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They Talk, We Listen

We have a lot to learn and hear from our animal kin.

This essay's title is inspired by and taken from Vine Deloria, Jr.'s 1970 book, "We Talk, You Listen: New tribes, New Turf," University of Nebraska Press.

Public domain
Source: Public domain

On January 13, 1898, the citizens of France woke to the startling headline, J’accuse! (I accuse!) It was the opening sentence of a letter to the President of France written by writer Émile Zola accusing the government of anti-Semitism and its wrongful imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfus. [1] Certainly, the letter’s front page status was significant, but it was the use of the first person, “I”, that was so arresting. Why? The answer is the subject of a riveting new book, Speaking for Animals: Animal Autobiographical Writing , edited by Margo DeMello. [2] Zola may only have had the human branch of the animal kingdom in mind when he wrote his manifesto, but today, its bold authority of self is recognized in other species.

It's not as if talking animals were new. As DeMello points out in the introduction:

For thousands of years, in the myths and folktales of people around the world, animals have spoken in human tongues. . . Animals speak, famously, in children’s stories and in cartoons and film. . . We routinely speak for our animals–to friends, to family, to the veterinarian. We also speak through them; sometime people use their “pet” dog or cat as a sort of mediator to communicate information to another person.

Oral and written human stories are replete with the Apache’s fast-talking Coyote, Aesop’s sweet talking Fox, Don Marquis’ wry Cockroach and Swanson-esque Cat, Orwell’s silver-tongued Pig, and Kenneth Grahame’s hail-fellow-well-met Toad, to name a few. These and others are near and dear to the hearts of people around the world, and no one really questions if these characters are “real.” Indeed, the believability of what these animals say, and how it perfectly matches who they are, is what makes the stories so enduring.

Margo DeMello
Source: Margo DeMello

But with the exception of American Indian and other tribal narratives, when taken out of the context of private lives and childhood memories, literary animals have been banished by the powers that be to the faded pages of the books from whence they sprang. After all, western scholars have made it very clear that language and subjective experience are proprietary attributes of humans. So our animal kin must be satisfied with being silenced objects, objects of fascination and study, but objects nonetheless. This rationale maintains the obsolete disciplinary separation between animal behavior and human psychology, a construct that was vanquished centuries ago by Darwin and more recently declared invalid by neuroscientists. [3] Not satisfied with this discovery alone, Speaking for Animals explores inferential details of identity and voice.

Representing diverse perspectives, the authors discuss how the line between the fantastic and academic animal is actually quite blurred. The “I” of self-awareness and “Thou” of another are frequent occupants of a liminal in-between. Kathy Rudy, Duke Professor of Ethics and Women’s Studies illustrates the convergence of many tribal and post-colonial views of human and animal identities. How and who we see and how we act is not predetermined by the form into which we are born. For example, in the case of American North Plains Indians: ”What it meant to be human was fundamentally intertwined with a relation to particular places and specific animals.” [4]

The idea that tribal humanness was informed by an animalness looks very much like the other side of the coin, namely, the realness of animals in literature derives from their humanness. As standing science models of brain and mind now describe, species differences are just different icings on the same biological and cultural cake. All of us are “humanimals” wearing diverse shades of skin, fin, feather, and fur.

Margo DeMello, used with permission.
Source: Margo DeMello, used with permission.

The question of identity has far-reaching implications beyond the brambles of academic discourse. Now that science has come to the conclusion that “they” have what “we” have in terms of mind, brain, and consciousness, then logically “they” should get what “we” have. Any justification for barring nonhuman animals the rights that privilege our own species has disappeared as surely as the Cheshire Cat.

But, what about language? Does species leveling imply taking a page from Orwell's Animal Farm where human political and economic leaders are replaced by “four legs good, two legs bad, except with wings”? [5] And are we humans expected to talk to the animals? The answer is yes. However, no cross-species linguistic specialist like Dr. Doolittle is required. Animals speak on their own.

Science and scholarship have disconfirmed the idea of rigid human and nonhuman animal identities, along with the assumption that nonhuman animals do not possess the means to communicate dreams, aspirations, and thoughts. Several contributors to the volume call upon a scientific article by a human, psychologist, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, and her three Bonobo co-authors, Kanzi, Panbanisha, and Nyota Wamba. [6]

Using a bilingual medium, the four set out to articulate what was equivalent to a Bonobo Bill of Rights. By standards dictated by the National Institutes of Health, National Academy of Science, and American Physical Society, the Bonobos qualified as legitimate authors. The Bonobos and human “made significant contributions,” own “a stake in the product,” and/or “made [a] substantive creative contribution to the generation of an intellectual product.“ The bonobos effected a “review [of] all drafts of manuscripts for accuracy/fidelity and . . .indicate[d] agreement [or dissent] before a draft was moved forward to publication.” In short, the exercise showed that “language and personhood are simply not coincident with the human form.” Through its models and data, “science has eliminated the conceptual foundation that sanctions modern humanity’s monopoly on epistemic authority.”[7]

But, these voices for animals continue to explore the currents of ethical ambiguities, into the liminal space of relationship where source and receiver lose their identity. Such is the case when confronted with making a decision for another.

