I have been fascinated by animal communication since my early teens, and maybe before. I remember Carl Sagan writing about dolphin communication in one of his books, and I have always thought that if we arrive at a better way to communicate with animals, our relationships with them would change as well. Hopefully, for the good of them and us.
HUNGER FOR WORDS
A few years ago, I discovered Hunger for Words through an online article, and I immediately thought that this was one of the breakthroughs I had been hoping to see.
Hunger for Words is a project created by a speech therapist. In 2018, she got a dog (Stella) and wanted to see if some of the methods she used with children would also work with Stella.
Specifically, she started using buttons that each represented a word or simple phrase and taught the meaning to Stella.
I started my experiment with just a few recordable buttons that Stella could push to say, “outside,” “play,” and “water,” and the same language facilitation strategies I use with children. Since introducing those first words, Stella has progressed far beyond what I ever thought could be possible. Now, Stella uses a homemade communication device to say more than 45 words (and counting!), combine up to 5 words together to create unique phrases, ask and answer questions, express her thoughts and feelings, make observations, participate in short conversations, and connect with us every single day.
CLOSE RELATIVES & SHARED ANCESTORS
It’s amazing to watch videos of Stella and other animals using these buttons to communicate. They are creative in how they put sentences together in a way that demonstrates a real understanding of language.
And why would we be surprised? Dogs and cats are mammals like us. We are cousins. We share most of our ancestors. They may not naturally have words, but they do communicate clearly. And through this method, they learn to communicate with words so we can more easily understand them.
THE EFFECTS OF IMPROVED COMMUNICATION
As this becomes more common and commonly known in our culture, what effects may it have?
I hope it will help us recognize non-human species as sentient beings like us with emotions, wishes, needs, hopes, and fears like us. They wish the same as we do, which is to be free from suffering and have a good life.
And that, in turn, may shift how we treat our fellow beings. They are like us. More than us versus them we are all “us”. So why not treat them as we would have wanted to be treated in their situation?
Why not give them a voice, even beyond this type of communication? Why not assign people to speak up for non-human beings in places where we make decisions that impact them? (Government, courts, board rooms, and so on.)
Why not give them stronger legal rights and ways to enforce these rights?
Some may assume that this is not in our interest. After all, don’t we sometimes need to use non-human species for our own good? To take their land so we can grow food or build houses? Keep them captive for our entertainment? Keep them imprisoned so we can eat them?
It may look that way from a short-term and narrow-interest perspective.
And yet, from a bigger perspective, it looks very different.
Here, we see that we share interests.
We are embedded in the ecosystems of this planet. We are all parts of this living evolving system we call Earth. We share fate. We are all dependent on a healthy, diverse, and thriving ecosystem and planet.
And by giving non-human beings a metaphorical and literal voice, we not only take care of their interests but our shared interests. We take care of our own long-term interests.
This is essential not only for them but for us.
GIVING A VOICE TO THE VOICELESS
This is not by any means idealism. This is realism.
For our own survival, we need to give a voice to those who do not have one in our society. We need to give a voice to non-human species, ecosystems, and future generations. And that voice needs to be backed up by laws and the legal system to have a real impact.
Most of us who have spent some time with animals know they communicate clearly. It’s just we who need a little bit of time to catch up.
And there are ways to communicate even better, or at least differently, with our non-human relatives.
A few years ago, I discovered Hunger for Words through an online article.