The Age of Animal Communication

Abbie Heller, Features Editor

Throughout history, humans have always felt deep connections to the animals they live among, despite the lack of verbal communication. We love our pets – we post videos of them to the Internet, we rely on them when times get tough, and we grieve them once they pass just as we do for humans. Yet, the only known signs of recognition and affection from pets to their owners are actions such as licks or snuggling. Beyond that, there hasn’t been much proof of true understanding, as that verbal factor is not present. However, in the recent age of dedicated scientists and particularly spectacular animals, this interspecies barrier is appearing to be broken.

In 2018, many people around the world mourned the loss of Koko, a female gorilla raised at the San Francisco Zoo who was believed to have mastered sign language, understood over 2,000 English words, and used language similar to that of a young human child. Additionally, she was said to have developed a deeper sense of cognition than other primates; she could recognize herself in a mirror and relay personal memories.

However, Koko’s abilities are widely disputed. Many people believe that she only learned to sign because she was rewarded for it, or that her trainers exaggerated or lied about what Koko was saying. Though undoubtedly a grand experiment, the results were questioned. Koko was just one of many animals who tried to learn to communicate with humans.

Alex the African Grey Parrot was purchased from a pet store in 1977 and raised by Dr. Irene Pepperberg for an avian learning experiment (which his name was an acronym for). He was taught for 30 years and learned a multitude of colors, shapes, and materials, and his vocabulary consisted of over 100 words. He was said to have an understanding of the concept of zero, and is considered the first animal to ask an existential question.

Before Alex, researchers had previously thought that larger brains were needed to grasp language, and only worked with animals such as primates or dolphins. He asked his own questions and showed an in-depth understanding of communication with humans, proving that his walnut sized brain did not limit his abilities.

As of late, a new viral animal has taken the spotlight in recent months – Bunny, a female golden doodle who communicates with her owner by utilizing a set of buttons that she pushes to form sentences. Typically, owner Devine will ask a question and push the buttons to match. After a few moments, Bunny responds by pressing her own combination of buttons. But is she really understanding?

In a video posted on October 7th, Devine films Bunny as she presses the buttons for ouch, stranger, and paw. The owner asks, “Stranger in your paw?” Immediately, Bunny walks over and puts her paw into her owner’s hand. After checking, the owner shows a thorn of foxtail that had been stuck in Bunny’s paw. 

Bunny also appears to have an understanding of time. Another video portrays her ability to form a simple response detailing a walk from the day before. Currently, Bunny is a part of a research project at the Comparative Cognition Lab at UC San Diego, along with 700 other dogs, cats, and even horses.

Many people are blown away by Bunny’s intelligence, left wondering if she’s been trained or naturally understands her owner’s intent. Either way, she provides a beacon of hope for something that people have long desired: the ability to talk to animals.