Watching and truly listening

Dogs and thunderstorms. Frogs and rain. Elephants and earthquakes. These are some of the many observations, across cultures and the ages, of the acute ability of nonhuman animals to sense changes in the elements – of wind, water, earth and fire – often long before we do. They do this using senses many humans have lost in modern times, and some that we have never attained. While some may attribute these responses purely to the physical ability other animals have to see, taste, hear, smell or feel extremely subtle changes in the environment, it goes well beyond this. As people take the time to look and listen to what these animals sense, think and feel, our eyes are being opened to the extraordinary lives of the other species we share the planet with, both big and small.

Watching and truly listening to nonvertebrate nonhuman animals can be enlightening as well as he big, iconic ones. Based on his behavioural studies for example, Darwin wrote that worms deserved to be called intelligent.

While dogs, frogs and elephants are captivating, watching and truly listening to nonvertebrate nonhuman animals can enlighten us and help us see the world around us differently. The visual abilities of dragonflies are remarkable – they have 30,000 facets in their eyes to create images from; as well as the normal colour spectrum, they can see UV light and the polarisation plane; and their bulbous eyes give them a 360 degree view of the world. The ability of dragonflies to selectively capture prey has also surprised scientists. Imagine experiencing the elements with these senses. (Photo: Okavango Delta, Botswana. August 2015).

We have all heard stories about animals, domesticated and wild, who are able to detect subtle changes in the environment. A familiar example to many would be the way some dogs appear to know a storm is forming long before we do because they can hear it, smell it and even feel it. Some of the sensitivity animals show is related to the number of ‘detectors’ they have. For example, I was impressed to read that dogs have 220 million olfactory receptors to detect odours and rabbits have 100 million. In comparison, humans have about 5-6 million. The Pedigree dog website says that a dog’s nose is so sensitive, it can detect odours a billion times better than humans. An impressive figure! Since lightning ionizes air with the formation of ozone—which has a characteristic metallic smell—it’s possible that dogs detect this odour, or some other odour, associated with storms.

Storms contain an enormous amount of energy which dogs and other animals can detect, often long before humans can. Lots of advice is available to fix this 'phobia' in dogs. The response could also be seen as letting others in the 'pack' know of an impending storm.

Storms contain an enormous amount of energy which many dogs and other animals can detect, often long before humans can. (Photo: Frisco, Colorado, August 2013).

Responding to seismic cues (earth vibrations) is another way that dogs may sense thunder, through their feet – in much the same way that Native Americans put an ear to the ground to listen for the distant rumbling of herds or tribes approaching. That’s what some researchers contend according to Pedigree. In 2002 Alan Burdick wrote an article that captures the phenomenon of seismic sensing and communication well. Titled ‘Four ears to the ground: For the elephant, the foot may be a powerful listening device’ Burdick relates the importance of seismic cues to a number of animals, including us. Elephants in particular have very sensitive feet, being able to ‘hear’ the shockwaves created by earthquakes and tsunamis before the main event.

Watching this large bull 'ellie' feed from a fig tree in the Okavango delta in Botswana was mesmerising. Carl Safina provides some intimate insights into the life of elephants in his book 'Beyond Words'.

Watching this large bull ‘ellie’ feed from a fig tree in the Okavango Delta in Botswana was mesmerising. In this instance it had three ears to the ground. The tip of the elephants trunk is extremely sensitive to touch with specialised nerve endings that detect faint motion and vibration. The Yei people of Botswana believe that elephants are the first cousins of human beings, based on the many characteristics we share. (Photo: Okavango Delta, Botswana. August 2015).

Elephants, along with wolves and orcas, also feature in the book ‘Beyond Words, What Animals Think and Feel’ published by Carl Safina in 2015. His writing draws and reflects on the scientific approach to understanding how other animals relate to the environment and each other. In doing so Carl offers ‘an intimate view of animal behaviour to challenge the fixed boundary between human and nonhuman animals’ that has dominated certain cultures. By watching and truly listening he aims to answer the question about nonhuman animals that he calls the “forbidden fruit” – Who are you? In doing so Carl compels us to see the family life of these animals differently. Both Alan and Carl address how focusing only on the human senses, which are becoming increasingly constrained, affects our understanding and appreciation of the environment and other animals. This resonates with the growing sentiment among ecologists that we should view the world from the perspective of the animals we are trying to understand and protect, not ours.

