Animals speak with people but we do not listen

The Guardian
Animals speak with people but we do not listen

The Dutch philosopher, novelist, visual artist and singer-songwriter, Eva Meijer  believes we should change our relationship to animals. This involves recognising that they talk to us – and granting them proper rights, The Guardian writes in the article Eva Meijer: 'Of course animals speak. The thing is we don't listen'.

It was only when she began to study philosophy that she saw that animals were almost completely absent from western thought. And when they appeared in science, they were treated solely as objects. This clashed with what she knew to be true from her own experience – that animals had agency, emotions and deeply communicative lives. When a human rides a horse, for instance, she says: “There is a lot of communication going on.” Research shows that the heartbeats of rider and horse synchronise.

While the ancient Greeks saw humans as part of a greater whole with other animals, Christianity and the Enlightenment set people apart from mere beasts. Descartes believed animals had no soul. In recent decades, however, the list of things that “only humans are capable of” has become steadily shorter. Thinking, empathy, expressing emotions, grammar, generalised reciprocity (doing something for someone unknown, or without expectation of a return favour) – science is beginning to show that other animals can do it all. Understanding how animals communicate can unlock these insights. Meijer reveals fascinating research into how animals communicate. Jays and crows choose particular gifts they believe will appeal to their partners, and so have a “theory of mind” – they can see things from another’s point of view.

Prairie dogs use chattering calls to describe different intruders – not only a human, but how large he or she is, the colour of their clothes and whether they are carrying an umbrella or a gun. Many mammals can learn human words, produce new sounds or acquire other languages: orcas, for example, can imitate the cries of dolphins . One consciousness-shifting example of animals’ inner lives given by Meijer is that wild elephants have a call for humans that also means danger. When we see humans anew via the language of animals, it is not a pretty sight. This is what Meijer would call an anthropocentric idea (hey, let’s find out about what animals think of us), but it is a useful awakening. “It is also a bridge from studying animals as objects to noticing they are subjects – they are thinking about us, they are speaking about us,” says Meijer. For her, learning more about animal language should herald a decisive shift towards rights for animals.  Animals cannot vote but, actually, Meijer supplies numerous examples where they do something pretty similar. Red deer decide to move en masse when about 60% of their herd stands up.

The political philosophers Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka suggest there are three communities of animals: wild animals that are “sovereign” and self-governing; wild animals, such as pigeons, that coexist with us in cities and could be considered “denizens”; and domesticated animals. How would Meijer begin to change our relationship with, say, dogs? She says she would stop the pursuit of pedigree dogs and different breeds. “Let them perhaps choose their partners,” she says. We could also liberate our dogs. American writer Ted Kerasote created a “dog-flap” for his dog, Merle, granting him the freedom to go into town. Like a teenager, Merle still came home for food and to sleep. “Their relationship deepens and Merle becomes more intelligent or more capable of making certain decisions when he is given the choice,” says Meijer. 

What about if a dog’s freedom to roam infringes a ground-nesting bird’s freedom to safely rear chicks? It is also difficult to imagine how animals could be granted significant freedoms when there are so many humans.  “Ideally there would be fewer humans,” says Meijer. But she also argues that we tend to see human-animal interactions in terms of conflict. “It’s a challenge for us as a species to live with others who are different from us. We’re not very tolerant. And maybe in some stage of our evolutionary process that was necessary, but we’re now in a very different stage where we can choose to have different types of relations with these animals.”

A century ago, she points out, women were considered undeserving of political rights. “People get upset and say you’re comparing women to animals, but that’s not the case,” she says. “Because society is absolutely human-centred and change seems so far away, it’s good to go back to other situations in history that felt similar. Humans throughout history have been able to change their collective opinions about some social groups".