If We Could Talk To The Animals

Image courtesy of Current Biology at http://www.cell.com

It is possible you have experienced a boss like a gorilla.

You know: short, burly, broad; direct.

Patrick Van Veen knew just such a gentleman. “He was about two metres tall,” he told the BBC; ” he was huge, and he had small glasses. When you entered his office, he’d stare at you over them. He really was a gorilla.”

Mr Van Veen’s boss has started a primate revolution. Because that likeness inspired him to launch a business which invites top executives into ape-cages in a bid to lift the lid from office politics.

Yes: England’s Chester Zoo has just started the management course to end them all. People sit around watching apes. Because Mr Van Veen says that his study of primates helped inform his job as an insurance salesman – more, perhaps, than we might feel comfortable with.

It’s all about dominance.

Primitive behaviour is still there in the workplace, Mr Van Veen tells his charges. Back slapping, stamping feet and drawing oneself tall are straight from our primate cousins. The course aims to learn from the apes when dominance is an effective tactic -and when it’s misplaced.

Learning body language from the apes – would Charlton Heston approve?

Yet the animals are talking between themselves, it has become clear.

You will by now have come across the barking cat, a YouTube perennial.

Sitting at a high window, the cat believes itself unobserved. And it is barking. Its voice is clearly that of a cat effecting a dog’s dialect. Woof, woof, woof.

Right until it realises there’s a human behind it. And then it looks around and for a split second you see that rarest of things, a cat caught short, thinking on its feet, scrabbling to reclaim its monolingual reputation by transmogrifying the woof into a creditable meow.

If it is indeed genuine, it seems to me this is the nth degree of the relationship developing right now between my dog and my brand new kitten: they are thick as thieves. Are they also learning language from each other?

If this is possible, then perhaps it is no surprise to find the biggest seagoing mammals reaching across that language barrier.

Earlier today I listened to a Beluga whale trying to speak my language.

I came across it on the BBC News: look, they trumpeted, here’s a whale talking.

And I played it, and I howled with laughter because it sounds primarily like someone with a kazoo messing about; and secondarily like a party goer who has had a few pints too many.

And then I sobered up, because each of those comparisons is a purely human occupation. I never saw a whale play a kazoo, did you?

It all started when there was this diver in the pool with NOC, the white whale and emerged from the pool contrary to plan.”Who told me to get out?” he asked.

Ah, well, that would be the whale.

San Diego’s National Marine Mammal Foundation have long noticed bursts of what seemed like human speech, familiar in pattern but not intelligible. To speak to us, whales have to lower their register by several octaves. On top of each nasal cavity they have a set of what are called ‘phonic lips’. The whale can increase pressure in the nasal cavity, causing the lips to vibrate, and create speech- like sounds.

So it seems that, while we are unable to talk to the animals, they seem positively multilingual.

And they have much to teach us.

Which animal, I wonder, does your boss resemble?

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51 thoughts on “If We Could Talk To The Animals

  1. That whale sounds like my kids mucking about with a recording device ;) and also reminds me of dogs trying to sing (like on Funniest Home Videos). I’ve had a couple of giraffe bosses – always sticking their heads around the corner to see what you’re up to.

  2. Alas, trying to compare some of the bosses I’ve known to animals would be utterly insulting to whatever animal I selected. The promotion process seems to involve survival of the nastiest. There also seems to be a mandatory dose of stupidity.

  3. I have seen the cat video before and it just cracks me up. The whale audio is very interesting, it almost sounds like some words and has a sing-songy effect. We humans have so much to learn.

  4. The videos are both hilarious, but the whole whales trying to communicate with us thing is also kind of eerie and alarming. You know the scene in the Hitchhiker’s guide series, where you find out that the dolphins have been trying to communicate with us for years, to warn us? It’s like that, but the warning’s so dire they’re trying to use our own means of communication to do so. Or my imagination is very vivid, and it only sounds like someone frantically yelling at us through a kazoo :P

    1. Lexy, it’s strange, that went through my head when I was writing this! I love Douglas Adams but his use of dolphins to presage the buldozing of earth to make way for a hyper-space bypass- it is slightly chilling. Brrrr.

  5. Cats have already modified their way the “speak” to us. Meowing is mostly a verbalization used by kittens, until they learn more subtle forms of feline body language. But since we are to obtuse to learn such things, they keep meowing at us, which is something we understand.

