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​Animal Speech

Gadfly | March 25th, 2015

Will We Ever Parlay With Pachyderms?

According to the Bible—and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution—Adam and relatives of Pithecanthropus Erectus have dominion over all of the animals on earth. If Adam and Hannibal the Cannibal are the smartest of all the creatures on earth, why haven’t we learned the language of other animals? We usually try to teach other animals our language. Rarely do we try to learn theirs. In the song “Talk To The Animals” written and sung by Bobby Darin, he expresses what we could learn from our feathered, hairy, scaly, and hard-shelled friends:

“If we could talk to the animals,/ learn all their languages/ I could take an animal degree/ I’d study elephant and eagle/ buffalo and beagle/ Alligator, guinea pig, and flea/ If I spoke to orangutans/ The advantages why any fool on earth could plainly see/ Discussing Eastern art and dramas with intellectual llamas/ That’s a big step forward you’ll agree/ And if you just stop and think of it/ ain’t no doubt about it/ I’m gonna win a place in history/ If I could walk with the animals/ talk with the animals, Grunt, squeak, squawk with the animals/ And they could squeak and squawk/ And speak and talk to me.”

Sandra, a 29-year-old orangutan born in captivity in Germany and transferred to an Argentine zoo 20 years ago, recently won a court judgment transferring her to an animal sanctuary. Animal rights attorneys sponsored by the Association of Officials and Lawyers for Animal Rights filed a habeas corpus petition in her behalf. An Argentine court determined that this “non-human” person had enough cognitive functions to be not treated as an object. Activists have tried this approach before, but this is the first time a court has agreed with the proposition. (Let’s remember that bonobos, orangutans, chimps, and some gorillas share 99.9% of their genes with us, and that the word orangutan means “forest man” in the Malay and Indonesian languages.) Koko the gorilla is a rather famous guest on TV shows, displaying his ability to know sign language and over 2,000 words of English. Why, that’s more than some of our Congressmen.

Clyde Grunts Better Than Clint

When I went to Marine Corps boot camp and talked with men from all over the country and some of our far-flung island possessions, it took a little while to easily understand some of the accents, drawls, and grunts. And so it is for our brothers and sisters with almost all of our genes. As an example, when chimps join a new troop they change their grunts and other vocal sounds to match those of their new friends. This was proven when nine chimps were transferred from a “safari” park in the Netherlands to a zoo in Scotland. The Dutch chimps had high pitched grunts and the Scottish chimps had low-pitched. The Dutch chimps gradually changed their grunts to low-pitch. They also changed other sounds such as grunts, barks, and hoots when “requesting” particular foods.

Actually chimps should have come very close to winning an Oscar for acting in two Hollywood epics. Former President Ronald Reagan co-starred with a chimp in “Bedtime for Bonzo,” and admitted later: “I fought a losing battle with a scene-stealer…he was a chimpanzee!” Clint Eastwood in his 1978 epic “Every Which Way But Loose” lost scene after scene with a chimp named Clyde. Clint played a ne’er-do-well truck driver and bare-knuckle fighter named Philo Beddoe who had won Clyde the Chimp on a bet. Eastwood, who has grunted his way through many movies such as ”Dirty Harry” and “Pale Rider,” was often out-grunted by the orangutan Clyde in this very entertaining, hugely profitable movie. Now that we have animals legally determined to be “non-human” persons, Clyde should have been given an Oscar for his dominating performance for an actor in a lead role. Clint was pretty good in his supporting role, too. Research by Current Biology on intelligence with 99 chimps between 9 and 54 years of age indicates that chimp intelligence resembles the structure of human intelligence. The grunting Clyde gave the grunting Clint a real challenge.

Animal Speech And Tool-Making

What differentiates animals from humans? It’s getting to be less and less. Just 50 years ago scientists thought only the human had the intellectual capacity to use tools in everyday life. Then gorilla lover Jane Goodall watched chimps use twigs and sticks to rout termites out of their homes for good protein. Several birds, including crows, use tools to gather food. In fact, crows are smart enough to use short tools to reach long tools that can reach food in “inaccessible” places. Monkeys use small rocks to dislodge larger rocks, then use them to smash nuts. Mandrills sharpen twigs so they can dig dirt from under their long toenails. Herons steal bread to use in baiting fish to the surface. The list goes on and on. Several psychologist pairs have tried to raise chimps for research purposes. One pair raised a chimp named Gua with their own infant son. They soon quit because their baby learned more from the chimp than he did from them. It made them nervous. Another pair of psychologists raised a newborn female chimp named Vickie for seven years as they would have raised a human child. After home rearing and speech therapy, Vickie could say “mama,” “papa,” “cup,” and “up.” They discovered that the vocal anatomy of apes is somewhat different than the human larynx, the throat, tongue, and lips. Chimps have shorter and straighter vocal systems and cannot block air in the nasal cavity, which allows humans to use many sounds. Another pair used a staff of graduate students to teach Washoe, a chimp they housed in a trailer in their backyard, the American Sign Language. The training was quite successful. Harper’s magazine ran an interesting story about the Great Ape Trust research facility in Des Moines, Iowa, where bonobos, supposedly the smartest apes, are taught sign languages and the English language. The researchers have also discovered that bonobos enjoy a beer and a cigarette on occasion. That fits right in with the college culture. You might enjoy the article.

