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Animal Languages

by Eva Meijer, translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson
MIT Press, 276 pp., $27.95

Bryony Lavery’s 2018 play Slime revolves around seven young interns at the Third Annual Slime Crisis Conference, which takes place at an unspecified time in a not-too-distant future. It is a multispecies gathering, convened in response to a toxic slime that is taking over the world’s oceans. The interns’ job is to interpret the squawks, squeaks, and groans of the cormorants, seals, guillemots, toads, and other animals in attendance, and to encourage all species to participate in the proceedings. While these efforts meet with mixed success, the idealistic translators see their work as a righteous cause. “We’re second-generation Animal communicators…so like…linguistically evolved,” says one:

We’ve benefited hugely from that really brilliant major paradigm thought shift…from “animals can’t talk”…to Humans actually pouring resources into learning their languages…their rich complex fantastic communication skills…understanding what animals tell us.

Humans have spent decades trying to teach other animals our languages—sometimes for convenience or amusement, sometimes out of scientific curiosity—but we’ve made little effort to learn theirs. Today, as a virus from another species upends human society, the usefulness of communicating with animals on their own terms is suddenly more imaginable. Perhaps Slime’s translators, hauled unwillingly back in time, could facilitate conversations among all parties to our pandemic, revealing not only how an animal virus became a human virus but what animals need and want in order to sustain our coexistence: for example, as the philosopher Eva Meijer writes, “the ways they want to live their lives, what types of relationships they desire with one another and with humans, and how we can and should share the planet that we all live on.”

Meijer, a Dutch writer, musician, animal ethicist, and postdoctoral researcher in philosophy at the University of Wageningen, published her first book about interspecies communication in 2016. That book, Animal Languages, is now available in English, as is her more recent and more ambitious When Animals Speak: Toward an Interspecies Democracy. In both, Meijer uses a deliberately broad definition of language—one that includes gestures, songs, alarm calls, and other behaviors—to argue that humans should learn to understand what animals are telling us, for their protection and ours. For animals, as she writes, “have been speaking to us all along.”

Theorists of animal rights, most prominently Peter Singer and Tom Regan, have traditionally focused on the “negative rights” of animals, such as the rights not to be killed, tortured, or confined by humans.1 The field has paid relatively little attention to humans’ positive duties toward other animals—their responsibility to protect sufficient habitat for other species, for instance, or to consider their safety when designing buildings and roads. The assumption, and implication, is that the best thing humans can do to protect animals is to stay as far away from them as possible.

But animals are stuck with us on this planet, and we are stuck with them. They live with us in our…

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