These days we don't use an alarm clock. Instead, we are shocked into consciousness by the frantic scratching by one of the cats at the bedroom door or the muffled whimper of Sonny the Border Collie, ready for us to get up and relieve him from the overnight company of the kitties. (We finally booted them out of the bedroom when their sleep patterns - mostly nonexistent - didn't match ours.)
Although they don't use words, animals have many ways of communicating their wants and creating a relationship with the human beings who share their space. Much of our own communication with them is wordless, as well, because they have the ability to read our emotional cues. They intuitively pick up on our tension, our despondency, our sadness, our elation, and then absorb and convey those same emotions.
Have you heard this one? "Dogs have owners. Cats have staff." A scratch at the door means the dog wants in or out. A cat will simply position itself at the door and expect you to respond appropriately. Our cats are pretty demanding when it comes to food, and by mewing and crying and wrapping themselves around our ankles, we know it's time. Sonny will, may I say, "talk" to us when he senses a buddy passing by on the street and wants to go out and play. It's not impossible to hear "out-out-out-out-out" in his high-pitched emotional efforts at verbalizing the situation.
I've read research that says, considering the relatively short timespan since dogs evolved from wolves and have lived in domesticity with human beings, it is not illogical to predict that one day dogs will be able to speak. This is explained in terms of the time it took for human anatomy to evolve to the point that we could express ourselves in speech. Such could also be the case with dogs as time passes by and their relationship with humans deepens. I'm not kidding, but I don't mean it could happen tomorrow.
Most dogs know easy words like "ride," "walk," "play," "treat," and "water," when they're thirsty. In recent years, Rico, a border collie owned by a German couple, was proven to know 200 different items. But then came Chaser, another border collie owned by a psychologist and retired professor in Spartanburg, S.C. Dr. John W. Pilley had read about Rico and set out to better the record. He carefully selected a border collie pup and worked with him four to five hours a day until the dog amassed a "vocabulary" of 1,022 nouns representing 800 cloth animals, 116 balls, 26 flying discs and assorted plastic items. Dr. Pilley then expanded his training to cover three verbs that could be combined with any of the nouns to elicit specific action.
Many of you know the touching story of the now deceased African Gray parrot, Alex, who learned some 50 different objects, seven colors and shapes and different materials such as wood, paper and fabric. His owner, Dr. Irene Pepperberg, also taught him to differentiate between sizes and to count. They had a close and emotional bond.
There are instinctive ways animals communicate with each other. Bees are known to "dance" when they discover nectar. Chimps will greet each other by touching hands, not unlike human beings. Elephants entwine trunks to show affection, as do swans when they court. Kangaroos thump their back legs insistently to warn of danger, and deer throw up their white tails to show alarm. Prairie dogs bare their teeth and press their mouths together to determine friend or foe, a practice not without some danger, I'd say.
A beautiful and touching new documentary called "Buck" devotes itself to the remarkable career of Buck Brannaman, the inspiration for the Nicolas Evans book, "The Horse Whisperer," made into a movie by and starring Robert Redford. Brannaman served as Redford's role model and consultant for the film.
In "Buck," we trace Brannaman's evolution and ascent from a horribly abused son of a violent alcoholic father, the stories he tells still make him weep, to the man known nationally and internationally as the Horse Whisperer. He takes the lessons from his own difficult childhood into the ring with damaged and problematic horses that "bring their own emotional history into the relationship" with their owners. "I help horses," is how Brannaman describes his work as he studies a horse's history, body language and posture to elicit cues he needs to be successful with each individual horse. Known as the Horse Whisperer, he puts the emphasis on "listening" to the horse. Listening is as important as the spoken word in almost every relationship, be it two human beings, humans and animals, and animal to animal. There is a lot to be learned by being quiet.
Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.