2:03 am - Wednesday November 11, 2015

Animals are people too, or so they tell me

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Bees, wasps and hornets
Bees, wasps and hornets

By Nury Vittachi

DOGS IN ASIA CAN BE MULTILINGUAL, an animal welfare activist claims. Parisian poodles speak French, chow-chow dogs should be spoken to in Chinese, and chihuahuas understand Spanish, says Maneka Gandhi. But dogs in Asia, such as her own, are multilingual.

“I speak to them in English and Hindi while the house staff address them in assorted tongues ranging from Bengali to Bhojpuri,” said the animal lover on the Delhi-based People for Animals website. “They respond to all of us with equal ease.”

Not everyone is so lucky. My neighbour has dreadful trouble communicating with her dog, an uppity mongrel given to cryptic asides. This writer has noticed that the East Asians in my family have a very reserved attitude to all animals, probably not unrelated to the fact they are imagining what they taste like. But my South Asian family members (mostly vegetarians) think of animals as nice furry people, like Italians, Mediterraneans and Greeks, but smaller and less obsessed with tax evasion.

Human-animal communications are on my mind since the King of Crows is on tour. This guy, Gautam Sapkota, holds outdoor meetings in Nepal. After his human audience has gathered, he shouts “Come and take a seat” in Crow (which is “Caw, caw, caw”). Hundreds of the large dark-feathered birds flock to the scene. Later, he says: “You can go now” (“Caw, caw, caw, caw”) and off they fly. It’s pretty cool. Gautam claims to be able to speak 251 bird dialects.

Mentioning this caused a reader to forward me news of an experiment done at Keio University, Tokyo. Researchers read Chinese and English translations of modern Japanese novels out loud to a group of captive birds. Yes, I know, it ‘s unspeakably cruel, but that’s science for you. By associating the books with various bird snack options, researchers concluded that birds could easily tell Chinese from English. Not sure how impressive that is, since even my uncles can do the same, as long as you don’t ask them after 6 p.m. on Friday nights. The report did not say which translation the birds favoured, but one can presumably look up their reviews on Amazon.

The fact is, humans talk to their pets daily. My wife defines dogs “simple, appetite-driven creatures you can read like a book”. No, wait. That’s how she defines “men”.

But anyway, our dog wanders in and out of rooms in our apartment and her barks, yelps, whines and looks can be easily translated. “Hi. I just stepped into this room to see if anyone in here might give me a snack.” One minute later: “Hi. I just stepped into this room to see if anyone in here might give me a snack.” Another minute later: “Hi. I just stepped into this room.” Etc. That’s pretty much my dog’s whole life, except for when she’s actually eating. Then there’s a gap of maybe 20 seconds before the basic pattern
starts again. “Hi, I just stepped into this room.” Etc.

Talking about food has made me hungry. I might just step into the offices on this floor, see if there’s anyone around who might give me a snack.

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