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Into the Void: Communicating with Animals

November 28, 2010

Humans can communicate with animals. We do this, consciously or unconsciously, all the time. Already, there is an established, invoked language between people and certain domestic animals.  Most people know to make kitty-kitty noises to get a cat’s attention. We understand that it is possible to tell some dogs to sit, stay or roll over.   People will admit that when their dog barks, they know it wants out, that when their cat wants food or attention, it mews.  No one bats an eye when an equestrian yells  “whoa!” to a horse. We communicate with animals every day, and they communicate with us.

These days, I am trying to communicate with this gorgeous peregrine falcon called Hermes.

Helloooooo, gorgeous!

Sadly, he cannot return to the wild due to permanent wing damage. He will stay at the Wildlife Center among our permanent birds, serving as an educational animal, hopefully helping locals get psyched, get educated, and get protective about the amazing raptors and other wildlife in the Florida Keys.

So we are teaching Hermes, a recently wild bird to come to a glove, sit on the glove, and don’t freak out around humans. He is remarkably intelligent and open-minded, and already steps to the glove for food then sits awhile gazing with deeply soulful brown eyes.

I am not an animal behaviorist or  zoologist. Nonetheless, in the past, I’ve managed to make close, personal friends out of some interesting non-domestic creatures. I’ve even bonded with a wild-born, permanently disabled broadwing hawk who lets me secure her to my glove with jesses and take her for a walk. I can put moisturizer on her talons without getting clawed and stroke her chest without getting bit. It might not sound like much when you consider how licensed falconers can train their birds to fly around and hunt and return to them, but I am not a trained falconer, and the hawk and I are happy with our arrangement.

I believe that the simple secret to being “good” with animals is communication and communion:

Approach every creature with an open heart and an open mind. Everything communicates. Do not assume because it is a bird or a snake or a bat that it cannot understand something about you. Many animals receive information about us through the very scents the chemicals in our bodies give off.  So think gentle thoughts. Animals are adept at reading body language–they have to be: Depending on which end of the food chain an animal lives on, knowing when a predator will attack or being able to predict a prey animal’s next move is paramount to survival. So acknowledge that you are not interacting with a “dumb animal,” but rather a non-verbal, sentient creature.

When I’m confronted with an unfamiliar animal of any species, I try to pay attention to my tone of voice and my body language. Before I move, I project my intentions (sometimes intentionally misdirecting if I need to make a surprise capture.) Many animals consider prolonged eye contact and a body facing them threatening. Often, when I need to approach a wild or feral animal that needs help, I  walk toward them sideways, averting my eyes as much as possible.

Always, when I first encounter an animal, I can feel the void between myself and the animal like a palpable black hole. This silence and uncertainty is caused by an absence of common ground–especially when the animal is wild or feral. Eventually, one of us must simply step into the void and communicate– through a movement, an expression or a vocalization.  The other will respond, positively or negatively, and the process of communication has begun.

Never forget that animals are communicating with you too: observe body language, think about what the animal might want and need.  Food is a great way to initiate goodwill between yourself and an animal (duh!) but it cannot be your only connection. A lot of this sounds like common sense, but I’m always surprised by the number of people who simply discount the idea of communicating with an animal that is not a cat or dog.

Once, the Wildlife Center had a magnificent frigate bird who was reluctant to eat. I found I was able to hand-feed the bird while it sat on a perch. A particular volunteer tried to do the same, but the bird would not take fish from her, and instead the bird became upset and vomited when she approached.  The frustrated volunteer came to me to ask for the  “trick” to getting the frigate to eat. So I watched her try to feed the bird: she approached the animal too quickly, made too much eye contact, and shoved the fish in the bird’s face. She did not attempt to communicate her good intentions.

Magnificent frigate

I avoided prolonged eye contact, sidled up to the bird at a leisurely pace, lowered my head, and “offered” the bird a fish, keeping enough distance between my hand and the bird that the bird had to lean forward and take the fish from me.  It was simply a matter of body language.

In short, I firmly believe that you don’t have to be a pet-psychic or a “whisperer” to communicate with animals. You just have to open the door and believe that communication is possible. Then, you have to listen as well as speak.

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