8. Animal Talk (06/2008)

by brettthevet

The sounds animals make offer essential clues to their state of health. Barking, mewing, bleating, mooing, neighing, and grunting are some of our rather simplified terms describing the language of domestic animals. Vocalisation in times of need, distress, alarm, enjoyment, contentment, and illness is often directed at humans.

Why do dogs bark? There are circumstances when canine communication is clearly understood. If a dog is pierced by a thorn or a bee sting it will probably yelp in a pain response, much like a human would. A request to be let outside or back indoors is conveyed by a whine. An alarm call is characterized by deep, resonant, often persistent barking. The intention in these cases is usually clear. Dogs are social, pack animals: they need company, and dialogue. Perceived problems with barking arise when dogs are left alone for extended periods. Continuous yapping is invariably a form of attention seeking – encouraged by shouting, placated by conversation and inclusion. When a dog endures chronic pain it will usually suffer in silence.

Cats are probably the most emotional of our domestic species. They’ll display the full range of mewing intonations from gentle greetings and pleading for food or affection, to sweet talking, calling, yelling and screaming – and cats will scream in anger, pain, fear or frustration. The message is usually apparent. Then there is also the enigma of purring, which all feline species can perform, and nobody really knows how. It conveys a sensation of comfort whether the cat is happy, or nervous, or experiencing extreme pain (injured cats will often purr). When the sounds emanating from a cat are unfamiliar or disturbed, it may be an indication to seek advice.

Content cows have a warm and mellow moo. This changes to a disturbing and sustained bellow when they’re distressed over a calf forcibly removed, falling on deaf ears as we justify the need for fresh milk.

An alert shepherd will recognise the voice of a lost lamb, but so will a jackal: to one ear an appeal, to another, a meal.

When we tune in to the sounds of the animal world and try to understand them, the more subtle modulations start to become apparent. Sitting among a group of free range hens for a few hours becomes an enlightening experience as they chat among themselves using at least 32 different sounds(that we know of) to communicate. It is to our great shame that these highly evolved, sentient birds are treated so badly on a massive scale. In SA alone more than 18 million hens are kept in battery cages to produce eggs. They are debeaked and declawed to stop them from injuring one another. The cramped housing conditions mean that are unable to perform natural behaviour like perching, dust bathing, scratching in the sand, or preening. Their calls are deranged and pitiful. But luckily we never have to hear them.

Strangely enough most of the communication between animals occurs without sound as can be witnessed, for example, in a flock of sheep that react together synchronised by simultaneous responses known as ‘allelomimetic behaviour’. Elephants have been known to convey information over distances exceeding 70kms. There is evidence that animals communicate telepathically, even between species. Humans also possess this ability, but are seldom able to access it. When we take the time to truly notice and increase our awareness of animal talk, our experience of life on earth is immeasurably enriched.