Animal communication

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 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 can 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?

SHARED INTERESTS

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.

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Our inherent wisdom in scary situations

Adventure cat

When we moved to our tiny house about a month ago, our cat Merlina came with us. Our backyard is 15 hectares of semi-wilderness.

She has been in the countryside before and is always careful at first, but is more careful this time. Likely because there are smells and sounds of many wild animals here. These include Jaguarundis – cats related to cougars and cheetahs, porcupines, marsupials, and other species unfamiliar to her.

It makes sense to be cautious until she is more familiar with this place and its animals.

She spends a lot of time in the house sleeping, and also listening to and smelling what’s outside. When she goes out, she stays close to the house and expands out slowly in small widening circles. She also likes to go out with us since that makes her feel safer, and I like going out with her.

This is all very wise, and it’s a reminder of the wisdom we all have in us.

When in a new place, get to know the place. Take time. Don’t push yourself.

And when you go into scary places, or fear is triggered in you, take it easy. Here also, don’t push yourself. Go into it gently and for only short periods so it’s not overwhelming.

We humans, with our more complex mental constructions and tendency to make identities out of them, often do it differently. We may push aside the fear and pretend it’s not here. We may push ourselves into fear and feel overwhelmed and maybe even traumatized. Or we may get stuck in the safe zone without exploring and opening our world.

Animals remind us of our inherent wisdom, the wisdom that’s here when we are less distracted by our mental constructions.

This is very important in trauma work. If you are going to explore traumas, it makes sense to work with someone you trust, and someone who won’t push you. It makes sense to go slowly and gradually. It makes sense to go into it for short periods of time (seconds, minutes) and then retreat so you don’t get overwhelmed. It makes sense to work primarily with the body and not go into the stories around it so much. (At least, at first.)

Legal rights for nonhuman species, ecosystems, and future generations

For a while now, there has been  legal protection for some nonhuman individuals, endangered species, and ecosystems.

And it’s slowly expanding. For instance, earlier today Sandra, an orangutan at an Argentinian zoo, was granted limited human rights.

Nonhuman individuals, species, ecosystems, and future generations all need not only legal protection, but also legal representation. We need people who can give them voice in the legal and political system, and it needs to be institutionalized.

This is not only good for them, but for us too. We all benefit from a society where all beings – including future generations – have rights and protection. It will give us incentive to organize ourselves so that what’s easy and attractive is also good for life in general. And what’s good for life in general, is good for us. After all, we are an intrinsic part of the processes and dynamics of Earth.

I imagine a future society where this is a given. And where they look back at our time, and wonder how we could allow the cruelty to animals we see today, and an economical and production system that is set up so ordinary activities destroys our own life support system.

Cats and culture

Having lived in the US (small town in Oregon) and Norway, I notice a difference in how cats relate to strangers.

In the US, cats tend to be very friendly with strangers, to the point of coming up to greet me when I go for walks in neighborhoods I am not familiar with. In Norway, cats tend to be skeptical to strangers, and avoid me when I see them coming through the yard or when I am out on a walk.

In both cases, their behavior seem to reflect the human culture. In the US, people tend to be very friendly towards strangers. And in Norway, people tend to be polite and distant with strangers, and reserve the warmth to family and friends. This pattern seem quite consistent and obvious in my experience, and others – who have lived both places – report noticing it too.

I wonder if cats pick this up from humans around them, just as we humans do as a child?

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Inquiry: They shouldn’t protect wolves

They shouldn’t protect wolves. (This is a statement oppostive of my conscious view and I take it on as a belief so I can see how it looks from that side. My uncle has that belief, or so it seems.)

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Vulnerable animal

One of the things that impacts me the most is the suffering of animals at the hands of humans. Like the cow I saw a picture of the other day, neglected, standing up to her belly in shit, looking back towards the photographer with big innocent eyes. Quiet, wordless, suffering. Not understanding what is happening to her. Complete innocence.

I see myself in those animals, and children and humans suffering in a similar way. I see all of us.

