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A dialogue with your pets? Do you really want a cat to say you look dog-rough today? | Coco Khan
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A dialogue with your pets? Do you really want a cat to say you look dog-rough today? | Coco Khan

One of my favourite theories about pet behaviour is that cats see their human owners as fellow cats – just very large, hairless, uncoordinated cats. It’s why, or so the lore goes, our pet cats treat us like friendly felines, sometimes licking or rubbing against us.

How do I know this titbit? Because at some point in the past few years, I joined the ranks of the pet-obsessed millennials. It crept up on me. One day I was idly thinking how nice it would be to get a kitten, the next I was staring into glistening jade eyes, feeling the vibrations of a purr through warm fur, thinking: “Yes, this does seem a fair exchange for lifelong servitude.” Now I participate regularly in the OTT pet-parent customs. I take too many photos, I bore people with tales of tails, and perhaps the most universal ritual of all: I Google every single thing my pet does to find out why.

So perhaps the news of a science prize offering a huge $10m for a breakthrough in animal conversation should be music to pet-obsessive ears. The Coller Dolittle Challenge for Interspecies Two-Way Communication has been launched by the Jeremy Coller Foundation and Tel Aviv University. Named after Doctor Dolittle, the famous kids’ book character who can talk to animals, the prize suggests researchers use AI to help decode animal language (though other methods may be used).

It aims to build on recent animal language breakthroughs that have seen machine learning translate bat squeaks, pig grunts and rodent noises. And though the prize does not stipulate what species the work should focus on – it could be anything from worms to whales – it’s not hard to imagine which animals the OTT pet owners of the world could be most excited by. Finally, we’d no longer need to turn to Google to understand cat purrs (officially one of Google’s most-searched questions), dog whines, why our pooches bury treats or moggies shove things off shelves. We can just listen to our pets directly! Maybe we can someday even talk back!

Personally, I’m not so sure I want to talk to my cat. I may enjoy the theories, I may find them insightful or even funny (the idea of humans as big hairless cats is especially pleasing as an antidote to our self-importance), but that they are still just theories is part of the joy. Indeed, the fact that there is still much we don’t know about our animal companions is part of their beauty, their myth-making. I’d say, provided we are caring for them properly, a bit of mystery is magical. It leaves a space for us to impose our own dreams and thoughts about our bond.

For example, I believe my cat offers a nonjudgmental space for love. Do I really want to hear her miaow of “smells like you had a big night out!”, or her disappointment at today’s lucky dip from the pet food multipack: “Tuna again, mother?” There’s a long-held theory that cats do know when their owners call to them, but just choose to ignore them. Imagine if that was confirmed. Modern life offers enough methods for being ghosted without bringing our pets into it, thank you.

Of course, I understand that the actual science prize is doing something much more valuable: that by better understanding the animal world, we might better look after and protect animals. Though I’d wager we already have an ample amount of science telling us how to do precisely that: what we lack is the political will to act on it. I would like to fantasise about a sci-fi outcome in which humans and animals team up to take down The Man (Hey, we have mutual interests. Foxes are exhibiting domesticating behaviours, to secure food and possibly human care? The cost of living crisis comes for us all!). But, in reality, it’s unclear how a language breakthrough would do anything to change all that.

It also might also be worth recalling one of the most famous animal-decoding exercises – not least because it’s now been immortalised as an internet meme. It took place in the 70s, with a chimpanzee known as Nim Chimpsky. It recorded the longest sentence from a monkey – a hugely impressive 16-word sentence that had everyone in the field very excited. Although perhaps for us laypeople getting carried away with our ideas of what animals are really thinking, there may have been a touch of disappointment when the sentence was revealed: “Give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you.”

Whatever the science prize uncovers will be groundbreaking for the animal sciences. But as for moving us a step closer to talking to our pets, it may be that some things are better left unsaid.

  • Coco Khan is a freelance writer and co-host of the politics podcast Pod Save the UK

Source: theguardian.com