October 1, 2012
"We're going to talk about a spooky subject today," Washington State University animal scientist Ruth Newberry warned her audience at the Washington Animal Welfare Symposium in Pullman in late September.
Then she talked about barking pigs, cannibal chickens and a frolicking sheep.
Her topic was a pop psychology approach to communicating with your animals.
"These days, everyone claims to be an animal whisperer," she notes. "Some people claim to communicate telepathically with animals, even dead ones.
"Others judge animals' actions and behaviors based on their own way of thinking to understand what's going on inside the animal's head.
"There's a better approach."
Analyze not from a human's perspective, but from an animal's, she advises.
Her official topic, "The Science of Animal Whispering: A Close Eye, Ear and Nose on Animal Behavior," is timely considering an influx of books on communicating with animals, she feels. And, a mounting field of animal research on behavior has added to the common interest in the topic.
There is no secret to animal whispering, she believes. "The answer lies in close observation and using science to validate our interpretations," she explains.
Talking with farm animals helps figure out why milk production is down among some cows, and what health problems may be affecting laying of eggs in the poultry industry.
Pigs, for example, don't just oink, but bark as well, she observes. Recent scientific observation has established that they emit different acoustic levels depending on whether they are feeling alarmed or playful, she reports.
Why chickens eat their own is another mystery she feels can be reasoned into productive help. Cannibalistic behavior doesn't develop quickly, she says, but starts with a single chicken and is taught to others in the flock. Paying attention early on can prevent the problem from spreading, she says.
Sheep also love to leap about when the right music is played.
To one Idaho rancher at the talk, this makes sense. "Sheep love Celtic music, especially the lambs," says Lee Bates of Viola. "They leap and frolic. Once I played a hard rock song and the male's angry voice seem to make them cower.
"Now, I only play Celtic."
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