In recent years, researchers have been exploring methods of interacting with animals in an attempt to understand how they really feel about their lives.

Dr. Ian Duncan, emeritus chair in animal welfare at the University of Guelph, Canada, claims to have developed a system that allows him to ask questions of and receive answers from animals. Years of research using a variety of subjects, from livestock to domestic pets, has allowed him to develop the process, which he says is purely scientific.

“We are devising ways of ‘talking’ to animals and putting questions to them about their welfare and happiness," said Duncan.“Each species has to be treated differently but the common factor is to devise tests where the animals are offered a choice. If they make the same choice repeatedly . . . it shows what they want from us.”

Dr. Duncan has been a campaigner for animal rights for many years, voicing strong opinions on the subject of religious slaughter for halal and kosher meat, and conducting research which has led to positive improvements in the methods used to intensively farm chickens and pigs.

He said he believes that all living creatures have a personal perspective on their surroundings and living conditions, even farmed fish like trout or salmon.

“It used to be thought that animals were ‘dumb’, driven by programmed instincts and responses, but now it is clear they live a much richer life than we ever realised and can remember the past and think about the future. We can use that knowledge to ask questions about their care and then improve it.”

Duncan originally hails from Scotland but now lives in Ontario; his new theories on the science of animal welfare and sentience are to be presented at a conference in Washington. His views are shared by Con Slobodchikoff, an animal behaviorist and professor emeritus at Northern Arizona University, who has also devoted much of his career to the pursuit of enhanced communications with our four-legged and feathered friends.

Though his research has encompassed a broad range of species, Slobodchikoff has chosen to focus on the prairie dog because he has determined that these creatures use a very sophisticated form of language. Using complex statistical analyses of their cries, taking into account the acoustic qualities and the context in which they were uttered, Slobodchikoff believes that he has been able to perceive the meaning of each call. A video of prairie dogs communicating accompanies this article.

" I started looking at the social system of prairie dogs — and prairie dogs have a very complex social system. They have alarm calls, which they give when they see a predator. And the alarm calls turned out to be a Rosetta stone for me, in the sense that I could actually decode what information was contained within the calls," he said.

" The animals have word-like phonemes, combining those into sentence-like calls. They have social chatter," he explained." They can distinguish between types of predators that are nearby — dogs, coyotes, humans — and seem to have developed warnings that specify the predators’ species and size and color."

Slobodchikoff is certain that many other species, including whales and dolphins, will also be found to use very advanced forms of communication, but it is far more difficult to study them in such detail.

"That’s a problem with studying things like whale and dolphin calls, because they occur below the ocean surface where we can’t really see what’s going on," he commented. " So we can hear their vocalizations, but we aren’t really sure what their context is. And you need to have the context in order to crack the code — it’s the context that allows you to decipher the meaning of the message."

Slobodchikoff has used artificial intelligence techniques to record prairie dog language, and computer programmes can now analyze the calls and convert them into English. The technology can also convert English into "prairie dog" language. It is hoped that eventually, small devices could be developed that would allow people to converse with their own pets in the same way.

"I think we have the technology now to be able to develop the devices that are, say, the size of a cellphone, that would allow us to talk to our dogs and cats," revealed Slobodchikoff." So the dog says "bark!" and the device analyzes it and says, "I want to eat chicken tonight." Or the cat can say "meow," and it can say, "You haven’t cleaned my litterbox recently."

For those of us who have always believed in the sentience of all living things, this is very welcome news. Treating our fellow creatures with greater respect, and understanding their unique perspective on the cycle of life, has to be a positive step for the human race towards greater enlightenment. To be able to communicate with and comprehend the needs of animals, birds, fish and insects would surely expand our consciousness to new levels, and unveil a whole new world here on earth.

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