Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Animal Communication

Well, enough of fashion and soap for now and on to more inspiring matters. Those who know me well have probably noticed that in the past ten or twelve years (my most recent period of cohabiting with rabbits), the topic of animal communication has come to fascinate me. If I were just at the beginning of adulthood and trying to choose a career to support my passions, I like to think that it would be something relating to the natural world and better understanding it or repairing some of the damage humans have done to it. Exactly which direction I'd go in this re-imagined life isn't that clear, but I would certainly be drawn to learning more about how animals think and communicate, both among themselves and with humans.
In my earlier experiences with rabbits, I formed deep attachments but didn't really pay close attention to what they were trying to tell me, which at times was something as simple as "Put me down, your lap isn't a litterbox!"
When I went back to living with rabbits in the 1990s, after I had learned that the House Rabbit Society had discovered all kinds of important things about rabbit care and happiness--information my family would have benefited from in our earlier experiences with rabbits--I went about things with a more observant approach. When I brought my new rabbit home and he promptly wet on the floor near the washing machine, I was pleased that he had chosen a perfect place for me to put the litter box. Over the two-and-a-half years of his appallingly short life, he carefully but very playfully worked to teach me basic things. Ink, and to a much lesser extent his doe Penelope (who was not very patient about the stupid human), practiced a kind of interspecies sign language with me, and every time I grasp a new bit of this gestural language, it astounds me how slow I was to pick up something so obvious. Pointing at an empty dish is pretty straightforward, but what about briefly biting the rug and doing a little dig at it? This can also be a request for something to eat. And for quite awhile I thought the rabbits were being foolishly indecisive about whether they wanted to be inside or out, when of course the real message was that I should leave the door open.
Both Ink and Penelope were very intelligent, but in completely different ways, just as their personalities were utterly different. Ink, who had been adored from the start, had a warm-hearted, athletic, comical nature. He loved to lick my face, and he loved to make his humans laugh. Penelope, who had to learn to be petted other than on her head and that there was a world outside the cage, was clever but a little warped. If she thought you were making any kind of joke about her, she grew very angry. Still, every now and then she did something quite intriguing. At the time I got her, Ink was barricaded out of the living room with a big piece of cardboard. Despite his generally high physical intelligence, he was baffled how to get past the thing. Then, one day when he was in the back yard and Penelope (as yet unspayed) was out of her cage, she discovered the cardboard. With brilliant simplicity, she went to one end, grabbed it in her teeth, and shoved it aside so that she could go into the living room. And the very next time Ink was indoors, he hopped right over to the cardboard and followed her example. How did she tell him her trick? I assume it wasn't just that he smelled her saliva on the end of the cardboard. He knew exactly what to do, without having seen her do it.
I could never quite persuade Ink that it was important to come in at night, so we had ongoing disagreements about this. George, however, despite not initially seeming very bright, immediately understood that when I said I needed him to go in, he should either do so immediately or might be able to get away with another 15 minutes or so outdoors. It didn't matter whether I told George that I needed him to go in so I could run an errand, or that he needed to go in before dark. George always either got up and went in right then or did so within 10-15 minutes.
I make no claim to being an expert at communicating with animals, although from time to time I surprise myself by doing something like having a chat with a wild rabbit who comes closer to hear more about my rabbits at home. I do think that animal intelligence has long been underestimated simply because each species thinks somewhat differently and has different interests and goals (dogs and rabbits both like to please those they love, but few rabbits see any point in coming when called, unless perhaps just as a greeting to a favorite returning human). How do animals communicate among themselves? Obviously more subtly than just via the gestural language employed to communicate with humans, although gestures are also very important.
While I don't tend to have a lot of time to read about animal communication, every now and then I run across something interesting on the topic. Today's recommendation is AllCreaturesNews.com, which has a wide range of fascinating material about a group of birds, rabbits, cats, dogs, and other animals who all live with the same pair of humans. I haven't fully explored the site and its links, but I quite enjoyed the parts I did read, which of course included the rabbit sections.
Hey, every grad student needs a few new ways of taking a break from writing chapters and journal articles...



Blogger Kristen said...

You're giving me flashbacks: my college roommate got her degree in ethology. She worked at a wolf preserve/research center on the weekends. I learned a lot about animal communication in those years...

July 26, 2007 3:51 AM  
Blogger Karla said...

Well, you probably know more than I do!

July 26, 2007 6:35 AM  
Blogger Claudius Ramanauskas said...

Me Claudius. Communications inter-species is something interest me much as you see from my blog. Claudius's language and opinions is strong but Claudius have honesty and good heart. Claudius like you blog much.

July 27, 2007 9:08 AM  
Blogger Karla said...

Calypso Spots and Orion have visited Claudius's blog and are intrigued although they admit that cats are not their favorite species and that they have heard that rabbits often chase cats since cats don't know what to think of animals that approach them instead of running away from them.

July 27, 2007 5:50 PM  
Blogger Julia said...

Have you thought about setting up an online dictionary of rabbit gestures?

July 27, 2007 9:51 PM  
Blogger Karla said...

It is somewhat tempting, but I think the House Rabbit Society has better data on the lingua lagomorphica. (Speaking of rabbit tongues, we are amazed Orion hasn't worn his out yet.)

July 28, 2007 5:00 AM  

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