This week’s entry: Talking animals
What it’s about: From the snake in the Garden Of Eden to Jake The Dog, humanity has long been fascinated by talking animals. While a staple of fiction, from the earliest fables to the Pixar oeuvre, no animal can speak besides humans. Or can they? There have been incidents of animals mimicking human speech all over the world. A few of them may have even known what they were talking about.
Strangest fact: Clever Hans was a horse who was famous in the early 20th century for being able to do basic math. This was unsurprisingly not true, but his real trick may have been an even better one. Psychologist Oskar Pfungst studied both the horse and his human trainer and concluded that Hans was taking cues from human body language, which let him know if he was pointing to the right or wrong answer. What’s more, Pfungst was satisfied that the trainer was unaware of giving any cues and legitimately believed the horse was adding up numbers in his head.
Biggest controversy: One cat ended up defending his free speech in court. In 1981, street performers Carl and Elaine Miles dazzled passersby with Blackie The Talking Cat. The police threatened to jail them if they didn’t pay $50 for a business license. They did, but then sued the city, claiming the city law was vague and that it violated Blackie’s right to free speech. The landmark talking cat case Miles V. City Council Of Augusta, Georgia ruled that “Plaintiffs’ activity, regardless of its peculiarity, falls within this definition [of a business].” An appellate court refused to hear the free speech claim, arguing that cats are not protected by the Bill Of Rights, a legal hurdle the National Rifle Association will have to clear in its ongoing effort to push for open carry for dogs.
Thing we were happiest to learn: The gift of speech, while rare, crops up all over the animal kingdom. Goats and beluga whales can also mimic human speech. Kosik, an elephant, is able to say several words in Korean by putting his trunk in his mouth and exhaling, and researchers are trying to determine whether he can understand what he’s saying. Fellow pachyderm Batyr lived in Kazakhstan when the country was part of the Soviet Union and was able to say more than 20 phrases in Kazakh using the same method. A recording of him saying “Batyr is good” and other phrases was played on Soviet radio, and a TV broadcast was marred by the elephant saying, “Go to hell” (the only time his language ever got salty). Batyr could also imitate dogs, mice, and other elephants. Sadly, like far too many celebrities, he died of an accidental overdose of sedatives.
Hoover, a harbor seal in the New England Aquarium, learned to say several phrases in a heavy New England accent, including “hello, there” and “come over here!” Wikipedia does not list the rest of the phrases, but we assume they’re “wicked pissah,” “bang a left at the Dunkies,” and “you suck, Jeetah.” While Hoover died in 1985, science hopes we may yet live to see the day when a harbor seal is ejected from Fenway for shouting racial slurs.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: You can teach animals language, but you can’t teach them good grammar. The animals that have had the most success communicating with humans are our fellow great apes. While neither chimps, gorillas, nor bonobos have the capacity for spoken language, each have been able to use sign language with varying degrees of success. However, no ape has mastered the subtleties of syntax and grammar, meaning even the most adept communicators are closer to Scooby than Scrappy.
Also noteworthy: Parrots are famously ahead of the curve when it comes to speech, and while it was long in dispute whether parrots imitated speech without understanding it or genuinely wanted a cracker, research has solved the mystery. African grey parrot Alex was the subject of a 30-year research project that spanned three universities. Dr. Irene Pepperberg worked intensively with the bird over that span, teaching him a vocabulary of more than 100 words. The parrot could identify 50 distinct objects, grasping the elusive concept of object permanence.
The talking animals Wiki page claims Alex is the only animal ever to ask an existential question. While that suggests, “What’s the point of all this?” the question was less philosophical, but no less significant given the one asking. Alex had learned and could identify several colors, until one day he looked into a mirror and asked, “What color?” After being told “gray” six times, Alex learned the word gray. He also invented at least one word, calling an apple a “banerry,” seemingly combining the other two words for fruit he knew, “banana” and “cherry.”
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Those hoping there’d be a straight-line connection from talking dogs to Hitler won’t go away disappointed. In 1930, Margarethe Schmidt founded the Hundesprechschule Asra, or Asra Talking Dog School. Schmidt claimed she could teach dogs to speak, count, and reason, and held performances. The dogs could count, either by barking or ringing a bell, but they were merely trained to repeat the sound on cue. Their “speaking” was sounds that didn’t resemble words and was sometimes omitted from performances for excuses like bad weather. Nonetheless, the school attracted notice of Der Führer, who approved a performance by the Asra dogs for members of the Wehrmacht, although this was toward the end of WWII, so it’s not clear whether the performance actually took place.
As in all things, where Nazi Germany failed, America succeeded. America’s Funniest Home Videos once featured Fluffy, a dog who could say, “I want my mama.” A pug named Odie was the toast of several TV shows after saying, “I love you.” Wikipedia can neither confirm nor deny this is the same dog saying, “I love you,” in the Little Caesar’s commercial sampled at the opening of the Beastie Boys’ Ill Communication.
Further down the Wormhole: While a few animals have been able to communicate thoughts, most talking animals simply mimic sounds without understanding. Treating those sounds as speech is a form of anthropomorphism, applying human characteristics to something nonhuman. At the same time, there are some who claim that treating animals as less than human is speciesism. One case of speciesism ended up resulting in a legal case with a firestorm of controversy. We’ll take a look at the Brown Dog affair next week.