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There's Somebody In There
by Jan Sand
2007-05-12 10:39:37
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A good many of us grow up with an inherent feeling that animals are just funny shaped people. Walt Disney made his fortune capitalizing on that sense but it certainly is not a novel human emotion. I'm sure it started way before Aesop and it has roots deep within Native American lore. Some of the primitives (and I use the term with a great deal of respect) went overboard and invested personalities in rocks and trees and weather phenomena but I never rejected the concept that humans are not all that different from what some term the lower species but that I feel are fellow travelers in time and space with many of the abilities and mental coherences that quite a few humans arrogate to themselves alone.

As a child I tried to maintain relationships successively with a pair of goldfish, a few families of white rats, a couple of turtles, a salamander, a very feisty mongrel dog, several varieties of tropical fish, three or four cats named Lizzy, and very briefly a praying mantis, a juvenal sparrow and a pigeon. They each had individual personalities even from those of their own species and reacted logically and agreeably to my attentions. I could not help but see them as, in their own way, fellow citizens of the world and I democratically accorded them whatever rights were within my power to grant and they reacted appropriately.

Interspecies communication is not an easy business since our means are not always equivalent. I learned to bark like a dog, make cat noises that seemed to be accepted, but my rats did not pay too much attention to my squeals and the turtles and salamander seemed to be totally outside my communicative ability.

I had a large pair of angelfish and they were rather attentive to my appropriate mouth movements, which were the only gestures that seemed to fit the circumstances. The praying mantis would attentively turn her head to watch my approaches but since she was not capable of facial expression, she was something of a mystery. If she had had acrobatic eyebrows like Groucho Marx or Brezhnev, it would have helped.

Gestures, of course, are an intrinsic part of the business and a lolling tongue and a wagging tail are essentials in the canine world. Devoid of a tail, I was something of a cripple in the business, but a general swishing of the buttocks sometimes proved effective. Both cats and dogs and even birds blink to indicate friendliness and extreme approval in dogs is signified by enthusiastic panting and occasional sneezing, acts which came easily to me although, when performed in public, I frequently was the receptionist of curious glances.

I never reached the symbolic clarity of Dr. Doolittle but I believe I have made a few successful significant linguistic incursions.

To get to the core of the matter, I have recently been gratified to read reports that dogs have been observed to learn by observing the actions of other dogs and even modifying their behavior in a thoughtful and rational manner (See here). Furthermore, crows that have, at maximum, brains the size of walnuts have been rated as intelligent as our near relatives the great apes. (See here).

Since brain size may not be totally relevant in gauging intellect these findings indicate some leeway in that type of judgment.

When I became aware of how unfeelingly we treat our fellow creatures I read of attempts by behavioral scientists to play down their consciousness and the scientific sneers these guys displayed about people who were concerned decent treatment of other animals. These latest findings indicated to me that I was not too far off base in extending compassion to mistreated dogs, horses, birds, cows, elephants, pigs, etc.

So I was cheered by an article at Counterpunch.org, which indicated that a few courageous guys had gotten away.

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