Doctor Dolittle: Animal Minds, Animal Rights, and Much More

Hugh Lofting's book is a gold mine of information on human-animal relationships.

Posted Dec 29, 2016

Decoding Doctor Dolittle: If we could talk to the animals

So many of us know the song "If We Could Talk To The Animals" and hum it from time to time. It begins:

If we could talk to the animals,
Just imagine it,

Chatting to a chimp in chimpanzee
Imagine talking to a tiger,
Chatting to a cheetah
What a neat achievement it would be 

Research has clearly shown that we can indeed have conversations with other animals. While we talk—that is, use spoken words—they clearly can communicate with us in their own ways, and they do it very well. I'll leave it to others to debate whether or not nonhuman animals (animals) actually talk. Doctor Dolittle's parrot, Polynesia, does a good job at talking and teaching him to talk to the animals who come to him for care. 

I find myself humming that song quite a bit, and because of what I do for a living, I also find myself thinking about how nonhumans are represented in popular media. A few weeks ago, while channel flipping on TV, I came upon the original "Doctor Dolittle" movie and decided to watch it. And, just a few days ago, I watched it again. On the second go-around I took some notes and then reread Hugh Lofting's book called The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle and decided not to do any highlighting as pretty much every page would be bright yellow. I also found a script of a play based on this book so I could study some of the lines more closely.

The violence visited upon animals

I had no idea about the origin of the book and found this to be very moving: "Hugh Lofting was born just outside of London in 1886. While serving in the army during World War I, he did not want to write home to his children about the atrocities of the war. Instead he wrote fanciful letters that became the basis for the zany adventures of John Dolittle. The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, published in 1922, won the prestigious Newbery Medal."

In Dr. Catherine Elick's insightful essay called "Anxieties of an Animal Rights Activist: 
The Pressures of Modernity in Hugh Lofting's Doctor Dolittle Series
" we read:

Notably, it was not the devastation to human lives and values that wrenched Lofting into writing illustrated letters about the unconventional Doctor Dolittle to his children Elizabeth and Colin but the violence visited upon animals. In an author's commentary first published in 1934 in The Junior Book of Authors, Lofting describes his distress over animals' suffering during the war:

Oftentimes you would see a cat stalking along the ruins thruout [sic] a heavy bombardment, in a town that had been shelled more than once before in that same cat's recollection. She was taking her chances with the rest of us. And the horses, too, learned to accept resignedly and unperturbed the falling of high explosives in their immediate neighbor-hood. But their fate was different from the men's. However seriously a soldier was wounded, his life was not despaired of; all the resources of a surgery highly developed by the war were brought to his aid. A seriously wounded horse was put out by a timely bullet.

This did not seem quite fair. If we made the animals take the same chances as we did ourselves, why did we not give them similar attention when wounded? But obviously to develop a horse-surgery as good as that of our Casualty Clearing Stations would necessitate a knowledge of horse language.

All in all, my take on Mr. Lofting's book and the original movie is that they are gold mines of information for discussions of many "hot" topics today in the fields of cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds), conservation psychology ("the scientific study of the reciprocal relationships between humans and the rest of nature, with a particular focus on how to encourage conservation of the natural world"), and anthrozoology (the study of human-animal relationships). 

Predictors of things to come: Genetic engineering, animals as witnesses, and animals with eyesight problems

Here I just want to make a few comments and hope to whet your appetite so that you think seriously about watching the movie and reading the book or watching and reading once again. In these works we find predictors of the genetic engineering of animals (consider the pushmi-pullyu, a double-headed llama, who sleeps with one head at a time with whom the doctor could immediately speak because he knew that llamas speak a dialect of camel language), animals as witnesses (Dab-Dab the duck), and Clyde, a near-sighted horse. In a New York Times essay by James Gorman called "Do They Make Reading Glasses for Older Bonobos?" published in November 2016, we read about farsightedness in older bonobos. The research paper on which Mr. Gorman's essay is based is titled "Long-sightedness in old wild bonobos during grooming."

