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Animals speak, let's listen

Posted: November 15, 2012 - 1:12am  |  Updated: November 15, 2012 - 4:59pm

News that an elephant in a Korean zoo devised a clever way to mimic human speech recently drew international media attention. His ingenious feat consists of contorting his trunk and folding it back into his mouth to allow him to utter human words, something that can only have taken thought and experimentation.

The elephant has clearly studied his keepers’ directions and conversations and is working hammer and tongs to get them to pay attention to him. It doesn’t take an interspecies translator to understand that while this lonely fellow is saying, “Sit down” or “Hello,” in Korean, in the universal language of friendship and empathy his message is, “I’m here. Acknowledge me.” After all, what individual held in captivity does not pine for family and freedom?

This large, gray, intelligent being has gone a step further than Nim Chimpsky, the famous ape who had been taught American Sign Language, and who astounded Carl Sagan by signing, “Let me out.” And a step further than the bored beluga whale in a San Diego facility who so convincingly mimicked human speech by ordering a diver to “get out” of his tank that the diver thought his colleagues were playing a joke on him.

People often remark that animals don’t have a voice, but of course they do, even aside from their painstaking mimicry of our words. They “speak” all the time, especially to each other. The problem is that we do not hear them, we find their noises annoying or we do not care to listen or answer.

The other species put us to shame with their multilingual talents.

Elephants rumble subsonically to warn other elephants a mile away of the approach of armed poachers. Empirical evidence on the brain power of elephants has led scientists to start developing an actual dictionary of elephant language. Not only rumbling, but purring, trumpeting, screaming, humming — all these vocalizations have specific and significant meanings. When baby elephants are lassoed and dragged from their frantic mothers to be beaten and their spirits broken for the circus, their keepers report that the newly captured babies have nightmares and cry out in their sleep.

But it is certainly not just elephants. Studies show that dogs pay such close attention to those who have domesticated them and who control their ability even to get a drink of water or relieve themselves that they know, on average, 200 human words without being taught a single one. Dogs whimper when they are yanked by the leash just for stopping to sniff something interesting, and fish gasp when impaled on a hook — actions that should lead us to conclude that they are expressing distress.

Anyone who has lived with a cat instantly knows the difference between a mew that says, “Get out of bed — I want my breakfast,” a chattering sound that relays the message that a squirrel has been sighted and the miserable wail indicating that a toe has accidentally been stepped on.

What sounds like clicks and whistles to us is actually a complex and sophisticated language shared by dolphins, according to a recent study. As acoustics engineer Jack Kassewitz put it, “I feel certain that dolphins would love the chance to speak with us — if for no other reason than self-preservation.”

Not only do ravens talk to each other, field observers have also found that these intelligent birds use their beaks and wings to make gestures. Why does this matter? Before they learn how to talk, human babies point and use gestures to get or direct attention — an essential precursor to learning how to speak. This is the first time researchers have seen gestures used in the wild by animals other than primates.

In one field study, researchers found that wild parrots use unique calls to name their babies, who are then instantly identifiable. When hearing a name called, other parrots can distinguish gender as well as the mate and family that the parrot belongs to, just as we can when someone calls for “Mrs. John Smith.”

Animals’ voices are no less real than our own. Is the agonized wail of a bull being stabbed in a bullfighting ring any less anguished than that of a human victim dying in an alley?

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