theguardian: Fagan the horse is enormous, nervy and then, suddenly, inexplicably calm when Eva Meijer strokes his neck and whispers in his twitching ears. Meijer, a Dutch philosopher, novelist, visual artist and singer-songwriter, is visiting the splendidly acronymed Faith (For Animals In Trouble, there’s Hope) animal rescue centre in Norfolk.
Our photographer is hoping to obtain a portrait of Meijer talking to the animals, Dr Dolittle-style, for this interview about Animal Languages, her fascinating, accessible new book about how animals communicate, and what this means for their place on a human-dominated planet.
Meijer does not disappoint, crooning to the camera-shy horse. “Fagan was wonderful. He is someone I’d like to get to know,” she sighs. “People say animals cannot speak. Of course they speak. They speak to us all the time. The only thing is that we don’t really listen. Listening is really important, not just for their sake but for ours because there is a limit on how far we can use the planet and its natural resources.”
Meijer is part of a growing movement of academics and mostly younger people examining how to redefine humans’ relationship with other animals. She grew up in the Netherlands with cats, a neighbour’s pony and a guinea pig, Dotje, who lived for an astonishing 13 years. When she became vegetarian at 11, she regretted not having done so earlier. Loving animals “was just something that was there and was natural”, she says.
It was only when she began to study philosophy that she saw that animals were almost completely absent from western thought. And when they appeared in science, they were treated solely as objects. This clashed with what she knew to be true from her own experience – that animals had agency, emotions and deeply communicative lives. When a human rides a horse, for instance, she says: “There is a lot of communication going on.” Research shows that the heartbeats of rider and horse synchronise.
While the ancient Greeks saw humans as part of a greater whole with other animals, Christianity and the Enlightenment set people apart from mere beasts. Descartes believed animals had no soul. In recent decades, however, the list of things that “only humans are capable of” has become steadily shorter. Thinking, empathy, expressing emotions, grammar, generalised reciprocity (doing something for someone unknown, or without expectation of a return favour) – science is beginning to show that other animals can do it all. Understanding how animals communicate can unlock these insights.
Meijer reveals fascinating research into how animals communicate. Jays and crows choose particular gifts they believe will appeal to their partners, and so have a “theory of mind” – they can see things from another’s point of view. Prairie dogs use chattering calls to describe different intruders – not only a human, but how large he or she is, the colour of their clothes and whether they are carrying an umbrella or a gun. Many mammals can learn human words, produce new sounds or acquire other languages: orcas, for example, can imitate the cries of dolphins .
One consciousness-shifting example of animals’ inner lives given by Meijer is that wild elephants have a call for humans that also means danger. When we see humans anew via the language of animals, it is not a pretty sight. This is what Meijer would call an anthropocentric idea (hey, let’s find out about what animals think of us), but it is a useful awakening. “It is also a bridge from studying animals as objects to noticing they are subjects – they are thinking about us, they are speaking about us,” says Meijer.
For her, learning more about animal language should herald a decisive shift towards rights for animals. In academia (one of Meijer’s many jobs is as a research fellow at a Dutch university), she senses a shift in biology and ethology, but also in philosophy and animal rights.
“Because our society is deeply anthropocentric, that still reflects back on science as well, but I do think it’s changing. It’s something that’s self-confirming because when you begin studying animal culture and you find out that all these animals have cultural knowledge that they pass on, it changes your image of what animals are. I think we are living in quite an exciting time.”
There is a “political turn” in animal rights philosophy, driven not only by influential thinkers such as the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer, but by the growth of factory farming and more general environmental and spiritual anxiety. More people are replacing shopping by seeking more fulfilling connections with nature and animals.
Animals cannot vote but, actually, Meijer supplies numerous examples where they do something pretty similar. Red deer decide to move en masse when about 60% of their herd stands up. Where and how could we begin granting political rights to animals? Presumably we will apply anthropocentric ideas of intelligence to animals and grant limited rights to, say, chimpanzees or dolphins first?
“That’s a typical human way of going about things,” says Meijer. She argues it is useful to have an “ideal situation” – rights for all animals from bees to jellyfish – and work towards that, but also consider different relationships with different animal groupings.
The political philosophers Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka suggest there are three communities of animals: wild animals that are “sovereign” and self-governing; wild animals, such as pigeons, that coexist with us in cities and could be considered “denizens”; and domesticated animals.
“It’s clear that certain animals want to have relations with humans for now, although it might be different if we stop confining them,” says Meijer. “These are species we domesticated as humans, so we took something away from them. We should actually affirm their membership of our societies because, de facto, they are members – they live in our houses, they sleep in our beds,” she laughs. “But that’s absolutely not recognised.”
How would Meijer begin to change our relationship with, say, dogs? She says she would stop the pursuit of pedigree dogs and different breeds. “Let them perhaps choose their partners,” she says. “The whole system of owning animals is very problematic – selling them and making them pregnant.”
We could also liberate our dogs. American writer Ted Kerasote created a “dog-flap” for his dog, Merle, granting him the freedom to go into town. Like a teenager, Merle still came home for food and to sleep. “Their relationship deepens and Merle becomes more intelligent or more capable of making certain decisions when he is given the choice,” says Meijer. “If we think about animals as very incapable of doing things, that keeps them in that position.”
Meijer’s own dog, Olli, is a stray rescued from Romania. Olli is vegan. “There are a lot of vegan dogs. They like vegetables. One of Olli’s favourite foods is pumpkin. When the first pumpkins come in during the autumn, he’s like: ‘Yes!’” If he sniffs out, say, a dead rat, Meijer will let him eat what he finds. “They are not ethical vegans,” she says of her pets. “But I don’t want pigs or cows to be killed to feed my dog because that’s just simply unnecessary.”
What about if a dog’s freedom to roam infringes a ground-nesting bird’s freedom to safely rear chicks? It is also difficult to imagine how animals could be granted significant freedoms when there are so many humans. We are, ultimately, competing for resources with other species.
“Ideally there would be fewer humans,” says Meijer. But she also argues that we tend to see human-animal interactions in terms of conflict. “It’s a challenge for us as a species to live with others who are different from us. We’re not very tolerant. And maybe in some stage of our evolutionary process that was necessary, but we’re now in a very different stage where we can choose to have different types of relations with these animals.”
We seem a long way from granting animals meaningful rights and yet Meijer identifies plenty of progress, from the electoral success of the Party for Animals in the Netherlands (moving from two seats in the Dutch parliament in 2006 to five in 2017) to pensions for police dogs; animal sanctuaries are undertaking “some kind of interspecies negotiations about how the place should look”; while academics such as Barbara Smuts are not simply more alert to anthropocentric assumptions about the nature of “intelligence” or “morality”, but are exploring whether animals can co-determine their research questions.
Meijer sees hope in history, too. A century ago, she points out, women were considered undeserving of political rights. “People get upset and say you’re comparing women to animals, but that’s not the case,” she says. “Because society is absolutely human-centred and change seems so far away, it’s good to go back to other situations in history that felt similar. Humans throughout history have been able to change their collective opinions about some social groups. There’s lots of reasons to feel pessimistic, but we’re here now so we should make the best of it. Also, animals are generally really nice and they are willing to forgive us.”
Source: Published by theguardian