Tell your problems to your dog or cat, and you’re unlikely to get a response. The motorist yelling at a squirrel to get off the road doesn’t really expect the little guy to learn traffic rules. There’s no expectation that the pigeon in the park will thank you for those bread crumbs or that the raccoon in your attic will take offence to being insulted. Such communication goes one way. To talk with animals would be to have a conversation that goes both ways.
In Parler avec les animaux (Talking with animals), the idea of mutual exchange anchors an insightful collection of essays, one where the line between human and non-human blurs. Somewhat surprisingly, there is little linguistic analysis or investigation among the contributions. Koko, the western lowland gorilla whose signing ability landed her two National Geographic covers, is never mentioned. Neither is Bunny, the sheepadoodle who became TikTok famous in 2021 for using a sound board to ask for scratches and walks. Perhaps focusing on animals that speak with language risks leaving the impression that those that don’t speak have nothing to say. In place of wordy exchanges, the book considers a range of interactions and coexistence: an “infinite interspecies conversation.”
The collection is edited by Charles Deslandes, Dalie Giroux, and David Jaclin, a specialist in political thought, a political theorist, and an anthropologist, respectively. As they point out in their introduction, when we’re dealing with language, humans are going to get the last word. But, given the chance, humans and non-humans can nonetheless create dense networks of shared meaning. From these networks, unexpected forms of companionship and even transformation can arise.
The researcher Chloé Couvy, for example, describes how homelessness can strengthen the bond between a person and a canine. The human cares for the dog, providing it with food, companionship, and understanding. The dog cares for the human, providing protection, acceptance, and love. Their vulnerability makes them mutually responsible for each other, and that mutuality is sustaining. As they move through the world, they encounter rules that govern how each should behave in public space. Assumptions about who is responsible for whom — the human for the dog, not the other way around — marginalize them by failing to see them for what they are: an inseparable dyad.
As the essays accumulate, so do the implications of human-animal connections, even brief ones. In writing about animal-assisted psychotherapy, the psychologist and anthropologist Véronique Servais seizes on flashes of understanding between horses and people unfamiliar with them. Servais builds a case for what effective animal intervention looks like in a therapeutic setting. Patients can struggle to connect with therapists, and animals can help bridge that divide. Moreover, the experiences she documents question the primacy of the human-to-human relationship on which therapy is built. Beyond providing comfort, animals can change how we understand our humanity. One of her sources, a young woman named Pascale, describes an encounter with a horse as a moment of plenitude. She stops thinking and exists in “perfect synergy” with the animal that regards her, forgetting her self and yet feeling utterly seen.
Far stranger are human and animal entanglements on a South African game farm, described by the anthropologists Jaclin and Laura Shine, the sound engineer Jules Valeur, and the filmmaker Jeremie Brugidou. Into a world governed by colonialism, spectacle, and efficiency — the everyday principles of managed land, managed animals, and managed hunts — wanders the baroque figure of a pet warthog named Lila. Fawned over by the white Afrikaner farmer, who cuddles up with her at night, she is warily watched by the Black workers who process the animals that tourists pay to shoot.
While Lila earns a reprieve for her fellow warthogs, which are no longer fair game on the farm, an orphaned lion cub taken in by the neighbours does not fare so well. He attacks a human child, an act that presumably leads to both their deaths, though only the child’s is mentioned. To be perceived as a fellow creature by an animal, many of these essays argue, can be a shock; to be perceived as a fellow creature by a human can be risky.
Humans and non-humans might be able to understand each other, but that doesn’t make them interchangeable. Mutual perception is perception of difference, too. Negotiating this difference requires imagination as well as observation. Among the recurring themes in the collection is Umwelt, the concept of an environment defined by what a species uniquely perceives. We are all, human and non-human, restricted to the world unveiled by our senses, as the science writer Ed Yong has also shown with his best-selling An Immense World. This is true even in moments of mutual perception. To dissolve the border of an Umwelt would require metamorphosis, something we can encounter in art but not, for now at least, in reality.
But imagined transformations need not lower the stakes of human-animal encounters, as the philosopher Brian Massumi points out in his discussion of J. A. Baker’s classic, The Peregrine. Through language, Baker entered the consciousness of the falcons he followed across the English countryside. He existed alongside them in a relationship built on deep sympathy and shared feeling. Although they continued to look on each other with their very different eyes, writer and raptor came to share a “mutual otherness.” They co-created the world.
In the murky phenomenology of communication that emerges in Parler avec les animaux, it is worth considering what non-humans might want us to know. In April, various media outlets commented on studies where researchers had been trying to determine if pet birds — most of them parrots — would benefit from video calls with other birds. The winged research subjects were curious at first, looking at the other birds through iPad screens. They peeked around the back to see whether anything was there. But then many of them, apparently, found favourite friends whom they were eager to call at any opportunity. They squawked and chirped at one another, grooming themselves side by side. The birds’ human companions say that their feathered charges are happier since the calls started, more relaxed. Asked by humans what they want, their response seems clear. It is one another.