Carl Safina also shares his personal experience with the dogs in his family in ‘Beyond Words‘. Dogs, known as man’s best friend, are a popular subject for those exploring non-human animals and the lessons we can learn from them. Dogs are also popular as a form of entertainment, as the numerous videos on YouTube attest! These different expressions reflect the long and strong connection between humans and dogs. One pre-YouTube story that caught my attention was about a bulldog called Faccio Bello (“beautiful face”) and the impact he had on his owner Renaldo Fischer, a medical doctor in Phoenix, Arizona. The story of Faccia Bello and Renaldo helped me see bulldogs, and the relationship between dogs and people, in a new light.

Renaldo came to see Faccia Bello as his guardian spirit. A spirit that acted as a link to the massive power and energy of the natural world.

Renaldo came to see Faccia Bello as his guardian spirit. A spirit that acted as a link to the massive power and energy of the natural world. I came to see Faccia Bello as a beautiful being, his story touched my heart.

Faccio Bello loved going for walks in the desert where he could sniff and sense plants, animals and the elements to his hearts content. In doing so, Faccia Bello became a gateway to the natural world for his owner. When they were out walking Renaldo found himself stopping, looking and listening to see if he could experience the magic that Faccia Bello and mystics like St Francis of Assisi discovered in the natural world. St Francis, who the current Pope took his name from, had an intimacy with animals and elemental energies that he expressed in ‘The Canticle of the Sun’.

St Francis of Assissi called all creatures his “brothers” and “sisters,” and preached to the birds. (Photo: Santa fe, New Mexico, August 2013).

St Francis of Assisi, a 12th century friar, called all creatures his “brothers” and “sisters,” and preached to the birds. His respect for all creation has set an example for people ever since. (Photo: Santa Fe, New Mexico).

As with all subjects related to the elements, there are numerous connections and seeming coincidences. One of my earlier posts shared the story of Henry Beston, who spent a year living alone at Cape Cod on the Atlantic ocean. It was gratifying to see that both Carl Safina and Renaldo Fischer also drew inspiration from  Beston’s book ‘The Outermost House’, with both authors drawing on the same excerpt from his prose.

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals…..In a world older and more than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we will never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of earth.

I am hopeful that the more we learn about nonhuman animals from writers like Carl Safina, and from cultures such as the Native Americans who have “power animals” that guide them through life, we will be better placed to hear the other voices that we share the earth, air and water with. In doing so, our understanding of the elemental world we live in can only be enriched.

This is Suki, my sister Ruth's dog. I look forward to our 'conversations' each time I visit.

This is Suki, my sister Ruth’s dog (her fluffy daughter). I look forward to nonverbal conversations with Suki each time I visit. I also enjoy conversing with Lhasa the cat, don’t tell Suki that though! (Photo by Ruth Williams. Melbourne, December 2015).

This is Lhasa. Probably waiting to be fed. (Photo also taken by Ruth Williams)

This is lovely Lhasa, my sister’s fluffy son. He is probably waiting to be fed. (Photo also taken by Ruth Williams).

4 thoughts on “Watching and truly listening

  1. It’s a touching and finely illustrated homage to the special powers of animals. I only hope that your optimistic note is matched by rapid progress in the human treatment of our fellow creatures, because at the moment animal farming, blood sports, poaching and the daily abuse of animals around the world are enough to condemn the human race outright as among the most heinous and insensitive beings on earth.

    • I agree that rapid progress is required John. There are signs of positive change, at least in Australia, albeit commonly in response to exposes of animal cruelty in various industries. This suggests that if people are made aware of the inhumane way animals are treated then some people will act or call for action. Others may turn a blind eye. The popularity of cute animal videos on the internet suggests that fundamentally people are attracted to certain nonhuman animals. There are some humans however that appear to see them only as a commodity or prize, with no feelings, and treat them accordingly. These are the people that give the human race a bad name.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this post, Jann. You present your explorations of this topic in a way that does justice to the other creatures with whom we share this planet. When one is willing to stop and listen to our fellow beings, there is much available to us. I always liked that song from Dr Doolittle, ‘Talk to the Animals’, lines like this;
    If I conferred with our furry friends, man to animal
    Think of the amazing repartee
    If I could walk with the animals, talk with the animals
    Grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals
    And they could talk to me’
    It was also marvelous to see Lhasa and Suki getting the job of closing the post! They will be pleased. 😊

    • That’s a great song. Dr Doolittle knows a thing or two about our animal friends. Getting to hang out with Suki and Lhasa every so often is a good reminder of how different, yet equally loveable, dogs and cats are!

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