Over on the tech blog at the Atlantic, underneath that photograph that looks like a bunch of prairie dogs humping, is an article titled “We’ll Soon Have Devices That Let Us Talk With Our Pets.” The animal behavior researcher interviewed in the article, Con Slobodchikoff, is finding out some interesting stuff about animal communication and it appears far more complex than merely primal grunts and whistles. He even believes conversations between humans and animals are not too far off into the future. From the interview:
So I think we have the technology now to be able to develop the devices that are, say, the size of a cellphone, that would allow us to talk to our dogs and cats. So the dog says “bark!” and the device analyzes it and says, “I want to eat chicken tonight.” Or the cat can say “meow,” and it can say, “You haven’t cleaned my litterbox recently.”
But if we’re going to get to that technology, it’s going to take some research. And it’s probably five to 10 years out. But I think we can get to the point where we can actually communicate back and forth in basic animal languages to dogs, cats, maybe farm animals — and, who knows, maybe lions and tigers.
It all seems fascinating to me, and also a bit fantastic, in the meaning of the word that conjures up “fantasy.” Slobodchikoff has been able to decode communication between prairie dogs that involves mostly one prairie dog warning another prairie dog about approaching predators, using a series of vocalizations that he quite generously compares to “sentences.” There are other noises the prairie dogs make that Slobodchikoff has not been able to decipher yet, and he’s thinking the prairie dogs could be discussing the weather, or even whether or not that cute prairie dog who lives in the other hole in the ground over there is single.
Given that prairie dogs only live a few (4-7) years, inhabit mostly arid wasteland, and are prey to a whole host of creatures (badgers, foxes, bobcats, weasels and humans, to name a few) I’m not sure how much time they have for idle conversation.
On the other hand, domestic animals, at least those who are not ultimately bound for the slaughterhouse, probably do have time to chit chat since they don’t have to worry about coyotes (they live safely under human protection) or passing on their genetic material (Prevent a litter! Neuter your critter!) and mostly sit around longing for us to return from work (if they are a dog) or waiting for their food bowl to be refilled (if they are a cat).
Which brings me to the new addition to our family, Bella. Before this kitten joined our household, my husband and I lived with our two daughters, an anxious 8-year-old cat named Noodles, and two equally anxious guinea pig sisters, Lulubelle and Nibbles. A delicate peace existed between humans and animals. Now Bella has come and chaos reigns. After reading about Professor Slobodchikoff’s research, I’m wondering if one of those cell phone-like translator devices he described in his interview with the Atlantic would help me restore harmony.
Me: (screaming) Bella! The guinea pigs are not food! Get away from their cage!
Bella: (to Noodles) What did she say?
Noodles: Who knows? This translator is a piece of crap. Every time she talks all I hear is the “wah-wah-wah” voice of the adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons.
Lulubelle and Nibbles: (speaking together) She said we are not food.
Bella: Oh, that can’t be right. You look like food. She must have said something else. Maybe she said you are food. Maybe your translator is a piece of crap, too.
Lulubelle and Nibbles: (pushing the translator out of their cage with their noses) Made in China piece of crap.
Bella: (to Noodles) Don’t they look like food to you?
Noodles: They do look like food to me, but they also look scary, with those long rat teeth. I’m staying away.
Bella: Oh, you’re such a pussy. (She sticks her paw into the guinea pig cage again)
Royalty free stock photos including the images in this post can be found at Stock.XCHNG, except for the photo of Bella, which I took with my crappy Made in China cellphone.