“If we could talk to the animals, learn their languages,
maybe take an animal degree.” – Leslie Bricusse (from Dr. Dolittle)
The 1967 film of Hugh Lofting’s children’s book Dr. Dolittle isn’t a very good film, but I like the sentiment expressed in this Oscar-winning song.
Anyone can learn to talk to animals. I mean other animals BESIDES humans. It’s not all woo-woo psychic stuff, or even as complicated as it is made to look on tv shows like Dog Whisperer. All that is required is to first observe carefully how the animals behave in communicating with each other. Step 2 is to BE GENTLE in approach while trying to bridge the gap between how they communicate with each other, and how we do. Step 3 is to supply positive reinforcement when any success occurs in your attempts to communicate. You should give the animal some reward THEY value. Because land mammals share many common interests and behaviors, it is easy for us to “talk” with other mammals such as cats, dogs, gerbils and livestock. It’s not so difficult to “talk” with water mammals either (dolphins, whales, sea lions), though it is harder to access their territory.
Because she wasn’t in the “in crowd” of zoological academics, but was instead a field researcher, Jane Goodall was able to do just what I’m talking about. She spent a lot of time observing what chimpanzees in the wild do, and what they care about. Then she slooowwwly approached their territory, imitated their behaviors and reinforced them for contact with her by doing things that chimps like, such as grooming. Her ability to be accepted into chimpanzee groups lead to groundbreaking research, shifting the paradigms of how we view intelligence in apes and humans.
Scientific observers aren’t the only contributors to this knowledge. It is a common part of the legends of holy persons (in all great religions) that animals will allow them to be close, and act gently. Francis of Assisi is one of my favorites. Here is a version of The Story of the Wolf of Gubbio:
When Francis was living in Gubbio, a wolf began attacking. First he assaulted livestock, then people. All who attempted to destroy it were devoured. Francis went to meet the wolf with a group of followers. When the wolf rushed at them the followers retreated to a distance, but Francis remained still, making the sign of the cross and speaking with the wolf. The followers report Francis’ encounter:
“Brother wolf, thou hast done much evil in this land, destroying and killing the creatures of God without his permission; yea, not animals only hast thou destroyed, but thou hast even dared to devour men, made after the image of God; for which thing thou art worthy of being hanged like a robber and a murderer. All men cry out against thee, the dogs pursue thee, and all the inhabitants of this city are thy enemies; but I will make peace between them and thee.”
The wolf bowed its head and submitted to Francis, completely at his mercy.
“As thou art willing to make this peace, I promise thee that thou shalt be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land so long as thou shalt live among them; thou shalt no longer suffer hunger, as it is hunger which has made thee do so much evil; but if I obtain all this for thee, thou must promise, on thy side, never again to attack any animal or any human being; dost thou make this promise?”
In agreement, the wolf placed one of its forepaws in Francis’ outstretched hand, and the oath was made. The wolf lived two more years in Gubbio, going from home to home for sustenance. At its death the city was saddened, for even though it had slain many it had also become a symbol of the sanctity of Francis, and of the power of God. - THE END -
I’m not convinced the wolf was paying much attention to the subtleties of Francis’ sermon, but the rest of the story fits what I’m talking about. Wild animals attack when hungry. They can be approached (sometimes) with gentleness, despite threat displays. Some can be tamed by feeding. Wolves aren’t so far removed from dogs, and it’s easy to get along with dogs. Every dog I know does that paw-handshake thing. That would qualify as a reinforcement.
In the NEXT POST I will share a story about the time I PETTED A WHALE.