Will Elephants Soon Acquire “Non-human” Person Status?

Ringling Brothers Barnum Bailey Circus currently owns 43 elephants and runs a 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in Central Florida. One elephant is on a breeding loan to the Fort Worth Zoo, 29 live at the Center, and 13 are on the road with the circus. Ringling has been battling various forces for 35 years over its treatment of elephants. It has decided to phase out all elephant acts by 2018. So far, other circuses have not made that decision. Ringling estimates it costs $65,000 a year to maintain an elephant and the company plans to increase the size of the Center.

Elephants are in the news constantly because of the Chinese interest in ivory carvings, a symbol of wealth. The growth of the Chinese economy has also increased the poaching of Asian and African elephants. About 30,000 elephants are killed by ivory poachers each year. Kenya recently burned 15 metric tons (27,205 lbs) of confiscated tusks to celebrate world Wildlife Day. Kenya has currently 100 metric tons of tusks, which it plans to destroy in the same manner. Ivory is now running between $1,500 to $2,000 a pound. The average adult male carries about 137 pounds of tusks, the female about 42 pounds. Ivory carvings have been an indicator of wealth in China and other Asian nations for centuries, but now even the Chinese government is trying to dissuade citizens from buying ivory in order to save the elephants. Amulets have brought $100,000 and the most expensive ivory carving so far has brought $215,000. In the last 10 years over 600,000 elephants have been killed for ivory. That’s one every 10 minutes. But it hasn’t saved Chinese cats. Vietnam police recently stopped a Chinese truck from delivering three tons of cats to restaurants in Vietnam where cat is often a specialty on the menu. Asians use cats to keep the mouse and rat population in check because they both destroy crops, so they are quite valuable to the culture. The Vietnamese authorities buried thousands of cats, some of them alive according to witnesses. The truck driver was fined 7.5 million dong ($360!) for smuggling in the cats. Such is life in the fast lane!

Some Asian Cultures Have Elephant Cemeteries

Thais revere their elephants so much they have cemeteries and stone grave markers. Let’s remember that the elephant brains weigh 11 pounds compared to our three. We have more neurons per pound so ours is more efficient, but an elephant is no Dumbo. Elephants use verbal communication and physical gestures to communicate their feelings. They console their friends and family when they are too emotional. They greet and hug each other by shaking their trunk together. They recognize their own image in mirrors. When elephants lose friends and family to poachers they often end up with a particular kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. The herd babysits the young. It is possible to recognize high-level threats and low-level threats in their calls. Some elephants have been caught mimicking human speech. An elephant in a Korean zoo folds his trunk back into his mouth and sounds out human words. That’s only when he wants the attention of humans! We have started an elephant dictionary where rumblings, purring, trumpeting, screaming, humming are recorded, each vocalization meaning something to other elephants. Newly captured baby elephants often cry themselves to sleep. With subsonic rumblings they can warn elephants a mile away of the presence of poachers. They will remember waterholes and green spaces for a lifetime. The matriarch will know when the rains come and green the grass. That’s why she is the leader of the herd. In short, elephants are social, caring, altruistic animals with very complex emotions and an understanding of present, past, and future. Each elephant has a distinct personality.

Ringling Brothers is very late in banning the use of elephants in circus and entertainment acts. Thirty-five countries (18 in Europe, 11 in South and Latin America) and 28 municipalities have banned the use for entertainment purposes. Mexico has just passed a July 8 ban on animals in circuses and is looking for homes for over 2,000 circus animals. Many groups, fairs, and businesses have banned elephant rides. Some elephants have killed trainers and others, but it usually happens when they have been mistreated by the use of hooks and chains. Perhaps it is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

What Can Rats Do With A 1.8 Gram Brain? Plenty!

New research shows human brains have 86 billion neurons instead of 100 billion. Oh, well … A baboon has 14 billion, a gorilla 28 billion. But monkeys are smarter than cows, although cows have bigger brains. And the African giant pouched rat has only a 1.8-gram brain — but can be trained to sniff out landmines with a success rate close to 100 percent. Wearing little harnesses the rats scamper behind trainers through fields filled with buried mines. Each time they find a mine, they scratch the ground and are rewarded with a piece of banana. They have already cleared millions of acres of land in Angola and Mozambique, and will soon be working the fields of Cambodia. The rats discovered 13,000 mines in Mozambique alone. Before the rats go to work they must be covered with sunblock from head to tail because they are very susceptible to skin cancer. In the wild they are nocturnal. After all, it takes about $6,900 to train each one. Some rats do not make it through basic training. Trainers say the ones that fail “just don’t have the personality!”

There is little doubt humans would be much better off:

“If I could parlay with pachyderms/ It’s a fairy tale worthy of Hans Anderson and Grimm/ A man who walks with the animals and talks with the animals, Grunts and squeaks and squawks with the animals/ And they could talk to him/ Let me hear ‘em talk.”

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