If Elvis had thought to walk right through my five-wire electrified fence, he could have quite easily. For that matter, he could have knocked the barn wall down and right through the hole. He weighed about 3,000 pounds.
He was brought to me by a farmer who had grown attached to him. Elvis followed the farmer around the big barn where Elvis lived.
The farmer couldn’t bear to put him on the truck to the slaughterhouse when the time came. He knew I had a big empty pasture and asked if I wanted him. I did. I wanted to try out my theories about communicating with animals.
Elvis was a great place to start. If I could talk to him, I could talk to any animal in the world.
If Elvis got belligerent or excited, he could easily have harmed me or anyone else on the farm. He was so big it took him 10 yards just to stop when he was walking downhill, and when he decided to lie down, the pasture shook. He was always shrouded in huge clouds of nasty flies, which he seemed not to notice.
He had a penchant for drooling, and plucking and eating the hat right off of my head. Of course, I came to love this amiable monster.
He loved for me to come out in the pasture and sit alongside him and brush his great hide, for as long as I could stand the flies.
Animals like Elvis can see inside of us, grasp what we are thinking and feeling. They can even smell it.
To begin testing my theories about talking and listening to animals, I got a huge basket of apples and held some up. At first, I stayed on the other side of the fence until he was calm and still. Then I came into the pasture and gave him an apple, so long as he was still. It took a few tries, but Elvis got it.
I had begun teaching him to “stay,” a word I repeated whenever he stopped.
After a week of apple exercises, Elvis began paying more attention to me. He connected the stopping with the eating. I asked him nothing, gave him no commands and moved slowly and predictably in his presence. I was establishing trust.
I communicate with animals in three ways. First, through food. Then, through emotion —calmness, repetition, and clarity. And then, and most interestingly to me, through visualizations.
There is no magic or mystery about visualizations. They are simple about wishing for what you want.
Animals don’t have language or vocabulary, but they do have amazing instincts. They can smell our emotions, see them, feel them, sense them. They are believed to communicate with one another in much the same way autistic children do, through images, not words.
They can communicate with us in much the same way. It just takes practice, patience, and an ability to focus. After three weeks of apples, I opened the pasture gate and came in. The danger here was Elvis getting excited and running into me, or over me. He would not even have noticed.
When he moved toward me, or got too close, I held the apple behind my back, then walked out of the gate. After two or three days, Elvis learned to stop. He never got the apples unless I held up my hand and in a soft voice, said “come here.” He caught on quickly.
A few mornings later, after I was certain he grasped the idea of waiting, I decided to try visualization. Elvis leaned over and tried to nudge me with his giant head; he wanted me to fork over the apple he knew was behind my back.
But it wasn’t there. I didn’t have an apple.
I closed my eyes and cleared my head. Animals like Elvis can see inside of us, grasp what we are thinking and feeling. They can even smell it. Facial expressions, clarity of thought, body language, one’s demeanor and state of mind are all details that animals focus on, even if people miss them.
I stood up straight, puffed out my chest a bit. I moved away from Elvis and took a deep breath, telling myself I was absolutely certain I could control this beast. I pictured it, pictured it again, made every effort to project it. First trust, then attention.
Then visualization — exchanging the images of life, projecting what it was I wanted.
It worked. After just a few weeks, this enormous animal was doing exactly what I had asked him to do in my mind. He was still standing in the pasture alongside me. He still wanted the apple, but there was another image in his mind now, another idea.
To be still and wait for it.
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About 100 years ago, the author and naturalist Henry Beston wrote a book called The Outermost House
. It was widely credited as being the inspiration for the animal rights movement and remains a beloved favorite for animal lovers.
In the book, Beston called for a “wiser and more mystical understanding” of the animals in our world.
“For the animal shall not be measured by man,” he wrote. “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 wrote Talking to Animals
in part because Beston’s quite noble plea was never really answered. We do not have a wiser or more mystical understanding of animals, domesticated animals in particular, who we see as helpless and dependent underlings, too fragile to pull carriages, entertain humans, give rides to children, or even exist outside of shelters and preserves.
Increasingly, dogs and cats and other pets are becoming surrogate children — “furbabies” — creatures from whom we expect unconditional love, animals whose lives are increasingly circumscribed by the emotional needs of their humans and bounded by fences and tiny yards.
Their new work is tending to our emotional needs, not the true lives of animals. Against this backdrop, animals who are not pets are vanishing from the world at a horrific rate. The World Wildlife Federal reports that half of the animal species on the earth have vanished since 1970. Most of the remaining species are in great trouble, threatened by climate change, human development, greed, hunting, and poaching.
It has never been more important to understand animals and communicate with them, never more urgent to understand them and be understood by them, whether we are speaking about dogs, cats, horses, elephants, cows, or ponies.
More and more, the only experience Americans have of animals is as pets; the only way we see them is through the prism of abuse.
It isn’t that no animals are abused. Many are. It is that many animals are not abused; in America, they are quite often the luckiest animals in the world. There is no one way to understand them.
A lifelong supporter of animal rights, it sometimes seems to me that that movement has become too narrow and too rigid, has lost any understanding of the real needs of real animals.
Nor has it risen to their greatest modern challenge: how to keep them in our lives and in the world.
If we are to decide what is best for carriage horses living and working in the city, it is not enough to demand that they be returned to the wild. There is no wild for them to return to, and there are precious few animal preserves that can afford to care for them. We must also know what they really need, not just what we think they ought to need.
Their lives depend on it.
If we are to demand that the elephants leave the circus, then we must also demand to know where they will go after they leave, who will care for them and pay for them and ensure their survival.
We need to know that working animals need to work, not simply stand around all day and drop manure. This applies to pets as well as other animal species. Is it really humane for a dog to spend his or her entire life in a crate so that people can feel good about themselves?
Is it really true that dogs will suffer in the hands of older people who can’t take them for long walks, or that people who work long hours shouldn’t have a dog?
Talking to Animals
is about these and other questions relating to animals and their true natures. The more we can communicate with them, the safer they will be, the more likely they are to survive in our world.
One day in August 2014, I was prepared to call the vet to euthanize a ewe who was struggling through a painful labor, and for nearly a full day. I couldn’t bear watching her suffer much longer, but then I stopped and lay down next to her, and closed my eyes and cleared my head. I felt — and saw — a distinct message from Ma, an aging Border Leicester. I saw two babies, and I had the strongest sense that Ma was eager to deliver them.
I thrust my hand in her uterine canal, and pulled out one lamb, and then another. She had twins. Mother and twins lived a good long while.
Sitting in the barn, covered with blood and afterbirth and dirt, I felt a great sense of exhilaration, a connection to the animals that was only deepening. And the first steps toward the new and wiser understanding of animals that Henry Beston called for so long ago.
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has written 19 books — 7 novels and 12 works of nonfiction — including The Second Chance Dog: A Love Story
and The Dogs of Bedlam Farm
. He has written for the New York Times
, Rolling Stone
, and Wired
. He lives on Bedlam Farm in upstate New York with the artist Maria Wulf; his dogs, Red and Fate; his barn cats, Mother and Minnie; their donkeys, Lulu and Fanny; and 10 sheep. Learn more at BedlamFarm.com