Con Slobodchikoff is Professor Emeritus of Biology at Northern Arizona University, CEO of Animal Communications, Ltd, Director of the Animal Language Institute, and author of Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals. He is an expert at decoding animal language, using innovative experimental and analytical techniques. His work has shown that prairie dogs have a sophisticated animal language having all of the design features of human languages.
He has been featured in a variety of news media articles and interviews, including magazines such as Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, Discover Magazine, People Magazine, Reader’s Digest, and Boy’s Life; radio interviews such as “Radiolab”, NPR’s “All Things Considered”, and NPR Flagstaff, Phoenix, Santa Fe, Idaho, and Colorado; on television on NBC Dateline, ABC World News with Peter Jennings, CNN, Country Canada, Quantum (Australia), Tierzeit (Belgian-German TV), Turner Broadcasting, and Brixen Productions (Discovery Channel); and in newspapers such as the LA Times, Boston Globe, Denver Post, Arizona Republic, Arizona Daily Sun, Arizona Daily Star, Washington Post, and the New York Times. A joint production by BBC and Animal Planet did a one-hour documentary of his work, shown in 2010 by BBC TV in Europe and in 2011 on Animal Planet as part of the Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom series.
Con has written or co-written some 100 scientific papers and popular articles on animal language, animal behavior, and evolution. He has also edited three books on these topics.
Con also writes or co-writes several blogs, including Reconnect With Nature Blog (www.reconnectwithnatureblog.com), the Dog Behavior Blog (www.dogbehaviorblog.com), and the Dr Con page on Facebook (www.facebook.com/doctor.con). His website is: www.conslobodchikoff.com.
Con has a B.S. and a Ph.D. degree from the University of California, Berkeley.
INTERVIEW: EVELYN EINHAEUSER
Why in your opinion is it difficult for us human beings to accept that animals actually do communicate in a language?
We humans like to think that we are special and that we are somehow separated from the rest of the animals. If we allow the possibility that animals have language, in the minds of some people that makes us seem less special and less separate. My answer is that we are indeed special, just like every other species is special in its own way.
How do animals communicate with each other according to scientific research?
There are many different ways that animals communicate with each other. Some of these ways we're just beginning to find out about because they seem so strange to us. Animals communicate using vision, sound, odors, touch, taste. But other ways that we are finding out that animals can communicate involve other senses, such as detecting electrical fluctuations and magnetic fields.
Many indigenous people that I had the privilege to interview actually use their sensory faculties in a more refined or broader sense than most of us do, simply because they are brought up in this way. Some of them can smell or taste diseases for example or hear the sun rise. Do you think we need another awareness or have to sharpen our observation skills so that we can understand animals and the environment we live in better and understand ourselves as a part of everything and not separate?
We humans who live in urban settings have lost much of our sensory awareness because of the constant pollution of sounds, smells, and sights. Indigenous people do not have this constant barrage of stimuli that deaden their senses. We find that animals who live in urban settings often have to adjust to the sensory pollution that our environment imposes on everybody. For example, birds will adjust the frequencies involved in their songs so that their songs do not get drowned out by our urban noise. If we want to understand animals and understand ourselves better, the best thing that we can do is go to quiet and undisturbed places in nature, and just sit, be still, and listen.
What do animals communicate to each other according to your research?
We are just scratching the surface of what animals can communicate to each other. They can communicate information about who they are, how they are feeling, what sort of predators are found around them, what sort of food is available, and how they think of themselves as potential mates for other animals. As we decipher animal language, we find that animals can communicate very complex concepts to one another.
You found out that prairie dogs not only use certain calls to warn each other about predators, but that they also have distinct calls for different predators (like human, coyote, etc.) and also describe them quite distinctly in size, looks and even shirt color. Can you say a little bit about your findings?
When I first started working with prairie dogs, we thought that they had only one call that they gave for any predator that they saw. After many series of experiments we found that prairie dogs have a very sophisticated vocabulary that they can use to tell each other about the descriptions and identities of different predators. More information about this can be found on my YouTube video: https://youtu.be/y1kXCh496U0
What was your own biggest learning curve working with animals?
At the time that I started working with animals, I thought of them in much the same way that many of my fellow scientists thought of animals: running on programs of instinct and not thinking anything about the world around them. However, the more that I worked with animals, the more that I realized that they were complex, sentient beings, who had hopes and thoughts. My learning curve involved realizing that animals were not that much different from us.
How can we at home develop a better „correspondence“ with the pets we live with and the natural animals that surround maybe our house, etc.? I’m thinking of one of the stories in your book “Chasing Doctor Doolittle” in which you narrate about your wife learning to communicate with a friend’s cat?
The first step in this involves accepting that animals think, feel, and have language. The next step involves empathy towards animals. If animals understand that we like them, accept them for who they are, and are willing to meet them halfway on their own terms, they will reciprocate and like us and communicate with us in turn.
There is also quite extensive research done on the frequencies in which animals communicate. I have read somewhere that the low frequencies of some animal species (wales, rhinoceros, cats purring sounds) are found to be similar to the low frequencies used in sound healing. What do you think of this? Do you think there is a potential healing quality in the languages of animals?
Just like with animal language, we know surprisingly little about sound frequencies that are used in healing. I believe that this is still a wide-open area for research, and in the future we may realize that sound plays an important role not only in communication but also in healing. After all, quantum physics tells us that we are bundles of energy, and sound represents focused energy. But we are not at that stage of knowledge yet.
One other interesting finding that you talk about in your book is how the frequencies of animal languages could also possibly relate to another experience of time, meaning that in one animal call could be much more information pertained if you slow down the speed of the recording. Can you talk a little about that?
Many years ago I came across a vinyl disk that had recordings of whale songs put together by Roger Payne. One of the cuts on that disk had whale song that was sped up 16 times. Amazingly enough, it sounded just like birdsong. And if you take birdsong and slow it down 16 times it sounds very much like the songs of whales. I think that there is a relationship between the lifespan of an animal and the way it produces and processes sound. Animals that are short-lived and have a high metabolic rate tend to produce sounds in the higher frequencies. For example, hummingbirds have songs that are barely audible to us because the frequencies are so high. Rats, who live only a couple of years, have songs that are way beyond our hearing. Whales, on the other hand, who live for long periods of time have songs in the lower range of our hearing.
You have founded an animal language research institute. What are future projects that you want to focus on?
I am hoping that the Animal Language Institute will serve as a clearinghouse for spreading information about the language abilities of many animal species. I look to the Institute also as a place where scientists can gather and share their research results. One function of the Institute is to tell nonscientists about the abilities of animals and encourage nonscientists to appreciate animals and view them with respect.
Is there something you feel people should know or one message that you want to share with people in the end?
I believe that the time has come for us to recognize that animals are sentient beings, and as such I would like to have people form partnerships with animals and treat them with respect, rather than the culture that we have of treating animals as property and as disposable objects.
Thank you very much!