Sit, stay, talk back: Regina lecture explores how animals communicate

Anthropologist Don Kulick will address questions of human and animal communication at a University of Regina public lecture tonight, called “When Animals Talk Back.”

Anthropologist will speak tonight at the University of Regina

Pet lovers of all kinds may wonder how much their pet understands what they're saying. But an anthropologist giving a talk in Regina tonight says that mystery in communication is universal. (Shutterstock / Kanstantsin Navit)

Can cats train a human to wake up and feed them? Or is your dog communicating resentment with a bark when you bring him to the vet?

Those are the kind of questions Don Kulick will address at a University of Regina public lecture tonight, called "When Animals Talk Back."

"Up until very recently, there was this idea that animals are machines," said Kulick, an anthropologist and professor at Uppsala University in Sweden, explaining animals weren't widely thought to be capable of thinking or communicating.

In the 1970s, research on apes' ability to learn language was limited to what animals could explain about human cognition, he said. When the evidence indicated the apes couldn't construct language, they were discarded and farmed out for medical research, he said.

"It was  a very cruel horrible fate that all these apes ended up living," Kulick told CBC Radio's The Morning Edition.  

Since then, scientific research on animal communication has come a long way, to recognize animals do communicate in their own ways, for instance, for food or attention, or to express emotions, he said.

There's also a shift where humans want to understand how they can communicate with animals in order to treat them with respect and dignity, he said.

"We have to learn to understand them on their own terms, not our terms."

Animals also help humans communicate with each other, he said, pointing to how people are more open or willing to address a dog out for a walk than its owner. Pets may also be used as channel to talk to other people in the family, he said, giving the example of a person telling their dog, "Mommy's not very happy with us today!"

"We want to communicate with a being who doesn't talk back, in a friendly and affectionate way," he explained.

It might be impossible to know with certainty if a dog is communicating with annoyance when it barks about going to the vet. But Kulick points out that humans live with this uncertainty of communication all the time — with other humans.

"We can not read another person's mind," he said. "Even when they speak, they could be lying, they could be dissimulating. So this sort of line is kind of a bogus line.  

"The fact that we can't know about animals, is not proof that they don't think."

Kulick's lecture takes place tonight at 7 p.m. at the Research and Innovation building, room 119, on the University of Regina's main campus.

With files from CBC Radio's The Morning Edition


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