Lies Our High School Science Teachers Told Us

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

I'm not a scientist, but as someone whose life is all about the animals, I found Dr. Herzing's TED talk ("Could we speak the language of dolphins?") a fascinating documentation of work along an appealing path full of big questions. But if not a scientist, what do I bring to this conversation which appears largely about a scientific pursuit? What are my creds?

If she was still around to admit it, Mom would acknowledge she did all she could to sidetrack my overwhelming early passion for animals ("if only I had let him have a dog, perhaps I too could say 'my son the doctor!'"), but the causal uber-attention to cleanliness which defined the ecosystem of our Brooklyn Jewish household was matched by an emphasis on learning. And I read everything related to animals I could get my hands on.

I earned a handful of useless degrees in the '70s, but motivated by student debt and a long love of animals, I landed my first job at a humane society back in 1978. The first step in a 35-year career working for animals in the SF Bay Area, Washington D.C., Arizona, and a few brief jaunts here and there (programs on several Native American nations, Mexico and elsewhere).

I prefer celebrating what we're very good at as one species within the kingdom, as opposed to trumped up absolutes that tend to isolate us. -- Ken White

(This long and varied track record moves me to make sure readers know that all the thousands of humane societies and SPCAs throughout the nation are separate nonprofit organizations: none are chapters or affiliates of the organizations with the national name like ASPCA or Humane Society of the U.S. Unlike many other nonprofits, our organizations' policies are set in local boardrooms rather than in D.C. or Manhattan, and for the overwhelming part gifts made to national organizations don't trickle down to local shelters trying to save dogs and cats in your community. This is not to say that national groups do not do important work, work often well outside the scope of what is possible on the local level. It is, however, to advise the reader that IMHO it's well worth your time to learn who is doing what to help animals in your 'hood.)

Best known in our community for our life-saving work with dogs and cats, unlike most local organizations, the Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA's work does not stop with companion animals. We provide care, as well, for exotic animals sometimes kept (most often poorly so) as pets, farmed animals, and for thousands of injured and orphaned native wild animals. That unusually broad mission has given me further opportunity to explore that childhood passion for all animals, and over time I am ever more drawn to discoveries which shorten that perceived distance between Homo sapiens and the rest of the animals on Mother Earth.

It's not that I don't think we're special; rather, it's that all life is special. Maybe we are unique, but if so it is by degree. I prefer celebrating what we're very good at as one species within the kingdom, as opposed to trumped up absolutes that tend to isolate us.

Back in those many decades ago, 1960-70's biology class curriculum included the "fact" that the yawning gulf separating us from "lesser animals" was evidenced by two "unique" abilities: language and tool use. Marine mammals were the first to topple that, communicating by song in that mysterious dark (first among their own kind, and then a tantalizingly "maybe with us" in early iterations of Dr. Herzing efforts), followed by primates who could learn sign language and perhaps speak with "their betters." (Pick up a copy of Daniel Quinn's "Ishmael" for a truly wonderful exploration of that theme.)

Add to Dr. Herzing's TED talk even a quick peek at the scientific journals and this year alone you'll find tool use among brown bears, dung beetles using the starry nighttime sky to navigate, and an example of interspecies communication among fish, eel and octopus.

Yes, of course I see the difference between building a nuclear reactor and using a barnacle-encrusted rock to scratch an itch; I see the difference between the mind that brings us everything from "Hamlet" to "Homeland" and two mammals agreeing on which whistle and mark means "scarf." That's not the point. The point is that we are not alone in our abilities, including the ability to communicate. And that point, not being alone, is a big deal.

Dr. Herzing says: "Imagine what it would be like to understand the mind of another intelligent species on the planet." I try to, just as I often try to recall the words of naturalist Henry Beston from his "The Outermost House," written almost a century ago:

"The animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth." I look forward to the day we receive ambassadors from those nations.

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