Animated Animals: Research and observation in the reservate

Besides pets, there is another group of animals where it is unavoidable that they learn how to talk: in zoos, reservates or captivity.

A visit to the famous tiger reservate is very different now. This is one of the few places where you are actually allowed to converse with animals directly, albeit at a safe distance. Since this is a place where you can ‘feed’ the animals by choosing to purchase a certain type of prey, this requires a negotiation with the tigers.

At the entrance, the sign with disclaimers is updated to contain a few new things:

  1. We try to have a wide variety of tigers with different preferences available. Guests are still allowed to feed the tigers, but it is impossible to guarantee that you can purchase the prey of your choice.
  2. We advise our guests to wear the provided noise-cancellation earphones to put all focus on the tigers. We provide noise-proof facilities wherever reasonably possible since we are unable to control everything the tigers say. Anything you hear because of not wearing earphones is your own responsibility.
  3. It is explicitly forbidden to communicate with the tigers in any way possible. Any written signs or smartphones will be collected at the entrance. Speech or text on clothing needs to be covered.
  4. Our employees communicate with tigers for general or research purposes. We welcome any suitable questions from the public which you can provide in written form to our staff.

Getting into the car, you wonder what kind of questions have been asked before. An employee gives you a little brochure with more information. Inside, the contents mention a few interesting questions:

Q: How do tigers use speech when hunting?
A: According to our observations and research, most tigers use it to intimidate their prey. They seem to understand that whispering and shouting has different effects. Since the prey cannot talk, it is a one-sided conversation.

Q: Do tigers tend to pronounce words that contain an ‘r’ better?
A: We hear that our tigers indeed tend to emphasize the ‘r’ within a word. However, if a word contains more than 1 ‘r’, they will only focus on one of them.

Q: Which type of prey do tigers prefer?
A: Among the choices that we provide (rooster, sheep, cow) we do see most tigers preferring the larger prey. However, some tigers told us they like to eat roosters because of their feathers’ texture and the fact that the little bones are easier to crack and provide a crunchier texture.

In or out of touch with nature?

Today, the weather is great. Blue skies, sun shining, slight breeze, clouds drifting, clean air. About as perfect a day you can get in China, which means everyone is on the move of course. That is perfectly understandable, possible even desirable. There is limited room for outdoors activities on a daily basis and having other people in the park besides the elderly is a nice change of scenery.

The park is most probably the closest to nature that most Chinese get. Camping is not a very common way of traveling around, forests are mostly limited to national parks and most animals are still perceived as a main source of food.

In the Netherlands, there also has been increasing discussions if people, and children in particular, are not too out of touch with nature? Do we still understand milk does not come from a carton and that we only eat a small part of most vegetables?

On the one hand, what might help in China is that at least dead animals are quite common. With chicken feet, pig’s knuckles and ears, gutted fish, and intestines all being sold en plein public at most local markets, these images will not be very shocking and it helps making clear what you are eating.

At the same time, the Chinese are pretty ignorant to nature in most instances. Littering, pulling on trees to have flower petals or red leaves fall down on them, building bridges or elevators in the mountains without any regard for the surroundings, etc.

But, one thing that I do envy their ignorance for, is for most pests and insects. I do not think the day can ever come that I do not shriek and shirk away whenever seeing a cockroach. Having the kind of immunity that the Chinese and most other Asians inhabit towards cockroaches is something I thoroughly lack. Solid proof that nature provides some things you should nurture.

Animated Animals: It is the sound of the underground

You walk to a subway entrance and look around. People silently go in and out, some bumping into you silently or with little more than a grunt. You look around and suddenly see a bird hopping around. It hops to the elevator, seemingly waiting for someone to open it. As inconspicuous as possible you walk to the elevator and press the button. The bird and you enter.

Once inside you cannot contain your curiosity. “Excuse me, where are you going?” The bird cocks its head at you. It spreads its wings, is that how they point at stuff? “Today is the market.” As if that should clear up everything. You are just about to ask your next question when the doors open. The bird quickly and silently flies into the subway corridor.

You try to follow it while trying not to be too obvious that you are following something. The bird flies around a corner, past the security off to where the subway arrives. You quickly go through security, swipe your card and practically run downstairs. On the platform, you vaguely spot something at the far end.

The bird is in front of a door on which it knocks once with its beak. Without a sound it opens slightly, allowing the bird to hop in and you wriggle you way through as well. “Hi Mel, how are you doing?.” You suddenly hear the bird say. You look down and see a cord is attached to the door handle which is held by a mole. He looks at you with his blind eyes, slowly nodding for you two to continue.

You are in a kind of janitor room with cleaning supplies all around you. “It will be a bit of a walk, but you can grab something to eat at the market.” The bird says ahead of you. It flies through another door at the end of the room and you follow it into a dark tunnel. The dirt tunnel loops around and you can hear the subway passing far away at regular intervals. Although you seem far underground, the temperature is actually pretty warm and luckily there are no sidetracks.