Giving zood animals choice and control. Doctor Dolittle also has seminal discussions on animal cognition and intelligence, animal emotions, zoos, vegetarianism, and much more. Concerning his meal plans, the good doctor is a vegetarian. And, concerning zoos, he notes (p. 40), "Every door has a lock. But in my zoo the doors open from the inside, not from the out. The locks are there so the animals can go and shut themselves in any time they want to get away from the annoyance of other animals or from people who might come here. Every animal in this zoo stays here because he likes it, not because he is made to." Discussions about zoo animals losing numerous freedoms and having little to no choice or control over their lives are a central part of the criticisms of today's zoos.

In the book, we also learn that Doctor Dolittle decided to leave his west African parrot, Polynesia, in Africa when they visited there, because "she seemed so glad to get back to her own country. She wept for joy." (p. 22)  

Doctor Dolittle also uses common language to refer to other animals. For example, he is extremely concerned that Sophie, a seal who was kidnapped from her natural home, lost her husband, and releases her in hope that she will find him. More and more people are using terms like husband, wife, and children when they write about other animals. Referring to a female's progeny as her "young" or "offspring" doesn't have the feel that the word children has, and indeed, they are her children. More food for thought on how we refer to other animals. 

The film and the movie also moved me to revisit much of what Charles Darwin wrote about animal intelligence and animal emotions. Darwin favored what is called evolutionary continuity, in which differences among animals are differences in degree, rather than kind. So, in many instances, if we have something, "they" (other animals) have it too. Once again, more food for thought about who we are and who they are. 

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle would be an excellent book for many different courses

A few verses from the film serve to show just where Dr. Dolittle is coming from. I encourage you to read all of them and share them widely. 

I do not understand the human race.
It has so little love for creatures
with a different face.
Treating animals like people
is no madness or disgrace.
I do not understand the human race.

What do we do?
We neglect them;
we do nothing to protect them;
we reject them,
don't expect them to complain.
We ignore them or we beat them;
when we're hungry, then we eat them.
It's appalling how we treat them,
it's insane!
Like animals! 

We humiliate and murder and confine them
we create their wretched status,
then we use it to malign them.

Decoding Dr. Dolittle is an incredibly stimulating exercise. There is so much there for discussion among researchers and non-researchers alike. In Dr. Elick's essay we read, "As Lofting explicitly acknowledges, the war moved him to envision situations in which the unfair balance of power between humans and animals might be shifted. In this respect, certainly, Lofting's impulses are very modern..." She really is right on the mark here. 

While one can surely pick apart some of the film and the book for not being scientific, or for being too fluffy, my take is that it they are excellent educational materials for a wide range of courses in biology, psychology, sociology, human-animal studies, and philosophy, for example.

The version of the book I have has some excellent questions for discussion at the end by Dr. Arthur Pober, an expert in early childhood and gifted education, and I imagine that these discussions and debates could easily fill a semester's course and generate many interesting essays. As I went through them, I imagined a book! I surely would have used the film and the book in some of my courses. Indeed, as I reread a recent interview I did called "The Battle For Animal Rights," I came to realize that numerous issues raised in the film and the book still are "hot" topics nowadays. 

All in all, it's clear I'm a fan of revisiting and some might say decoding Doctor Dolittle. I can only imagine what Doctor Dolittle would feel if he were alive today, in an epoch I like to call "the rage of humanity," to witness the global and violent treatment to which we intentionally subject billions of other animals each and every day. 

Note 1: Please also see my essay called "In Ralph Nader's New Book, Animals Speak for Themselves" about his recent book called Animal Envy: A Fable. I also include an interview with Mr. Nader. 

Note 2: I'm using Doctor Dolittle, rather than Doctor Doolittle, because that seems to be the most common way to refer to him. And, I fully realize that there have been criticisms of the film and book for having racist overtones and other problems. More than 1200 animals were used in the film, one of whom, a giraffe, died on the set. We're also told, "In his autobiography Rex Harrison reported being bitten by a chimp, a Pomerian puppy, a duck and a parrot as well have having to attempt to work with a drunk squirrel that had been fed gin through a fountain pen in an attempt to ‘calm’ it. It’s not difficult to understand why it felt agitated in the first place." 

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in April 2017.