Does Elvis sing?
Lives of farmies! Let's start at the beginning. First, there was Elvis. He was Cheeru’s first friend in this place and I suspect he is still her favourite. Or perhaps Dude is her favourite. Do dogs have “favourites”? Of course, they do. We know that. But what are their “favourites” based on? We may never know. But for now, let’s just enjoy Elvis’ story.
Cheeru's interaction with Elvis started with him growling at her and she instantly took an interest in him. Cheeru’s social behaviour is rather strange. She is so good with dogs that are “tough on her”. Dogs that give her a cold shoulder or ones that growl at her are her absolute “favourites”. You can read more about this behaviour of hers and watch videos of this in my earlier blog. So needless to say, Cheeru was rather eager to befriend Elvis. Then one day he decided he was ready to play with Cheeru and guess what happened? Yup, she lost interest in him almost instantly and decided to “woo” another dog that was growling at her.
Elvis and Cheeru discover a friendship. Notice how calm their play is.
Cheeru is a strange dog and her story should be made into a movie. But this blog is about Elvis. I called him Elvis because he has a habit of “singing” when he is pleased. I recently saw a puppy looking much like him and the puppers also “sings”. Is Elvis the dad? Is this a genetic trait or did the puppers learnt by observation? Is it singing? Maybe not. But then again, what is “song”? When did homo sapiens start singing? Is it possible that it was a certain lyrical expression of a strong emotion, perhaps like joy? If so, would Elvis’ expression of joy not count as "song"? I have seen dogs “dance” too. Cheeru is a “dancer”. It’s a bit of a joyous prance she does when she is thrilled. She rotates her head in circles, gurgles, eyes shining bright and she prances.
Human beings have a history of desperately looking for what separates “us” from the animals. So, we constantly come up with statements like, “humans are the only animals that have art” or “humans are the only animals that have a concept of society” or “language” or “culture” or “morality” or “sentience” … The list grows as and when ethologists and ethnographers repeatedly disprove this difference. But our desire to prove “human exceptionalism” is undying and we change the definition of these words or move the bar. However, if, instead of looking for the differences, we looked for similarities, an entirely different truth might emerge…if we are willing to look.
Humans are not the only ones with complex social interactions
Scientific enquiry into animal behaviour may seem to be objective. However, we cannot forget that the answers science provides are entirely based on the question that is posed. And what questions we chose to pose are determined by our beliefs. So the idea of objectivity is a bit of an illusion. If we are staunch believers in human exceptionalism and are obsessed with finding the difference, then we will. It boils down to how we define society, culture, art, morals, sentience, art etc. However, what if we discarded that belief in human exceptionalism? What would our scientific enquiry look like?
Sadly, it is hard to discard that belief in science, because the very laws and cannons of animal behaviour science are built on this belief. A scientist who witnesses animal behaviour that is indicative of concepts like grief, sentience, consciousness, language, culture, art, and language in animals is almost gagged by scientific rules (Ex: Morgan’s cannon and anti-anthropomorphism) and they must find a simpler explanation if they are to be taken seriously. I certainly feel like this severely stunts our understanding of animals.
The good news is experts like Marc Bekoff, Sapolsky, Carl Safina, Barbara King, Donna Haraway are fearless in telling their observations, as they experience it, without necessarily "scientifically sanitising it". It is up to us if we are willing to discard our beliefs of human exceptionalism and approach these stories with an open mind and a childlike curiosity.
To me, the lives of these farmies are entangled with mine and that of my dog. My understanding of their reality cannot be limited to what the peer-reviewed papers say. I need to really get them. These are not animals I control and not animals I can train. I can only rely on my understanding of their lives to learn how to make our homestead work. So, to me, Elvis sings and Cheeru dances.