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March 12, 2008


Growing up on a farm, I honestly never believed anything else. Once you watch mother cows with their calves, or sows with piglets, or mares with foals, it is evident that they are able to communicate with one another freely.

I had a show calf when I was about thirteen years old, my first. He was a black limousin steer. I gave him the original and unique name of Blackie. That steer could speak to me with his eyes.

Our horses never stop telling me to be on the lookout for lions.

Krista Tippett's wonderful public radio show, Speaking of Faith, recently devoted an episode to animal communication through an extensive interview with Katy Payne, acoustic biologist and Quaker. You might be interested in it: http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/whalesongs/index.shtml

When it comes to household pets I'm actually much more attuned to the gulf between our values. As far as I can tell the dogs are just waiting for the house to burn down and the kibble to run out so that we can all go hunting in the hills. And a dog is just no help when you are lost driving in Colorado.

Bill, along those lines, I liked today's quote of the day in the Montreal Gazette: "Cats are smarter than dogs. You can't get eight cats to pull a sled through snow."

I guess my point is that I am expecting help from a dog. A cat even!

Well. How interesting. I'm totally with you, Beth. And scurried off to locate my favourite such story which involved a parrot called N'kisi which seems to have "psychic" as well as more "conventional" communicative abilities. I spoke about this story with a science-community friend who said it was tragic because the scientist in question, Rupert Sheldrake, is widely seen to be a bit of a loony and although it seems probable that the parrot has genuinely interesting abilities nobody else will go near either it or the research with a ten-foot pole in order to avoid also being tarred as a loony.

But... the BBC story has disappeared. I discovered this having clicked on the link in this story at Skepdic.

I am, as is probably evident, quite happy to be called a loony :-)

Oh, and there's this on the same topic at languagehat.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio... etc etc

This month's National Geographic has an article on animal minds:


One day humanity will wake up enough to realize that animals are indeed sentient beings. ...and shame on us for all we've done in our arrogance and ignorance.

Nesting crows build nests together; if I remember right usually one of the pair is the main builder and the other brings materials. Our crow (the one who couldn't fly and lived in our apple tree) was trying to build a nest one time, but not having much luck -- having lived so much away from other crows he'd never learned how to do it. So he was trying to stack up the sticks on an apple bough, but they kept falling off. Martha picked one up to hand it back to him, and he took it, but looked a bit distressed, and made a very peculiar sound, a trailing-off "ooo...."

Which Martha interpreted as, "Oh, uh, I like you, but, like, not in *that* way..."

I have many stories about animal communication, and interspecies friendship, and I don't care who calls me a loony. I had a horse who had a magpie as a friend. The magpie lived with my horse for about two years, sleeping on his back, eating alongside him, and playing games with him. He disappeared abruptly, and I assume a coyote got him or something. He had clearly been domesticated once, because he was not afraid of humans. A different horse played a kind of hide-and-seek/chase game on multiple occasions with a wild pheasant who lived on our land. They would challenge and chase and stalk each other. My horse was always careful not to hurt the pheasant.

I am not afraid of rattlesnakes, and they are numerous around here. I walk in their territory frequently, and I believe that they know I have no ill intent towards them. I rarely see them, mainly because they are shy and slip away if they hear me coming, but on the occasions that I have seen them we have passed each other peacefully. Others have told me that rattlesnakes have acted aggressively towards them, but they've all been afraid of snakes (When riding, horses will tell you about rattlesnakes, as they will tell you about lions.)

Many many crows used to live in a huge birch tree outside my condo. A couple of years ago a young one fell from the tree and eventually died. Two older crows communicated with him for hours, and clearly were grieving. I've realized recently that there are no crows in the tree any more, and I know that West Nile Virus has been discovered in the area, so I don't know if they have all died from West Nile Virus, or if they left for some other reason. But I know they communicate and have feelings and grieve.

My first dog, a Jack Russell terrier, used to read my mind. If she was in another room and I thought, "Where's Betsy?" she'd show up, without fail. She just knew, somehow, that I was looking for her.

People who think animals aren't sentient and can't communicate infuriate me. Thanks for this post.

And, rr, in response to your comment, I clicked on the link and checked out N'kisi. I listened to that audio tape without looking at the transcript and had no problem figuring out what N'kisi was saying, except that I thought that the two most intelligible speakers were human and the parrot was mostly whistling and sometimes saying "square." When I read the transcript and realized that one of the speakers was in fact the parrot, according to the transcript, I was amazed. I was also shocked that the person trying to debunk the parrot's abilities thought what N'Kisi was saying was unintelligible. Maybe he has hearing problems!

BTW, Dr Pepperberg's parrot, Alex, is mentioned in the National Geographic article. I think some scientists are starting to see sense, finally.

In my household we raise only mounds of junk, which communicate clearly that These People Don't Have Their Act Together. A friend of ours, however, has a miniature Sheltie that hears something in her voice and starts barking loudly the instant before she says "goodbye" to end a phone call. Scientifically minded, we're not inclined to say the dog is psychic (psycho, maybe), but we've never figured out exactly what it she does to set him off. Besides, it doesn't really matter: She's communicating, whatever it is she does. What the dog is trying to say is another matter, though.

I'm not sure how much possibility there is for communication, but whenever I see, in my apartment, jumping spiders, with their big, surprised eyes, I have to think that they are aware of something that I have yet to comprehend. They always seem to live in amazement of the world, every moment of their lives. Perhaps sentience goes deeper with superlative abilities to sense the universe. I mean doesn't sentience revolve around perception? Look how many of us are totally oblivious to the world around us...

The summer I was 17 I went to a boarding school in New England and studied philosophy with a teacher who had brought his goats and his dog to campus for the summer. We sometimes went to talk with him when he milked the goats and one of those evenings, when I was feeling completely unhappy--I was 17, I was not dating yet, I had just lost my felt sense of God and was full of self pity and also miserably out of place--the dog which was a black and white animal perhaps part border collie part setter, came over to me where I was sitting (in memory it was on a bale of hay) and just looked into my face and let me stroke her back and I was absolutely sure she knew my aching need, had chosen to offer me her companionable warmth for that wonderful moment. I have forgotten the particulars of my own pain completely but I remember her eyes and my gratitude.

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.