    One of the problems that cats and dogs have is that they have, at times, contrary body language. Cats are ambush predators which means that when they hunt they try to keep as low profile as possible. Dogs are pack predators who coordinate their actions. Hunting and threat behaviour mirror each other. Thus, low ears on a cat, “Danger, stay away!” but on a dog, “It’s time to play!” Over time they do learn (sometimes) to read each other language and much fun is had by all! :D

    1. :-D What a brilliant comment, Ralfast, thank you! We have never been more surprised than watching Macaulay the family dog and Clive the new kitten join forces and become inseparable: and in view of the language barrier, this is doubly flabberghasting.
      I used to have a half-siamese who would chatter away like something out of Mar Attacks. Most endearing. He had me well trained.

      1. Siamese do love to :”talk” and you can even talk back to them. It can be very funny to watch, I mastered a somewhat convincing meow of my own. I bet that if I had a Siamese I would never leave the house. :D

  6. That cat video is something, Kate. I hope you can catch Clive Bond in similar behavior. And, any animal comparison to former bosses would surely get me in trouble should I ever have to seek employment. Because I’m my own boss, of course, I will compare myself to what I would be if I had to pick: a hummingbird. Unlimited energy. Eat sugar all day long. Never gain weight.

  7. What a delightful post. That cat was going “woof, woof, woof.” My cat always tries to control my life. I have to get up at 7 o’clock in the morning, feed him, have breakfast, get in the tub and make my bed, in that very order. He is speaking to me.

  8. Dolphins, as noted by lexy3587, are great communicators. I also am a Hitchhikers fan.

    But on terra firma, my Mom often spoke of a time when our dog was hit by a car. All the dogs in the neighborhood were barking. They stopped when my folks found our dog and brought him home where he recovered. We will have to adjust our ears to understand what our pets are saying beyond “I’m hungry” or “Walkies. I need to go out.”

    Loved your videos. I saw the cat one before – always a hoot.

  9. It’s a little unnerving, if you think about, how well our pets learn to vocalize in ways we humans can understand. (I, of course, talk right back to them.)

    But the whale … that is really amazing. We humans would do well to never underestimate the intelligence of the “lesser” animals with whom we share the planet. I realize this is probably mimicry rather than intelligence … or is it? …

  10. One of my cats perked up and became very interested when I played the video of the cat barking. That is really wild. I’ve never heard anything like that before. My cats will chirp and make weird noises at birds and dogs but I’ve never heard a cat mimic a dog parking. That cat totally knew he was busted by his/her human, too. The whale noises are absolutely astonishing to me. Whales and dolphins are such smart creatures, I’m sure there’s a ton we still have to learn from them. But this is really amazing stuff.

  11. Kate, that barking cat is hilarious!
    Spudley the Cat always says ‘Hello’ (or in her case, Wewwo!) when she calls around for a visit and a tickle, so the video doesn’t surprise me in the least! As for the people at work, well, I can see them all picking ticks off each other, if that counts… but not me, I stay out of it. I pick my own ticks… which is something I will probably never, ever, say to anyone ever again.
    Fun post… I may just have to nip to Chester Zoo to see what’s going on!

  12. That cat was trying to assert dominance over the neighborhood dogs by pretending to be a GREAT DANE!

    Woof. Woof. Woof.

    And it definitely relied on “double speak” to morph back to a cat again when caught in the act.

    Animals are so AWESOME!

    The whale video wasn’t as “convincing” since I couldn’t see its lips move. ;)

  13. That beluga sounds like a cat. Not a human. I also read today that our native songbirds fly together in the autumn and recognise each other’s alarm calls. It seems that it is only humans who are prejudiced to being multilingual. Language is just communication, if we’re willing to communicate then there need not be any barriers, regardless of nationality or species. :)

  14. How interesting to hear both the beluga and the kitty! It’s more than surprising, it does make me wonder at the ability to mimic. I’m going to chuckle for days thinking about the animal my boss most resembles. I want to choose wisely, because once I go there, the image will probably be permanent! I love thinking about Clive and Macaulay in their burgeoning friendship! :-)

  15. Hahaha.. your cat video gave my son and I a great laugh tonight.. when she sees the person behind her, she almost gets sheepish! My boss.. I don’t have a boss, but my hubs is a bit like a terrier… the kind that are always barking:D of course I don’t mean that in a mean way! I’m probs a bichon shihtzu.. not very attractive comparison, but probably true:D

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