t is only Western philosophy that draws a dividing line between human and animal (‘man and beast’). The religions – that emerged from the earth organically – have never done so. Hindu dharma holds that all creation is interconnected—vasudhaiva kutambakam – and has always acknowledged animals as sentient beings. Finally science is catching up with what our belief systems have always known.
Over the last 50 years, with increasing frequency and accuracy, countless studies are proving the ‘sameness’ of all living beings. Human beings have a left and right side of the brain which both do different things. Till now this was assumed to be specific to the human brain. But chickens have the same brain as humans. The chicken’s brain subdivides its cognitive processing so that the right hemisphere (left eye) is specialised to detect unexpected stimuli and the left hemisphere (right eye) to categorise stimuli based on past experience. The right hemisphere has broad spatial attention, while the left hemisphere has focussed attention. Chicks can attend to at least two visual tasks simultaneously. The tasks used in tests, done by University of New England, were a) searching for foodgrains scattered on a background of small pebbles, and b) detecting a predator moving overhead. The left hemisphere is specialised to carry out the former task and the right hemisphere to carry out the latter.
Have you ever found yourself humming a song that’s stuck in your head? That’s just like dolphins. At an aquatic park, Planete Sauvage in France, a group of five captive dolphins has been recorded making whale-like noises late at night — despite the fact that they have only heard whale sounds as recordings during their daytime shows. Ethologist Martine Hausberger, of the University of Rennes, and her colleagues had hung microphones in the tank to hear what dolphins sound like at night. One night, they heard 25 new sounds that the dolphins had never made before. Because dolphins are known for mimicry, the researchers examined their daytime environment for clues. They found that the park was playing music, sea gulls’ calls, the dolphins’ own whistles, and humpback whale calls. The dolphins, all of whom were born in captivity, had never had the opportunity to hear a whale sing, except on the soundtrack, yet they were singing whale songs.
Do you remember your mother yelling after you that you had forgotten your lunchbox? According to goat specialist Dr Daniel Waldron (cited in Wickman, 2013) goats are great yellers too. Both sheep and goats have larynxes and vocal tracts similar to humans and they use them to great effect. When a mother goat is separated from her kid, she will yell; when it’s time for them to be fed, the herd will yell to remind you. And the similarity doesn’t end there. Like humans, goats too develop different accents depending on the company they keep. According to recent research by Briefer and McElligott (2012), the calls of goats within the same social group became more similar over time. Comparing the calls of goats at one-week-old and five-weeks-old, they found that the calls of kids raised in the same social groups were more similar than those from different groups. The same is true of cows. After English dairy farmers noticed their cows had slightly different moos, depending on which herd they came from, a study revealed that cows have regional accents like humans. So, clearly animals can modify their vocalisations according to their social environments, which means they can learn languages easily as well.
While on the subject of communication, remember the Mahabharata story of how the unborn child, Abhimanyu, heard the secret of the maze when it was told to his pregnant mother, Subhadra? It is now widely accepted that babies in the womb respond positively to external stimuli like music and conversation. Expectant mothers can often be seen crooning and whispering to their unborn child. It is the same with animals. A mother hen talks to her chicks before they are born. She will cluck and purr softly while sitting on the eggs or moving them around under her. This early messaging imprints on them their mother’s voice and enables newborns to distinguish their mother’s call from rest of the flock. Towards the final hours of the hatch, you can hear them responding to Mama as she encourages them to break out of the shell, reassuring them that they are safe. It has also been proven that mother hens can modify their teaching of their chicks based on their understanding and aptitude. If the chick is a slow learner, Mama will slow down the pace of the lesson. And just like our mothers push our veggies at us and our colas away, so too do mother hens encourage their children to eat healthy. In a recent study, mother hens were conditioned to identify one colour of food as preferable and another colour of food as unsuitable. From a separate room they were given to watch as their chicks chose to eat the colour of feed they (the hens) deemed less preferable. Perceiving the chicks making an error, the mother hens responded by pecking and scratching the ground more frequently in an attempt to attract their chicks away from the bad food and toward the better food. Mums will be Mums.
Now that even science can no longer deny that animals think, speak and behave just like us, how can we deny them even the basic consideration that we, as humans, take for granted? If we claim freedom as our birthright, how do we justify imprisoning billions of our fellow beings in zoos, factory farms, research laboratories, animal pounds, slaughterhouses, and inflicting on them the worst kinds of torture?
It would be so much happier to embrace their sameness and celebrate their differences. I know that before I die I would like to hear the lovesong of the Ecuadorian Hillstar Hummingbird. The male inflates his throat, causing his throat feather to glisten an iridescent purple, and then launches into an opera that only birds of his kind can hear. That’s because the mating call is at 13.4 kilohertz. And birds can’t hear above nine or 10 kilohertz. Then why so high-pitched? So that the sound of love can transcend the sound of mountain winds, streams, and the songs of other birds. Simply amazing!
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