If only they could talk... - Veterinary Practice
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If only they could talk…

FRANCESCA RICCOMINI reports on a fascinating afternoon on animal communication

I REMEMBER a cartoon with the caption, “You can take x… to a lecture but you can’t make him think”, which described the value or otherwise of CPD.

No doubt we’ve all attended meetings where we came out no wiser than when we went in. However, no one who recently attended a seminar entitled If only they could talk: an afternoon exploring language in animals, given by Dr Britta Osthaus, could fail to engage with this fascinating topic or leave without learning something valuable.

Those of us who spend our working lives mainly engaged in practical aspects of animal care appreciated the challenge of looking at other species from a less mundane perspective, although there was much that related to our everyday activities.

Britta, whose background is in evolutionary psychology and philosophy, is a lecturer and researcher in animal cognition at Christ Church University. She reminded us that as humans are the only species with the ability to use language, which works both on a surface and more meaningful semantic level, only we can really talk in the sense of understanding the meaning of what is said – although parrots, for example, can often make a pretty good stab at mimicking sounds and even putting them into a reasonably appropriate context.

Different species have different ways of interpreting the environment. However, Britta also emphasised that if other species could communicate vocally in a similar way to us, we would probably be unable to comprehend them or the meaning of what they said simply because we cannot identify with their different “worlds”.

Beyond us

We, for instance, have such limited ability to detect odour that truly understanding the way our pet species interact with the environment is beyond us.

During the course of the afternoon, Britta looked in detail at some of the experiments conducted over several decades where scientists have attempted to devise methods of teaching animals, notably primates, to communicate with people in a way we can relate to. Interesting as these are, however, looking dispassionately from the outside it is often easy to identify various ways in which desire from those involved to prove their point leads to exaggerated claims for their subjects’ abilities.

As the speaker said, “Workers in this field too often start as scientists but their increasing attachment means that they are no longer able to critically interpret their work.” This not only detracts from their own achievements but can sadly devalue the animals involved.

Britta pointed out the danger of being dismissive about what other species can do just because we are unable to measure in them things which have most relevance to us and how we communicate.

She also emphasised that to remain scientific we must always look for the simplest explanation of anything that an animal does. And while we can never really understand their perspective, only observe and describe what they do, we can still glean significant information about the non-human individuals we deal with.

Human value judgments

This had particular resonance for those working in the field of behaviour counselling, where getting owners to describe behaviour can be remarkably difficult. Often what actually emerges is a long and detailed explanation of what the human observer believes the animal is thinking or trying to achieve. Such explanations are frequently based on human value judgments and invariably reveal a remarkable degree of ignorance about the natural behaviour of the species concerned.

Urine spraying cats are not, for example, “paying owners back”; nor dogs “sulking” when people return from holiday. Yet numerous clients advance these offerings with absolute certainty plus a sense of grievance, even betrayal. As a result, it is usual to spend some part of each consultation simply getting clients to the point where they stop blaming their animals for not being additional human members of their household.

But it is essential to do so because without being able to view our pets for what they are – individuals from another species with a completely different world view from our own – we cannot even begin to get to grips with any behaviour problem. Once we achieve this more enlightened perspective, we often discover our own ability to empathise with our animal companions.

As behavioural difficulties frequently emerge because pets are struggling to cope with unrealistic owner expectations and living in highly artificial circumstances with inadequate and/or inappropriate management regimes that rarely satisfy their natural species needs and individual sensitivities, the sooner this happens the better.

Motivational conflict

Sometimes even observers can’t “see clearly”. In this respect, an especially interesting factor emerged from watching the video footage of various primates and Alex, an African grey parrot, featured in some of the language studies. A significant number appeared to be showing quite marked signs of motivational conflict, if not distinct stress.

The bird in particular looked unhealthy and appeared to show evidence of feather plucking. It seems that despite their attachment to their subjects, some of the scientists involved were unable to perceive the negative effects of the considerable pressures to which these animals were being subjected. In this they seemed no different from the many otherwise caring owners who have little awareness of the negative emotional impact of everyday events upon the nonhuman members of their households.

There was much more in this excellent seminar but I especially liked Britta’s assertion that while continuing exploration of language is desirable, we humans should try and set aside our “unfortunate tendency to think that we are the top of the tree and every species is aiming to come up to our level”, and try a lot harder to understand the communication systems of other species.

■ For future Learning About Animals events, consult the website, www.learningaboutanimals.co.uk.

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