Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Talking to Animals

I've been thinking a lot more about the communication that predates society. Between humans this basically amounts to tone and body language, but the focus of my recent thinking has been the simple fact that this form of communication can cross species divides. As I've interacted with the various wildlife around me I've been thinking about the messages being sent, how those would be put into words, and from what I've seen there are only a few basic phrases.

I've passed a number of cats, strays or simply outdoor cats I can't tell, but the exchange seems to go something like this.

I approach cat, I make eye contact, this says to the cat "I am a predator."

Depending on what the cat is doing, and the nature of that particular animal the response varies. This phrasing of it first occurred to me when I was walking past a cat that was, at the time, staring intently at a bird nest. When I looked at it the return glance gave a very clear message.

"I am also a predator."

It was an interesting moment because I had the innate understanding that he and I were on agreeable terms, that we had met, neither had backed down, but we had no real disputes so we could pass without conflict. I had all of that with a cat.

There is another subtext that can be drawn from this kind of exchange as well, something that became particularly clear after I started using various miens while approaching these animals. Approaching while making eye contact says "I am a predator," but to an animal which is also a predator this isn't what's really going on, the full phrase in this case is something more along the lines of "I am a predator, and this is my territory." It's interesting to note how cats react to the approach of someone behaving in this way. (Quick side note, cats are the only animal I regularly see which is at once a predator and close enough to be reasonably observed. I'd ask the hawks how they feel but they're just so damn far away.) The cat will meet your gaze, classic "I am also a predator" response, but as you approach you can see it gradually shifting as it realizes that my stature and sheer physical size means that my statement is appended to "I am the superior predator, and this is my territory." At which point the cat usually runs away, which when it come to animal territory disputes is the universal message for "I agree, you are the superior predator and this is your territory."

Prey animals have a number of interesting responses. Squirrels in particular have a wide variety of spastic reactions. They have an interesting way of tensing up, clearly reading themselves to suddenly escape, even while they continue to do whatever task they were performing before. Many of them will run away almost without provocation. I've always imagined that exchange to go something along the lines of:

Me: "I am a predator."
Squirrel: "I'm not, I'm not, I'm not!!!"

The other thing about squirrel's that's amused me is that once they've escaped they'll stop and turn around, clearly looking at me, insofar as a prey animal can look at any one thing. In that moment they're whole body is incredibly tense, but you can see a kind of low animal cunning going on in their heads as they try to decide if I'm still a threat or if it's safe to go back to digging things up.

The most interesting prey response however is from ducks. There's a number of them that sleep on the actually fountain mechanism in the center of the large fountain in a part of the campus that I'm sure has an actual name but I just think of as "The area around the fountain." You can meet the eyes of a duck which is on the sidewalk and they'll begin moving away from you in the classic "I know I'm prey, but last time I checked I wasn't prey for that monkey, but just in case..." What's far more amusing though is meeting the eyes of one of the ones out in the middle of the water. They're response is a kind of almost smug dismissal. My phrasing of this exchange was:

Me: "I am a predator"
Duck: "Yeah, but I'm way over here in the water."

Lastly there is the other message that I've found I can send to animals. One which elicits a completely different response pattern from every subject. It's a matter of making oneself less obtrusive, and looking at the animal without making eye contact. It's the way normal people treat animals all the time. The basic message here is, as I understand it, "I am a human." It's an odd one, one that doesn't have a place in nature, but the animals have all learned reactions to this. Squirrels will be wary but not fearful, ducks won't care, and cats fall somewhere on the scale between indifferent and friendly, depending on which cat it is.

This whole thing is, as so many things are, fascinating to me because I've found a way to play with the grand charade of society. I can put on my society mask and tell the rest of the world "I am a person," or I can say what is in my nature. I can meet the eyes of the rest of the world and remind them, ever so gently, that I am a predator.


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