Suddenly you hear sounds. Voices, sizzling, singing, music, the kinds of sounds you hear on squares throughout China. Within a few steps, the tunnel opens wide and reveals a square. One full of mainly animals, a few humans, and a lot of activities. There are cats and foxes playing mahjong, pigs and goats stuffing themselves at food stalls, turtles and fish lounging in a pond, peacocks and magpies are dancing in formations and there even seems to be some matchmaking going on between dogs looking for their loyal partners. This is a place that merits some further discovery.

Animated Animals: birds of a feather talk together

Outdoors, nothing is as easy as it once seemed. There are decibel meters everywhere. It is finally more acceptable to stare at your phone all the time, since it is safer to chat with each other digitally.

However, especially in China many pets and birds in particular serve a distinct social function. These birds of course learn to talk and twitter away quite literally, which is fine as long as they are confined. Some do escape however, which created pockets in the wild where it is allowed to talk out loud.

So after your first work day, you decide to go to such a park. It is so quiet on the streets these days, it is unsettling. At the entrance of the park, there is a large map marking spots where talking is allowed. Another sign reminds you that there are decibel meters and cameras recording, so anyone talking too loudly in any other parts will be fined.

Passing the gates, you follow the path. There are still people dancing and elderly men intensively playing chess. You hear a bunch of different sounds coming from those crowds. Apparently, people have found new ways of communicating, either with clapping in morse, which works especially well if you are trying to make a point while playing chess or dancing the flamenco.

You walk on and arrive at a fork in the road. The path leading to the talking zone, leads into a dense forest. Once you enter it, you suddenly hear something that is quite overwhelming. Everyone is talking. Conversations are being had. People and birds laugh en get merry.

There are some cameras in between the trees, and all the birds are on leashes. This spot is specifically meant to only have birds. After some talks, the others tell you all outside spots are separated as much as possible. Also, everyone needs an outdoors license to be sure only well-behaved pets are taken outdoors.

After taking a look around, you sit down next to an older man who is having an animated conversation with his parakeet. “So today’s grains where definitely not the most tasty you say?” “Nope,” the bird answers “They just come out whole. It is terrible.”

“Do you have a special diet?” You chime in. The bird tilts his head and makes a sound like a sigh. “I just have an incredibly sensitive stomach. You know how some within our bird family will just eat anything of the street? I am not like that. I have standards.” The man scratches the bird’s head. “I have a little side business in luxury bird feed now. We are crossing boundaries.”

“Crossing boundaries,” you think. Would there be any spots where these talking animals meet?

Animated Animals: what the duck?

I was traveling a few weeks ago and while climbing a mountain, I suddenly thought: “What if animals could talk? Surely it would make mountains and forests a much less quiet place.” I also just remembered seeing the headline somewhere that currently most ducks for Chinese dishes are imported from Great Britain. So combining the 2, I imagine it would end up something like this…

It is the same as with humans. If you do not talk to them, they do not learn to speak. Since animals are now able of learning human languages, there have been many new rules, especially at farms and outdoors areas. Everyone there needs to use sign language, to preserve some quietness and order. Sure, monkeys may be able to catch onto that, but that conveniently also scales back the amount of zoos.

So, one day you saw an add for a Business Development Manager at a Duck Farm. Such positions are now very unpopular, due to moral considerations. However, that makes for little competition, so you decide to give it a try.

“English is the main language for this task.” Your supervisor says. “We import most of the ducks, so we need fluent speakers. We also have a few English major students interning for us.” No wonder that the level of English suddenly became much higher in China. There are that many more opportunities to practice, although you doubt how in-depth these conversations could go.

“It is no option to let them handle everything by themselves under human supervision?” You ask. Your supervisor shakes his head. “Only some are well-educated enough to communicate with us. Being able to talk does not mean they have consciousness, and many conditions in large-scale facilities are still quite apalling. If you let ducks talk to each other, they will quickly veer off-topic and start complaining about putting on weight, dirty feathers and swollen feet. And in the end, most ducks are slaughtered of course.”

With that in mind, you start working and calling. “Donny speaking here, how can I help you.” You wonder what it looks like on the other side. Is the duck in an office? Is the phone strapped to his body? Is there a human supervising him? After exchanging some polite conversation, you discuss the quality of the newest batch, transport, logistics and some other business.

With the work part of the conversation coming to an end, you decide to delve a little bit deeper. “Donny, does it feel at all strange to be part of this?”

You hear a sigh, obviously you are not the first one asking these questions. “Well, it is certainly a limited life of course. If I could fly and feel fine, I would but our bodies simply are not built like that. In the meantime, instead of just eating all day, it is nice to get a break from that by talking to you guys.”

Truth be told, you never gave a thought about career choices for ducks. “So is it tough to learn how to do this?”

“Nah, not really. We have scripts and cards, so that is the easy part. Also for off-topic conversations, we have a lot of practice. But I imagine that our counterparts living in the wild have some more variety. Stories of the black market do trickle down here, with some of us selling inside knowledge, stuff like that. Another reason not to keep us alive for too long.”

“You can just straight up tell me that?” You ask in amazement.

Donny has a short laugh. “Well, by now it is common knowledge. You guys cannot keep us apart anyway, so there is bound to be some of us able to get away. Anyhow, my feet are hurting so I am hanging up. Looking forward to be in touch again!”

A click and he is gone. You have quite a lot to think about now and decide to go for a stroll. Perhaps that will take your mind off of things.