Several years ago while teaching a college evening course, Introduction to Psychology, to a group of students who were mostly older than me and had no agenda other than learning and having something to do on a Tuesday night, I asked a question that nearly derailed the entire evening's work. The question was this: Can animals think?
The answers, almost all strongly in thee affirmative, came fast and furious. Everyone had a story to tell about a dog or cat, or even a goat, that often proved themselves to be smarter than their humans. Even fish, someone pointed out, had the ability to outwit a determined fisherman. And, kicking into full disclosure mode, I felt then, as well as now, that many animals are quite proficient at independent thought.
So, the next question, if I had had the opportunity to get a word in edgewise and follow up, could have been this: Can animals communicate or "talk?" There is ample evidence that they can communicate directly with other members of their own species, and many pet owners get to where they can tell what their furry, feathered, or scaly friends want by their actions or particular sounds that they make. It usually doesn't take too much guessing to know that Fido wants to go outside or the cat is out of kibble.
Animals are smart and they communicate.
But can they talk? Can they engage in human-speak?
Some birds can be trained to speak clearly with vocabularies of dozens of words. That is usually rote memorization with little or no obvious conscious thought on the bird's part. I knew an old man a long time ago whose name was Earl Brown or "Brownie" as he was generally known. Brownie had an old dog, a mutt, who, when Brownie twisted his ear just right, would say "Brownie." Pain can be a powerful motivator.
Humans are fascinated with the notion of animals that speak, and this idea is often carried into works of fiction. Dr. Dolittle, spoke to the animals, but in their own languages - as did Ellie May Clampett. There were also those wonderful conversations that Eva Gabor and most of Hooterville had with the pig, Arnold Ziffel. Francis the Talking Mule and Mister Ed (a horse is a horse of course, of course) both held endless conversations in English with their human masters and joined them in some great adventures. There was also Cleo, the basset hound on the 1950's television show called The People's Choice, who had all kinds of things to say about her master, Jackie Cooper. The audience could hear Cleo's pithy remarks, but no one on the show could.
Recently I came across a detective novel with a dog somewhat in the mold of Cleo. Chet is a large canine who managed to flunk out of police dog training school due to some undisclosed mishap on the last day. He was eventually adopted by Bernie Little, a private detective, and became and important partner in the Little Detective Agency. Chet, like Cleo, lets the readers in on his thoughts.
The book, To Fetch a Thief, is part of a series. This volume revolves around an elephant and her trainer being kidnapped from a circus. The story line is actually quite good and held my attention well - though Chet's literal translations of what humans say and his subsequent puzzlement do begin to wear a bit thin before the novel concludes. It's like a joke is told, refashioned and told again . . . and again . . . and again. The bad guy, for example, says "Okay, I'll spill my guts." and Chet immediately begins looking for the exposed entrails. Lots of colloquial human sayings get garbled by the poor dog. But what Chet lacks in vocabulary skills, he more than makes up with his seasoned detecting abilities.
The author of To Fetch a Thief, Spencer Quinn, obviously believes that animals can think - and so do I.