Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Can We Teach Animals To Understand Us?

Who is Fluffy Oakes?

On Fluffy Oakes’s widescreen TV, mounted on his large apartment wall, an orang-utan sits surrounded by multicoloured objects.

“This is how it started,” he says, quietly.

I sit with him on the couch and watch.

The orang is looking up at something, paying attention. An American woman speaks, off camera.

“The. Red. Ball,” she says, clearly and slowly.

The orang looks down. Like a human, you can see him thinking, hesitating. Then with a long hairy arm, he slaps the appropriate object.

“Good!” The woman encourages the orang like a pet dog. “The. Blue. Cube.”

The orang scratches his head. Purses his lips.

I wonder, is he doing this because he’s thinking?

Then he slaps the cube and looks up- presumably to the person speaking, to see whether he has pleased them.

“Good!” the woman gushes. She throws the orang a chocolate bar. He devours it messily.

Fluffy pauses the screen, the orang’s blurred face turned to the camera, chocolate-smeared and overtly enthusiastic.

“A few years ago the Americans started to test the abilities of Orang-Utans just to see how similar they are to us,” says Fluffy. “Then the experiment developed into an attempt to teach apes parts of the English language. It worked. This stuff has been on TV, documented, etcetera. At Oldham Zoo we wanted to take it a little further. We broadened the training programme out to the whole residency. To varying degrees, all the animals understand parts of human language now. The wolves adapted to language the quickest, for obvious reasons. Parrots followed. But other animals… well, they took a lot of work.”

Fluffy takes a sip of his Monkey Shoulder blended malt.

“Each species of animal,” he explains, “develops its own neural pathways- basically a way of remembering something. What they would need to know in the wild- some of it, at least- will always be preprogrammed. Their pathways are set up to learn these things, regardless of whether or not they were born in captivity. At the zoo, some were, some weren’t. My job has been to help each creature to develop new neural pathways- to read a map, to recognise new surroundings… to speak English. We’ve also taught them not to eat each other- and more importantly, not to eat or even harm humans."

“They are ready for release, is what you’re saying.”

“I think so. I’ve developed a day-release programme that allows each creature twenty-four hours away from the zoo. We encourage them to go out, do something productive, experience something new. Then the next day, we’ll gather and discuss what they experienced.”

“Even if the conditioning you gave them means they definitely won't harm people- aren’t they going to deal with a lot of prejudice from the public?”

“Yep. Absolutely. The world is a harsh place,” says Fluffy. I’ve dealt with a lot of shit myself, hence the Martial Arts.

“I know you have, hence the, er, graphic blogs.

“They don’t have to leave the zoo if they don’t want. But, fucking hell. Some of them need it. We’ve got one lovebird in a unit on his own. If you know anything about lovebirds…”

He raises his eyebrows, waiting for me to complete his thought.

“They come in pairs?”

“Exactly. He needs to get out. Meet new people. See what he can get himself into, so to speak.”

For a situation as unusual as this one, the zoo needs to plan the programme’s beginnings carefully. Handled wrong, it could be a PR disaster. Handled rightly, it could be a historical worldwide cause for celebration- on par with the abolition of slavery in terms of the advancement of human respect.

“I have absolute belief in this programme,” says Fluffy, and he necks his drink and grins at me. The Orang, on the screen behind him, is sitting with a posture not unlike Fluffy’s, with a similar cheesy grin. They’re like distant relatives.

Maybe they are.

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