At times, we are all in that situation.

Vulnerable animals, without a clue about what is going on. That is what it all boils down to.

In our daily lives, we are – to a certain extent – in control and do understand. But if we look a little closer, we find that behind that thin surface is complete vulnerability and lack of knowing.

When we find this for ourselves, there is a great deal of liberation. We don’t need to hold onto stories anymore as an ultimate truth or answer. We don’t need to deny our complete vulnerability.

Instead, there can be a more receptive mind and heart. A mind receptive to the limited truth in any story. And a heart receptive to ourselves and others.

(If we have worked with our hara, our belly, we also find our hara more receptive, in this case to a felt trust in existence and life.)

As with other forms of investigation, it is a process of seeing and feeling what is more true for us. It invites in an embrace of (more of) the fullness of who we are, as human beings. And releasing struggle – in this case against seeing that we don’t know, and the vulnerability of our human self – makes it easier for us to notice what we are.

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Spirit animal

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When I was a child, I had a Big Dream about a black panther, and I realize later that it was very similar to shamanic experiences and connections with a spirit animal. In the dream, there was a connection with the panther as long lost friend, and someone who had immense wisdom, insight and ability to guide me.

The world is a mirror of what is inside of ourselves, and animals can be especially helpful in mirroring and evoking certain qualities in us.

When we journey – whether in dreams, shamanic rituals, active imagination, through using the whole of us as in process work, or even through voice dialog – we are often guided to exactly those qualities that wants to come into our lives more fully. Those that may have been disowned, or just temporarily forgotten. There is an infinity of sources for reminders, including animals.

What comes up is what is needed here and now, so will change over time. But some may have to do with longer term processes, unfolding over decades, and the black panther for me seems to be one of these.

For me, the black panther evokes a beautiful combination of polarities, maybe especially a natural confidence and relaxation, and alertness and explosive activity, depending on what the situation calls for. It is firm and gentle, cute and vicious, and follows its path with receptivity yet in a non-nonsense way and undistractedly. Its velvety blackness reminds of the fertile blackness and awakening of the belly center, which nurtures each of the qualities listed above.

rockart1.jpg

Shamanism is probably the earliest form for psychology, and from the little I know about it, it can be every bit as sophisticated as any contemporary western psychology. Judging from the earliest examples of rock art, it is a form of psychology that has been with us since before the dawn of civilization, which is humbling and also gives a sense of connection across time and universality.

I have worked with the black panther more lately, bringing its qualities into my daily life, and have found it a great support.I may find the black panther qualities in myself through images and movements, or just ask myself what would the black panther do?

Alex dead

irene_parrots.jpg

Alex, the parrot studied by Irene Pepperberg, is dead. I don’t know why this story – among all the other news in the world – brings up sadness, but it is probably because I have an especially soft spot for the lives of animals, and how they have been and still are treated by humans. The other species we share this planet with are one of the remaining groups to be included into the circle of us.

Alex, and many other animals studied these days, show us that many other species are not only very similar to us emotionally (why wouldn’t they be, when we share ancestors, when we share biology related to emotions, and when we display similar signs of emotions in similar situations?) but also cognitively.

In science, we justify experiments on animals (as substitute for humans) scientifically because they biologically are so similar to us, and yet justify it ethically because they are different from us. In science or society at large, very few point to that discrepancy, probably because it is convenient to not look at it too closely.

And including other species into the circle of us does not mean that we all need to become vegetarians or that we release all animals from captivity. It only means moving in the direction of treating them with more respect, remembering that they too have emotions and some cognitive abilities, and that they too want to avoid suffering. They are not so different from us in that way.

The golden rule applies here too. How would I have wanted to be treated if the roles were reversed, if I was that cow out on pasture, or that rabbit in the science lab, or those elephants losing their territory to humans?

How specifically will this look in real life? How will it influence how we treat animals in a range of different settings? That is something that will look different in different circumstances, and something that will evolve and change as we do.