All Things Bright And Beautiful31 October 2012
Dolphins are scarily intelligent. While the dolphin-apocalypse predicted in that one episode of The Simpsons may be a little out of their reach, they’re still far more cognitively advanced than we might be comfortable acknowledging. They have incredibly complex social structures, which even transcend species. Spotted dolphins and bottlenose dolphins have been observed hunting together and even looking after each other’s young. They have a sense of self insofar as they recognise themselves in mirrors, and each individual has a distinctive, self-identifying call probably analogous to names. They even appear to respond appropriately to human behaviours like laughing and clapping.
Their use of language–for there is now little doubt that their sounds truly do form some kind of language–is of great interest. Several prototypes have been created for ‘translators’ of dolphins’ whistles and clicks: for example a giant submerged keyboard off the coast of Jupiter, Florida, that researchers have successfully taught wild dolphins to use by pressing the keys with their snouts. yes, this is really a thing. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, science. It’s early days yet, but the prospect of significant inter-species discourse is closer than ever before in human history.
At the risk of appearing ‘arrogant’ or ‘wankerish’, I must confess that I am something of an expert in this field. You see, thanks to the intervention of a kindly and environmentally-conscious wizard, I have been able to converse with all sorts of animals since I was a young child, not unlike Eliza Thornberry, although i am much much prettier and (mostly) non-fictional.
So, on the threshold of a new age, let me be the first of many to declare that animals are actually fucking boring.
Yes, we can and should appreciate the immensity of a blue whale or the grace of a gazelle or the cuteness of a pygmy anteater–these are all profoundly impressive facets of the animal kingdom–but when it comes to conversation, even the most ferocious, mysterious, adorable beasts have bupkis to offer.
My initial idea for this piece was simple: I would interview my family’s dalmatians, Mary-Jane and Snoop* and get a few cute quotes. After rousing them from their daily coma and enduring minutes of silent yawning and scratching, I was finally rewarded with a “g’day” from Snoop.
“Guys, I’m writing an article for Farrago about humans speaking with animals.”
“An article for what?” asked Mary-Jane.
“It’s, um–look, I’m writing an article.”
“And you don’t mean ‘humans speaking with other animals’?” Snoop said, archly, like a spotty Stephen Fry.
“I just want to ask you some questions!” I said, failing to rein in my natural shrilliness.
Snoop eyed me for a moment, contemplative, enigmatic, then wandered off into the backyard, muttering something about needing to “take the biggest dump”.
I turned to his sister.
“Mary-Jane! you’ll help me out, won’t you?” I grovelled, “You know, it’s like a boy and his dog, together always through thick and thin! You were always my favourite I’ll give you all the biscuits we can even trade means I love you.”
But she was already fast asleep.
Though disheartened, I persevered. Of course my dogs were not at all helpful: they’re spoiled rotten. All their needs are taken care of by us humans–it’s no wonder their mental faculties have atrophied. I decided I’d be able to have a meaningful conversation with a truly wild beast; the kind that still lives and dies by its own wits. Luckily for me, I have plenty of wild beasts living in the roof of my own house; wild beasts which shriek and scrabble and screw at maximum volume throughout the night.
Nope, not roof-midgets, but possums.
I climbed up onto the roof with a notebook and a roughish disregard for my personal safety. I’d already taken several selfies that night, just in case my face was clawed off by a savage brushtail and my beauty was lost to this world forever. It didn’t take long for me to catch the eye of one of the critters, a particularly fuzzy individual named Robert. The encounter can only be described as ‘existentially awkward’.
“So…” I began, the very image of journalistic poise, “You’re a possum, right?”
“Yep, all my life,” Robert nodded.
“And you live in my roof?”
“Most nights, yeah.”
Robert made an affirmative-sounding grunt. I was suddenly very aware of the position of my hands, and warmth in my face. What do I normally do with my hands? I desperately tried to remember the last time my hands naturally fell into place. Where did they go? What were they even for? Did I always have these weird fleshy things at the end of my arms? As I splayed my right hand flat on the top of my head and attempted to twist the left around the back of my neck, I noticed Robert looking bored. Bored and a little afraid.
“A-anything you wanna, uh, tell… the people?” I spluttered.
“Um… Not really…”
“Okay, haha, well, um, thanks for your time.”
“No worries, mate!” Robert cried, and he scurried off, probably to piss down my bedroom wall. Again.
Maybe I hadn’t been ambitious enough. After all, my interviewees so far had basically been the underclass of the animal kingdom. What I really needed was a noble creature, something regal. So the next day I found myself sneaking into the lion cage at Melbourne Zoo. Was it ironic that the animal most symbolic of courage was also pants-wettingly terrifying? Probably not, but I needed something pseudo-intellectual to dwell on, lest my brain catch up to what my body was doing and consequently explode like that scene in Scanners.
If nothing else, I learnt that lions are not like possums. Who’d have thought, right?
Swallowing my fear, which tasted oddly of dark chocolate, I called to the most impressively maned one, as politely as possible. Without warning he dashed towards me, muscles rippling, claws glinting in the sunlight, wicked teeth bared. A pitiful whimper escaped form my mouth, like I had swallowed a baby bird.
“FUCK OFF.” he roared, sending flecks of rank, carrion-flavoured spittle into my open mouth.
“Um, can you please just be calm for a second, please? Please?”
Deafened by the sound, retching from the smell, I stoically struggled on, much like an ancient Roman soldier or one of Hugh Hefner’s recent wives.
“What’s the source of all this anger, do you think? Is it your mum? It’s your mum, isn’t it? Be honest.”
“Well, I haven’t been laid in…” The great cat appeared to be calculating, “Ever.”
“You heard me.”
I told him I didn’t quite understand how that was relevant. I began to extol the many virtues of the celibate life.
“That’s easy for you to say, you have hands! Have you ever seen a lion masturbate? Look at this paw! Can you imagine what an eye-gouging, windpipe-snapping death machine like that could do to such a sensitive area?”
I had to admit, it was a pretty sound justification. We chatted for a little while, mostly about the footy; Tombo of course barracks for the Lions, though he refers to them exclusively as Fitzroy. But I went home disappointed. The King of the Jungle himself wasn’t regal at all. I could just as easily have been chatting with a sports-mad fifteen-year-old or a Young Liberal, up to and including the blistering wrath born of years of pent-up sexual frustration.
So really, guys, when they release the Dolphin Translator iPhone app, or you meet a gorilla who knows sign language, or you try to teach a parrot swear words, remember this: it’s not worth it. Animals are just not that interesting. I think that’s why we’ve gotten away with systematically enslaving them, wearing their skin, annihilating their homes and murdering their children for so long.
As I sit here at the computer, reflecting on my little adventure, rain begins to fall over Melbourne’s leafy north-east. A little symphony of Currawongs and Bellbirds breaks out in the valley, which may sound beautiful to you, but all I hear is:
“Oh shit, it’s raining!”
“It’s totally raining, you guys!”
“Did you know that water is actually falling from the sky right now? For real.”
Meanwhile, a very similar stream of banal Facebook statuses begins to clog my newsfeed. I wonder, Perhaps I’ve been unfair on animals. Perhaps we’re all fucking boring.
*Names have not being changed because, serious, they’re dogs.