Speaking for another is one of the most delicate tasks an individual can undertake. Carers of humans and nonhuman animals alike face this every day, whether as health advocate or one responsible for household affairs. DeMello takes up an even more nuanced challenge in her exploration of the psychosocial milieu of Bunspace .

Margo DeMello, used with permission.
Source: Margo DeMello, used with permission.

Bunspace is a social networking website that hosts “over 16,000 profiles, community forums, shared interest groups, . . .a  newsletter” and resources such as Rabbit care, food, and other issues concerning House Rabbits—Rabbits who live with their domestic humans. What is unique about Bunspace is that it serves as a medium of exchange not only between humans,  but also between rabbits. Human guardians “spend time talking through their rabbits’ voices.” DeMello shares her unexpected plunge into intense blogging that was precipitated by a rabbit, Igor, who came to live with her and her family:

Igor’s personality captured my heart from the beginning: he is pushy, selfish, demanding, grumpy, and territorial. He loves fiercely and hates as fiercely. I began blogging through Igor and have him a voice to match his personality. . .I blogged regularly about Igor’s developing relationships with a series of rabbits: Sweet Girl, the disabled rabbit who would be his primary companion for two months until her death. . .and Pilgrim.

Pilgrim was also disabled—a paraplegic rabbit who had been fitted with a “cart” to aid in his mobility. 

When Sweet Girl suddenly died from a spay operation, DeMello writes, “Igor was devastated. I blogged about her death, but through Igor’s voice”:

I don’t know what happened, my Sweet Girl is gone. Yesterday she left in the morning and didn’t even say good-bye. She just left. I waited all day yesterday and she never came home, and today she’s still not home. I am really, really sad. I don’t even know what I am going to do with myself.

Margo DeMello, used with permission.
Source: Margo DeMello, used with permission.

DeMello continued to write about Igor’s black grief and that of her own. Eventually, Igor opened to Pilgrim, and “the two became bonded, spending all of their days and nights together. Pilgrim even stopped using his cart, preferring to spend his time snuggling with Igor.” Then, suddenly, tragically, Pilgrim died. Igor blogged:

I don’t know why everything I love gets taken away from me. . .[a]nd I can’t even find out why he died. The lady who lives here didn’t take Pilgrim’s body into the vet soon enough and after he died and they couldn’t find anything. Stupid lady. So I don’t even know if I’ll be next. Right now I am so upset I am putting a hole in the wall. Serves them right.

Margo DeMello, used with permission.
Source: Margo DeMello, used with permission.

After Pilgrim disappeared, Igor chewed a “baseball-sized hole into the living room wall as a result of his feelings.”

DeMello closes her essay with a quote from another blogger who says that Bunspace “has manifested itself to something which, I believe, is bigger. . .[a]nd, I think, profoundly so.” [8]

Speaking for Animals has accomplished something remarkable that no other tome nor advocacy has before. With scholarly approbation and rigor, it showcases what nonhuman animals possess but have been denied all along—the voice of Zola’s “I.”

Gay Bradshaw, PhD, PhD is Executive Director of The Kerulos Center a non-profit organization whose vision is a world where animals live in dignity and freedom. It's mission includes education, research, sanctuary, and advocacy. Dr. Bradshaw is the author of Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us about Humanity , an in-depth psychological portrait of elephants in captivity and in the wild. Her work focuses on human-animal relationships and trauma recovery of species that include elephants, grizzly bears, tortoises, chimpanzees, and parrots.

Literature Cited

[1] Zola, E. 1898. J’Accuse. L’Aurore. January 13 1898.

[2] DeMello, M. 2013. (ed.) Speaking for animals: animal autobiographical writing. 80. Routledge.

[3] Cambridge Declaration. 2012. The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness .

[4] Harrod, H. L. 2000. The animals came dancing: Native American sacred ecology and animal kinship. University of Arizona Press. Cited in Rudy, K. 2013. If we could talk to the animals: On changing the (post) human subject. 149-160. In DeMello, M. 2013. (ed.) Speaking for animals: animal autobiographical writing. 80. Routledge.

[5] Orwell, G. 1945/2009. Animal farm: a fairy story. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

[6] Savage-Rumbaugh, S., K. Wamba, P. Wamba, and N. Wamba. 2007. Welfare of apes in captive environments: comments on, and by, a specific group of apes. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 10.1: 7-19.

[7] Bradshaw, G. A. 2010. An ape among many: animal co-authorship and trans-species epistemic authority." Configurations 18.1: 15-30.

[8] Demello, M. 2013. Identity, community, and grief: The role of Bunspace in human and rabbit Lives.  In DeMello, M. 2013. (ed.) Speaking for animals: animal autobiographical writing. 80. Routledge. 115-129.