurate stereotypes (goldfish and three-second memory; old dogs new tricks), we will be able to have greater compassion and understanding. For the same reasons why we should try and preserve dying languages, the importance of studying animal language lies in its ability to provide a vast wealth of environmental awareness that we might otherwise never be able to know.
However, even if we were able to crack the codes of animal speech and use the same methods of communication, there’s a strong chance that the rigorous order we’ve imposed to make language something workable might not even apply to the animal kingdom. The problem is, as always, our metrics for understanding things. What we are doing is the equivalent of looking at an alien’s body and trying to work out where the lungs, liver and heart are.
Animal language not only takes forms that are different to ours, but the very things that make up language, things we take for granted like letters then words then sentences, may be entirely different or even not present at all.
Rafael S. W. is a graduate of creative writing and one of the founding members of Dead Poets’ Fight Club. He has been published in Voiceworks, Going Down Swinging and Dot Dot Dash. He also competes in poetry slams and giant-sized chess games.