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Eva Meijer: ‘Of course animals speak. The thing is, we don’t listen’.

Eva Meijer reveals fascinating research into how animals communicate. For her, learning more about animal language should herald a decisive shift towards rights for animals.

PATRICK BARKHAM: ‘Eva Meijer, a Dutch philosopher, novelist, visual artist and singer-songwriter, is visiting the splendidly acronymed Faith (For Animals In Trouble, there’s Hope) animal rescue centre in Norfolk… “People say animals cannot speak. Of course they speak. They speak to us all the time. The only thing is that we don’t really listen. Listening is really important, not just for their sake but for ours because there is a limit on how far we can use the planet and its natural resources.”

Meijer is part of a growing movement of academics and mostly younger people examining how to redefine humans’ relationship with other animals… When she became vegetarian at 11, she regretted not having done so earlier. Loving animals “was just something that was there and was natural”, she says.

It was only when she began to study philosophy that she saw that animals were almost completely absent from western thought. And when they appeared in science, they were treated solely as objects. This clashed with what she knew to be true from her own experience – that animals had agency, emotions and deeply communicative lives. When a human rides a horse, for instance, she says: “There is a lot of communication going on.” Research shows that the heartbeats of rider and horse synchronise.

While the ancient Greeks saw humans as part of a greater whole with other animals, Christianity and the Enlightenment set people apart from mere beasts… Meijer reveals fascinating research into how animals communicate. Jays and crows choose particular gifts they believe will appeal to their partners, and so have a “theory of mind” – they can see things from another’s point of view.

Prairie dogs use chattering calls to describe different intruders – not only a human, but how large he or she is, the colour of their clothes and whether they are carrying an umbrella or a gun. Many mammals can learn human words, produce new sounds or acquire other languages: orcas, for example, can imitate the cries of dolphins…

For her, learning more about animal language should herald a decisive shift towards rights for animals. In academia (one of Meijer’s many jobs is as a research fellow at a Dutch university), she senses a shift in biology and ethology, but also in philosophy and animal rights… We seem a long way from granting animals meaningful rights and yet Meijer identifies plenty of progress, from the electoral success of the Party for Animals in the Netherlands…

Meijer sees hope in history, too. A century ago, she points out, women were considered undeserving of political rights… Humans throughout history have been able to change their collective opinions about some social groups. There’s lots of reasons to feel pessimistic, but we’re here now so we should make the best of it. Also, animals are generally really nice and they are willing to forgive us”.’  SOURCE…

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