Current Affairs

Animals Don’t Need Words to Demand Respect

It’s great that some animals can communicate like we do, but that shouldn’t determine how we treat them.

More than 6 million followers across social media have watched Bunny, a sheepadoodle participating in a study run by the Comparative Cognition Lab at the University of California San Diego, push buttons on a soundboard. On one occasion, Bunny seems to look at herself in a mirror and press buttons that say “who this.” On another, she appears to press a series of “ouch” and “paw” buttons to call attention to an irritating thorn she needs removed. 

Shayla Love, writing for Vice magazine’s Motherboard, is one of the internet multitudes wondering whether Bunny is attempting to convey coherent, human-like thoughts. In a considerate article, Love surveys the evidence and suggests that it’s at least possible some dogs can be taught “that the sound[s] and word[s] ‘walk’ symbolically represents an action.” In other words, language.

This is exciting. But as a focus it may be dangerous. In stressing the search for the inner lives of animals on human terms—such as through language—well-meaning individuals may inadvertently undermine the moral status of the vast majority of non-human animals.

It is revealing that, in detailing the march of perceived animal cognition, Love refers to an anecdotal history of well-known studies and novelty acts—there’s an obligatory reference to Clever Hans, a horse exposed at the turn of the 20th century for doing math by watching the reactions of his trainer—as “flicker[s] of cognitive achievement.” This echoes a longstanding view within animal ethics that claims language is a prerequisite for beliefs, desires, and moral agency, and that would evaluate the claims of non-human animals to moral status based in large part on their ability to use language. A pithy summary—by the standards of moral philosophy—is offered by University of Colorado-Boulder philosophy professor Michael Tooley, who argues: “On the one hand, if the idea of thinking that involves only images, and no use of language, is untenable, then very few non-human animals are persons, or have a right to continued existence, or have moral status. . . . Even if a continuing self whose mental life is unified over time by thinking that involves only images does have moral status, that moral status is not likely to be very significant.”

In reality, however, animals are constantly displaying their complex inner lives. Humans need to learn to pay attention.

A fantasy version of animals’ inner lives is offered in Ursula Le Guin’s short story “The Author of the Acacia Seeds,” which imagines a world in which academics can translate ant exudations and penguin script “written almost entirely in wings, neck, and air” into political tracts and poetry. But reality isn’t that far off. Researchers are only slowly appreciating the complexity with which other non-human animals communicate. Just a few months ago, for example, a team of scientists from Berlin discovered that some of the least dog-like animals imaginable, mother sac-winged bats, change their pitch when vocalizing with their babies in a way that resembles “baby talk.”

Egyptian fruit bats, meanwhile, have been observed by Israeli ecologists as they make use of a wide variety of vocalizations—which, when categorized, suggested arguments about food, sleeping positions, and a call “reserved for males making unwanted mating advances.” The fruit bats were also observed altering these common vocalizations when addressing different individuals.

Even young animals can make use of subtle communication. For one example of many: hungry and satiated young, nesting barn owls make subtly different calls for food. These aren’t just desperate squawks. When the nestlings hear particularly hungry squawks, they may delay eating—by an average of half an hour—in order to give their hungriest nest-mates a chance to eat first.

This isn’t just hidden knowledge for the over-educated with access to research grants. Writing for the Guardian on December 18, 2020, Joe Hutto—an artist whose credentials at the time consisted of living on a large tract of land in rural Florida—learned quickly that wild turkeys on his property had “an extensive language.” Hutto “discovered their communication was far subtler than I’d realized,” and that the turkeys had different inflections to identify various species of snakes. Chickens display similar communication skills, reflecting their own world of personality quirks, perspectives, and priorities. Chickens can issue alarm calls of differing pitch and duration depending on both the type of predator and type of chickens present; a male chicken is more likely to issue an alarm call signaling aerial predators when hens are present. Chicken communication also demonstrates awareness of the perspectives of other animals—chickens will give longer alarm calls when under cover of a tree or bush, suggesting they understand the visual perspective of the predator.

Likewise, anyone with a cat or dog knows that they don’t need words to communicate. It’s commonly understood that adult cats don’t meow to each other, only to humans. Otherwise, it’s a kitten vocalization to let mother cats know that they need something. I assume my own tabby cat is endlessly frustrated that her apartment-mates mostly fail to understand her various ear and tail twitches, blinks, scents, and body movements, forcing her to use meows (for the humans) and hisses (for the dog).

We also don’t need to obsessively focus on communication in order to observe complex mental and emotional states, including empathy. Researchers have observed that hens watching their chicks exposed to even mildly negative stimuli (such as air puffs) not only vocalize in distress but also spend less time grooming their feathers and more time standing alert, exhibit an increase in heart rate, and exhibit lower eye and comb temperatures (indicating constricted blood vessels and increased temperature). Hens exhibit similar responses even when they cannot hear the chicks’ distressed vocalizations. This suggests the hens can apply and respond to what they know about negative stimuli, and literally share the emotions and mental states of others.

These examples are more than cool animal facts. Nor are they special pleading for any particular species. Ramin Skibba, in the journal Nature, discussing some of the bat studies mentioned above, points out that only a few other species—such as dolphins and some monkeys “are known to specifically address other individuals rather than to broadcast generalized sounds, such as alarm calls.” Rather than imagining that bats are somehow unique, now on par with primates and dolphins, it seems safer to assume that practically all non-human animals have emotions, needs, and desires that humans could recognize if they learned what to look for.

The implications for how humans should understand animal lives are, or should be, immense. A common excuse for indifference to exploitation of non-human animals is that the natural world of non-human animals is little more than a “mere sum” of biological urges, in stark contrast to humans. But this gives non-human animals too little credit. The examples provided above only scratch the surface of research into the extent that interactions between non-human animals regularly feature behavior in which individuals provide others with benefits at cost to themselves. (In humans, this would be called “altruism.”) Learning how to look for the inner lives of non-human animals helps reveal this interplay. 

Recognizing this should also have implications for how humans treat other species. We currently care so little about altruism-capable barn owls that, in the United States, we allow them to be needlessly tortured in laboratories—in part because, as birds, they are mostly excluded from the federal Animal Welfare Act that governs vivisection. Literally tens of billions of chickens capable of empathy are killed every year as part of the meat and egg industries, many in countries—such as ours—with few meaningful protections that acknowledge they feel anything at all. The wordless bellowing and crying of mother cows whose calves are torn away is dismissed as “a normal part of farming practices.”

Learning how to stop ordering animal lives in human-centric hierarchies is a necessary first step toward reversing injustice. Although the ways that non-human species communicate their interests to each other differ dramatically, they all demand respect. 

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