47. The Magic Bones (09/2011)

by brettthevet

It is generally accepted that other animals possess a greater sense of hearing than humans do. Strangely the inner workings of sound perception pivot on the functioning of the ‘middle ear ossicles’, hammer, anvil and stirrup, the tiniest bones in the body that hold phenomenal power as the basic hearing apparatus in the ears of mammals. Since ‘everyone hears only what he understands’ then it must surely be true that humans are comparatively lacking in understanding!

Response to sound is not always immediately evident particularly when some animals (and people) exercise selective hearing and I’m thinking specifically of cats and spouses. Informal observations are quite revealing. It can be challenging to identify deafness in animals and babies because of other sensuous compensations. Even our aloof feline friends cannot ignore repeated vocal appeals, acknowledged subtly by a twitch of an ear, blinking, a shift in the angle of the head, or a little flick of the tail.

The sound of dogs’ food bowls touching the floor no matter how softly and regardless of the proximity of interested tummies calls immediate attention. The crackling of certain packaging, clinking chains and other specific, almost imperceptible sounds stimulates startling responses in domestic animals. Distinct alertness is notable in geese who retire to a safety enclosure well away from the house at dusk poised for sound. Their vociferous honking upon hearing the faintest of footsteps approaching at any time is quite staggering.

I’m mortified when I see the animals in my world wince if I carelessly cause a harsh noise to disturb their composure. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a human being maintain the elegance and grace of a cat, dog, or even a pig; especially a pig for that matter.

Anyone who has tried to approach animals in the wild will know that it’s virtually impossible to advance in complete silence, as we also make noises that we can’t hear. And yet stealth is developed to a remarkable degree in even the largest animals such as elephants who can walk among tents of sleeping campers quite noiselessly in the depths of the night. The keenness of hearing is linked to the relative quietness of the animal. To our ears a dolphin slips through the water in silence but as their sense of hearing is fourteen times greater than ours it follows that they are privy to many secrets.

Intriguing about the external ears of animals is their ability to move independently of each other and the body, to focus sound waves. Response times leave us lagging behind especially now that technology has slowed down the communication centers in our brains. Consider that an owl reacts to the sound of a mouse scuttling in the grass in 0.01 of a second!

The expression of emotion apart from other body language or sounds is often conveyed through the changing position of the ears. Fear and aggression spring to ears in spectacular fashion in horses and elephants. Embarrassment is almost the only emotion humans involuntarily convey through the rush of blood to these and other parts. Their heightened sense of touch make ears an obvious place to demonstrate affection for dogs, cats, rats, and pigs, but less so for horses. Apparently a lion will be your friend for life if you scratch him behind the ears or remove the thorn from his paw.

Some crazy pharaoh had the idea of inflicting ridicule on some canine strains (still acceptable in some circles) by selecting for extended flap length that has no beneficial effect on hearing, appearance, or health, but imposes a predisposition to lifetimes of pain and discomfort.

Animals seem inherently attuned to sound, attentive. One cannot help but wonder if their need to be heard is as acute as ours, or if amongst each other they also hear but seldom listen.