Conversing cows and eloquent elephants

Animals Cartoon

Talking Animals

Paul Sieveking

At the end of last year,72 year old Vincent Owando Liech from the Nyando district of Kenya was herding his cows when a dark cloud descended and the waters of a nearby pond divided like the biblical Red Sea. A voice told the pious farmer to follow his animals across the pond,which he did.All the cows resumed grazing on the far side,except one,upon which an angel appeared carrying a book. When the book was opened,the cow spoke, saying ;" You must construct a new church which should be dedicated to prayer for peace.Do not say you were not warned." The message was made public in Kisumu on December 30,and garnered widespread support. In many parts of Africa,portentous messages are often delivered by animals. According to Ugandan state radio in June 1992,a goat proclaimed that the AIDS epidemic was a divine punishment for disobeying the Ten Commandments.The goat spoke in a "loud,terrifying voice" to the villagers of Kyabagala,in Mukono district,but died a few hours later. Back in August 1978,thousands of Ugandans believed that a tortoise was prophesying trouble for President Amin. The story worried the government so much that officials,police and loyal chiefs held several crisis meetings and denounced the entire population "always drunk with rumours".Amin himself held a press conference in which he threatened to put anyone trading in such stories before a firing squad. According to the Ugandan government's own report,the mysterious enfundu (tortoise) waddled into a local village police station and demanded to be taken to the town of Jinja just outside Kampala.Once there,it asked for a private audience with the provincial governor and police commissioner,having a message for their ears only. Whether or not there was any truth in the rumour of the magical oracle,the two officials wished to avoid the wrath of Amin,and hastily denounced and denied the story. The last report of the tortoise was that it was "under arrest" in Kampala jail.....but the jailers too,were quick to deny that. Batyr,the talking elephant of Kazakhstan,passed away in Karaganda Zoo in September 1993.Batyr first became famous in 1977 when a nightwatchman reported hearing the eight year old Indian elephant talking to himself.Boris Kosinsky,the deputy director of the zoo,was sceptical,but paid the prattling pachyderm a visit. "Batyr good boy.Go away," said Batyr.The news spread throughout the Soviet Union and the zoo's attendances shot up. A recording of Batyr saying "Batyr is good","Batyr is hungry" and using words such as "drink" and "give" was played on Kazakh state radio in 1980;and by 1983,Batyr's vocabulary
[Incidentally,I recently heard that a UK government literary education poster had to be scrapped because they'd spelled "vocabulary" incorrectly! -LB]
had risen to 20 phrases,including the local equivalent of "Have you watered the elephant?" Sandy Friedman,the chairman of the mammal department of Brookfield Zoo outside Chicago ,said "Given the way an elephant's mouth and tongue are arranged,I don't see how it can make words." Maybe Batyr's words were a kind of auditory simulacrum. The lead story on Turkish television news on March 20 1993 was of a talking cat called Cingene (Gypsy) belonging to Ayfer Celik of Izmir. The two year old black cat managed to say at least seven words on television including ver (give),Nalan ( a girl's name),Derya (another girl's name),Demem (I don't say),naynay(baby talk for music),nine( a colloquial word for grandmother) and babaaane (the formal word for grandmother).According to my Turkish correspondent,Izzet Goksu,these words were clearly audible. Pala,another talking cat in Turkey,was reported in the press in 1968.Perhaps Turkish is the most suitable language for cats.

I sent this mail:- Subj: Talking Animals Date: 12-May-00 To: Dear Mr Sieveking, I have just read your article in the Sunday Telegraph (May7 2000) and found myself wondering why such rubbish gets printed in a reasonable newspaper.I don't know what the point of printing such stories is apart from "taking with a pinch of salt". As Sandy Friedman explains in the case of an elephant its vocal apparatus are not given to human speech,and with few exceptions (such as parrots and macaws and mynah birds) the vast majorital part of the animal world is not in the habit of speaking verbally. It maybe that in the case of the Turkish cat that some of the vocalisations of an animal bear a passing resemblance to human words merely on the strength of statistics.There are after all so many human vocal sounds that it is not surprising that some animal sounds will sound like one or two of them (perhaps more). But the animal does not understand that it is making a sound that we might make sense of.It maybe that some chimps and apes (Kansi) or perhaps African grey parrots and perhaps some species of dolphin and whale can be communicated with via symbols and signs in context,but the idea of a tortoise speaking English is just so totally stupid that I really wonder why this type of story makes it into a mainstream paper. I have watched Lionel Fanthorpe on TV so I have some idea of where Fortean is coming from [Paul tells me that Fanthorpe's programme is unrelated to FT],but it seems to me that in general it does no service to mankind to proffer obvious misunderstandings of simple people as perhaps having some credibility.In this sense Fortean Times is helping to undermine our society being as it is based on knowledge derived from evidence and study and not belief in silly inane stories related by people with limited brain matter. It seems that in such articles,it is ironic that the writers are talking apparent English words through the wrong orifice which being so constructed should not be capable of true speech,but only "verbal diorrhea". The eminent writer Isaac Asimov riled against such nonsense and some of his arguments are reproduced at index6.html. One might be able to see that as with the dog on "That's Life" which apparently said "sausages" when its jowls were manipulated,that any animal could seem to be saying words.Our cat seems to answer "No" to most any question asked of it! Those of belief might ask themselves why they think there is nothing to these stories and why they are clearly the absurd misunderstandings of tribal people's, after all those people believe that the animals are talking and are bringing angels messages. This is not so different from belief in God.Obviously in Africa,animals are much more potent symbols than they are here,and are much more likely to be given credibility as the messengers of God. There is too perhaps a lesson in how pompous Western believers are in elevating themselves close to the divine.It seems that in other countries (more superstitious and religious) animals get treated with a great deal more deference. If believers find themselves saying "But it's obvious,no animal can talk" and think Dr Doolittle was merely a fantasy story,they might well ask themselves upon what basis they conclude this. If other cultures are prepared to believe that animals are the messengers of angels,then presumably ridicule of this belief is based upon knowledge of animals as creatures with no propensity to speak.Knowledge that is provided by evolutionary theory. If one accepts God as an omnipotent being then you cannot outlaw any miracle,including animals speaking English or Turkish.And as is shown such belief abets the growth of new churches,ignorant beliefs that AIDS is a divine punishment,and moves ignorant politicians to start punishment regimes against its own populace. Belief in God is no different to these tribal people's belief that animals are talking to them,and if you take exception to the responses and silly acceptance of Ugandans and Turks of this nonsense,then so too you should see that belief in God is just as absurd. Other than that,if one is so quick to arrive at man's superiority,then perhaps its a bit wiser to treat animals with some respect,after all it might be an angel in disguise!

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