Got into a discussion yesterday about whether humans can communicate with animals. I think we can (and do), but it’s not going to be a language based communication as we know it, as we humans think of communication. I think it requires the willingness to begin again — not easy for us humans. My friend disagreed adamantly, but that’s OK. Animal/human communication has to be between equals, nobody studying anybody, just learning, but not learning as scientists study, examine, test, but the real thing, motivated by curiosity and receptivity.
I’ve lived with more animals than I have lived with people. Dogs are special because they’ve adapted to our use of language. My mom used to say “It’s not the words; it’s the sound of your voice.” She was right, but even the words or sounds don’t seem to say as much to my dogs as “I” do in a way I’m not fully conscious of.
My best teacher in this area was Brownie T. Horse. Until I met him, I’d had nothing but bad experiences with horses. Still, I liked them. It’s just that they’re big and, for various reasons (good horse reasons), all the horses I’d known until then had an axe to grind against me. Horses have deep feelings and are beings of action.
Brownie came to live with my next-door neighbors in Descanso, a cowboy and his wife and three kids. Brownie shared a fence with me. Brownie was determined to make friends, and I liked having a horse — a small horse — so close to me. The first morning I couldn’t believe my eyes that there was a horse virtually in my yard. Brownie was trying to figure things out. That evening on my way home from school I bought carrots. As I was going into my house, I gave one to Brownie. Brownie understood that carrot in exactly the way I meant it — a gesture of goodwill and me saying, “I like you. I’m glad you’re here.”
I spent as much time with Brownie as I could. After a while I understood his language pretty well, and I understood that he was depending on me — not just for carrots but for companionship. My dogs, too. Brownie made friends with Dusty and Lily.
When it was time for me to get up in the morning, Brownie pawed the ground and nickered. When I came home from school Brownie pawed the ground, nickered and kind of danced in his little pen. Because I had the opportunity to get to KNOW him I understood all this as I wouldn’t have before. Sometimes I just stood in front of him, a five foot fence between us, and he hung his head over the fence while I stroked his nose until his eyes closed and he sighed in peace and pleasure. I don’t think I ever “talked” to Brownie, and I certainly never told him to do anything. If I walked past his house he walked “with” me as far as his pen would let him. He knew I loved him and he returned it.
I’m convinced — after knowing Brownie — that human and animal communication is mind-to-mind and body language. Not only my experiences with Brownie (and dogs) led me to this, but watching Brownie’s owner with him.
Andy has been a cowboy all his life. Before he was going to put his little kids on Brownie, he wanted to get to know him. He put a halter on Brownie, saddled him and took him into the yard. I do not know what Andy actually DID but in the space of three or four minutes he knew exactly who Brownie was, how gentle and how kind. I watched this, enthralled. I said something to Andy and he just said, “I’ve been around horses all my life.” He and Brownie were clearly talking to each other. Here’s part of the conversation:
A lot of other things happened over that time, and from it I took the lesson that communicating with animals required communicating goodwill and familiarity. I thought of the wild animals I’d “known” and realized that there had been communication — between me and the hawks, between me and small herds of deer, between me and the mountain lion there had been familiarity. They knew me from having seen me countless times. We shared a world and my habits were predictable enough that they could count on where I would be at a certain time of day. I wouldn’t have seen the lion (August 4, 2004, 6:30 pm) if I hadn’t changed my routine just one time. When I did? She calmly let me pass her and go my way. “Ah, it’s you. OK.”
I have a lot of stories, but all of them based on familiarity and regularity. My dogs, also, want a routine, the certainty of that. It’s how they — we? — know all is well. I was thinking about that and the pandemic. I wonder if some of that hysteria was just because everyone’s routines were upended, leaving them frightened and insecure.
Now is the quiet time in the Big Empty. The deer and elk are here. Very few big birds are here to stay, only the small ones who never leave. Yesterday I looked again in wonderment at the tracks of my deers (ha ha) as they made their way through the tall grass and reeds to their favorite sleeping places. I may never see them, but it’s OK. I tried to take a photo of their track and bed. It’s the featured photo.
The three of us are almost always alone out there. Bear has learned, finally, the cues that mean “We’re going!” I think she learned them from watching Teddy after I made a change in the restraint I use when I walk him. Now she wants me to catch her so she can go. Teddy has learned (from me and from Bear) how to walk beside me so that Bear can smell things. No treats or clickers or anything involved in this. I speak to my dogs in a very soft voice when I want them to do something. Why? Because Bear (and livestock guardian dogs in general) don’t respond well to loud voices or loud sounds. She taught me this when she was a puppy.
Ravens! Two of them are hanging out at the Refuge now. They’re so smart — I call out to them, “Hi Rave!” NOW, because they’ve seen me often, they fly over us and call out. It’s so cool. Not all animals are “non-verbal.” 🙂
There’s nothing new here, I know. I just think if we humans could drop our reliance on words once in a while and approach each other with goodwill and dependability, we might get somewhere.
Sorry. Triple just didn’t find its way into my post. 😦
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