Lis­ten to the an­i­mals talk

The Covington News - - Opinion - Bar­bara Mor­gan is a Cov­ing­ton res­i­dent with a back­ground in news­pa­per jour­nal­ism, state gov­ern­ment and pol­i­tics.

These days we don’t use an alarm clock. In­stead, we are shocked into con­scious­ness by the fran­tic scratch­ing by one of the cats at the bed­room door or the muf­fled whim­per of Sonny the Bor­der Col­lie, ready for us to get up and re­lieve him from the overnight com­pany of the kit­ties. (We fi­nally booted them out of the bed­room when their sleep pat­terns — mostly nonex­is­tent — didn’t match ours.)

Al­though they don’t use words, an­i­mals have many ways of com­mu­ni­cat­ing their wants and cre­at­ing a re­la­tion­ship with the hu­man be­ings who share their space. Much of our own com­mu­ni­ca­tion with them is word­less, as well, be­cause they have the abil­ity to read our emo­tional cues. They in­tu­itively pick up on our ten­sion, our de­spon­dency, our sad­ness, our ela­tion, and then ab­sorb and con­vey those same emo­tions.

Have you heard this one? “Dogs have own­ers. Cats have staff.” A scratch at the door means the dog wants in or out. A cat will sim­ply po­si­tion it­self at the door and ex­pect you to re­spond ap­pro­pri­ately. Our cats are pretty de­mand­ing when it comes to food, and by mew­ing and cry­ing and wrap­ping them­selves around our an­kles, we know it’s time. Sonny will, may I say, “talk” to us when he senses a buddy pass­ing by on the street and wants to go out and play. It’s not im­pos­si­ble to hear “out-out-out-out-out” in his high-pitched emo­tional ef­forts at ver­bal­iz­ing the sit­u­a­tion.

I’ve read re­search that says, con­sid­er­ing the rel­a­tively short times­pan since dogs evolved from wolves and have lived in do­mes­tic­ity with hu­man be­ings, it is not il­log­i­cal to pre­dict that one day dogs will be able to speak. This is ex­plained in terms of the time it took for hu­man anatomy to evolve to the point that we could ex­press our­selves in speech. Such could also be the case with dogs as time passes by and their re­la­tion­ship with hu­mans deep­ens. I’m not kid­ding, but I don’t mean it could hap­pen to­mor­row.

Most dogs know easy words like “ride,” “walk,” “play,” “treat,” and “wa­ter,” when they’re thirsty. In re­cent years, Rico, a bor­der col­lie owned by a Ger­man cou­ple, was proven to know 200 dif­fer­ent items. But then came Chaser, an­other bor­der col­lie owned by a psy­chol­o­gist and re­tired pro­fes­sor in Spar­tan­burg, S.C. Dr. John W. Pil­ley had read about Rico and set out to bet­ter the record. He care­fully se­lected a bor­der col­lie pup and worked with him four to five hours a day un­til the dog amassed a “vo­cab­u­lary” of 1,022 nouns rep­re­sent­ing 800 cloth an­i­mals, 116 balls, 26 fly­ing discs and as­sorted plas­tic items. Dr. Pil­ley then ex­panded his train­ing to cover three verbs that could be com­bined with any of the nouns to elicit spe­cific ac­tion.

Many of you know the touch­ing story of the now de­ceased African Gray par­rot, Alex, who learned some 50 dif­fer­ent ob­jects, seven col­ors and shapes and dif­fer­ent ma­te­ri­als such as wood, pa­per and fab­ric. His owner, Dr. Irene Pep­per­berg, also taught him to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween sizes and to count. They had a close and emo­tional bond.

There are in­stinc­tive ways an­i­mals com­mu­ni­cate with each other. Bees are known to “dance” when they dis­cover nec­tar. Chimps will greet each other by touch­ing hands, not un­like hu­man be­ings. Ele­phants en­twine trunks to show af­fec­tion, as do swans when they court. Kan­ga­roos thump their back legs in­sis­tently to warn of dan­ger, and deer throw up their white tails to show alarm. Prairie dogs bare their teeth and press their mouths to­gether to de­ter­mine friend or foe, a prac­tice not with­out some dan­ger, I’d say.

A beau­ti­ful and touch­ing new doc­u­men­tary called “Buck” de­votes it­self to the re­mark­able ca­reer of Buck Bran­na­man, the inspiration for the Ni­co­las Evans book, “The Horse Whis­perer,” made into a movie by and star­ring Robert Red­ford. Bran­na­man served as Red­ford’s role model and con­sul­tant for the film.

In “Buck,” we trace Bran­na­man’s evo­lu­tion and as­cent from a hor­ri­bly abused son of a vi­o­lent al­co­holic fa­ther, the sto­ries he tells still make him weep, to the man known na­tion­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally as the Horse Whis­perer. He takes the lessons from his own dif­fi­cult child­hood into the ring with dam­aged and prob­lem­atic horses that “bring their own emo­tional his­tory into the re­la­tion­ship” with their own­ers. “I help horses,” is how Bran­na­man de­scribes his work as he stud­ies a horse’s his­tory, body lan­guage and pos­ture to elicit cues he needs to be suc­cess­ful with each in­di­vid­ual horse. Known as the Horse Whis­perer, he puts the em­pha­sis on “lis­ten­ing” to the horse. Lis­ten­ing is as im­por­tant as the spo­ken word in al­most ev­ery re­la­tion­ship, be it two hu­man be­ings, hu­mans and an­i­mals, and an­i­mal to an­i­mal. There is a lot to be learned by be­ing quiet.

BAR­BARA MOR­GAN COLUM­NIST

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