Along the Fraser: You can talk to animals if you listen

Pay attention and you can communicate with creatures who are wiser than you think

“If I could talk to the animals, just imagine it…what a neat achievement that would be.” –  Dr. Doolittle.

In the 1967 movie, Dr. Doolittle discovers that animals can talk. With the help of Polynesia, his parrot, he learns 200 creature tongues, a neat achievement with awesome responsibility. Hearing from the horse’s mouth that intelligent animals are exploited and mistreated made Doolittle an early animal rights activist. He set out to convince people that all creatures deserve respect and kindness.

I endorse that aim because of meaningful chats – albeit non-verbal – with cats and dogs I’ve lived with. I whistle, or cluck in fields to horses who whinny back.

Once, (true story) I mind-linked with a fruit bat in my big sister’s back yard in Parksville. She swore the big dark thing in the night sky was a bird. I love it when she challenges me. I convinced the bat to join us. It flew into the open door of Pat’s porch where it flopped around in confusion until I scooped my new pal up smugly, and suggested he fly home.

Alf Kiilerich’s personal story of talking to animals is also noteworthy. Kiilerich, is a long-time, local merchant (Hammond Jewellers) now retired, who keeps a boat on the South Alouette River. I bumped into him recently. Talk turned to fish.

“You should see the big ones that swim up every time I’m at the boathouse,” said Alf. “They take bread from my hand.”

I cocked my ears. “Really?”

“I’m the only one they trust. Nobody else can feed them.”

Another challenge?

“You should come and see for yourself,” said Alf.

Alf’s fish are bony, unpalatable squawfish – a creature demeaned by sports fishermen, and unprotected in Harper’s new Fisheries Act. There were some near the boathouse when we arrived, but none wanted the bread crumbs I threw into the water. They were looking up at a strange, bald skull, not Alf’s white hair.

Alf took a turn. This time the water churned with squawfish like piranha feeding on a water buffalo.

“That big one’s a favourite of mine,” said Alf, pointing to a fish a foot long. He held a piece of bread above the water that his friend, the big squawfish, quickly accepted.

“You’ve established a personal relationship with these fish,” I said.

“Yes, they’re not just a piece of meat anymore. You think of them differently. If they can remember stuff, they’ve got brains.”

“Do you talk to them?” I asked.

“Not if anybody’s listening. They’d think I was nuts. But, yes, I do. They never talk back though.”

It might not be long before they do talk back, but prairie dogs will probably do it, firstly. Dr. Con Slobodchikoff Northern Arizona University, a conservation biologist, and founder of the Animal Language Institute, wants to make this happen. He’s working on a digital device that will translate the vocalizations of prairie dogs. According to Slobodchikoff, these animals have a complex language used to communicate across an underground network of interlinked villages. They’re social, like us.

So, what do prairie dogs talk about? When a human approaches, a member will take a look, (noting size, shapes and colors) and then announce loudly, in a complete sentence, “All’s well, it’s the guy with the red cap who feeds us peanuts,” or conversely, “Take cover, it’s the jerk with the sling shot who killed Mikey, last week.”

Look for big changes in the way humans view animals if Slobodchikoff succeeds. Maybe, in Japan, fishermen who corral and slaughter dolphins – who also talk to each other – will adopt the enlightened position of India.

In India, dolphins enjoy ‘non-human personhood status’. The official declaration by the Indian Ministry of the Environment reads, “Dolphins should be seen as non-human persons and as such should have their own specific rights.” Even before Doolittle, Ghandi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated.”

I was thinking about that line, and Alf’s fish when I stared into the eyes of two crabs thrashing on their backs in a crowded supermarket fish tank. I grasped a leg of one poor creature and flipped it over; then did the same with the other.

Frantic eyes followed me as the animals settled on the backs of fellow inmates. If they could talk would they thank me, invoke their maker, or scream? I wondered what Alf and Con would say, and then, if I’d be adding crab to mass-produced animal products like veal and poultry that I don’t eat because chickens and calves in BC have been robbed of their real names and dignity.