Looking for Dr. Dolittle


On Mother’s Day, no less, this expectant squirrel appeared on the “Juliet balcony” of my daughter’s Chicago apartment, and chose it as her nesting site, despite the presence of a fascinated ginger cat, right on the other side of the screen. Her babies arrived, and lively visits from other mother squirrels with their slightly older offspring ensued.

All very Beatrix Potter meets David Attenborough, eh? But how did this urban Mrs. Nutkin negotiate an understanding with my daughter, that the not-always-sleeping-Seamus would be kept securely on his side of the window? Don’t kid yourself for a minute, that All Creatures Great and Small inhabit a Peaceable Kingdom these days, especially in cities. There is a chilling news story from last night, of 9-month-old twin girls in East London, attacked in their cribs by an urban fox who apparently came in through the bedroom window. It was “so bold,” reports their horrified mother, that it didn’t immediately scurry away when she turned on the light. [Assuming it wasn’t neurologically impaired with rabies–which would be my first guess about a Maryland fox behaving so bizarrely–its startled limbic system probably chose “freeze” as a first response, followed by “flee.”]

The authorities partially blame the careless [or naively sentimental] humans who leave out food for the foxes, the semiotics of which betoken: “Won’t you be my neighbor?” As of today, in that district of London at least, each little back garden has a baited Have-a-Heart trap, beckoning: “Step into this parlour.”

Apart from the obvious carrot & stick methods of trans-species communication, how do most of us talk to the animals? Often, we give them to understand what’s on our minds by teaching them our “secret code” of words and gestures. When they guess our thoughts correctly [and obey our command], they get a reward.

Yeah, yeah, but what if we want to guess their thoughts? If the animal in question is right in front of us [like the balcony squirrel], we can go all Jane Goodall, and observe it closely for subtle changes in limbic arousal: pitch variation in vocalizations, fur standing on end, and so on. Even so, we may not understand just what got up its nose. So, we do what we do with what Piaget termed “cognitive aliens,” pre-verbal babies: we make it up. We attribute a plausible subtext to their howling or chortling. “He’s hungry.” “She loves her Uncle Neddy.” After all, who’s going to contradict us?

The NYTimes ran a pre-Preakness article about two high-priced “psychic diagnosticians” [also known as “animal communicators”], both ladies, as it happens, who will tell you what’s up your horse’s nose from “anywhere in the world.” A consultation costs $500. Once again, who’s going to contradict the Doctors Dolittle? The horse?

A brief digression, for an apocryphal anecdote, attributed to Henry VIII: “A king once commanded his farrier, ‘Make this horse talk in a year’s time, or I’ll have you killed.’ The farrier comforted his distraught family, ‘A year is a long time. Anything might happen. The king may die, or the horse may die, or the horse may talk.'” My kids were so taken with this vignette, that whenever an improbably wonderful thing seems on the verge of happening, we say, “The horse is clearing his throat.”

Wanna know the relevance of animal telepathy, to those of us who haven’t hung out our equine psychic shingle? Couldn’t be clearer. It’s about communicating with the Wolf in Our Head, to figure out what’s up its [our] nose. If you feel confident that you can “read” your baby [or your beloved pet, or the squirrel on your deck] “like an open book,” so, too, might you venture to “read your inner Wolf.”

Go on, have a go. The alternative is to spend $500 on a long-distance “reading” from a total stranger.

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Filed under attribution theory, ethology, limbic system, semiotics

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