The Tale a Tail Tells

Who told the first stories? Do animals tell stories?

Well, they certainly communicate! No one doubts what a Doberman means when it crouches and bears its teeth. Going on your guard when a dog growls may be instinctual, but there are many animal signs which we must learn to read. I remember being told, let’s say it was by my father, that the wagging of a dog’s tail meant it was happy and wanted to play, but a tail between the legs and flattened ears meant the dog was afraid or even angry and therefore dangerous. In other words, my father had to translate the language of the dog for me.

We have not been able to translate the language of a bee’s dance, but we know that the dance is complex enough to communicate the location of a source of food. Whales use long strings of complex vocalizations that last up to twenty minutes and can be repeated, yes repeated, for hours. Perhaps the only difference between whales and humans is that humans have thumbs and can write down their stories. Is a whale telling a story? Well, at the very least it is communicating emotion through sound, so yes it is a story. No doubt animals tell stories quite effectively through voice and body language.

And context. When a cat stands by its empty bowl and mews at supper time, the placement of its body and the timing (as well as tone and expression), communicate quite clearly that the cat is hungry. Once I was staying with some friends who had a darling Pomeranian named Anti-Christ (Anti-C for short) who I allowed to sleep with me every night on my futon. One evening, I had a guest, so I put Anti-C out of the room. In the morning when we opened the door to leave, Anti-C ran to the center of the futon and peed. The message was clear: “This is my bed and this is my man.”  Animals often tell stories with their urine, stories like “I was here,” a kind of primordial tagging, to say “This area is mine, beware.”

Animals can also learn language from humans, as any dog owner knows. Koko, the famous chimpanzee, learned sign language. Most communication at first was about food, like any child. She said things like, “Pour that hurry drink hurry….me me eat…you me cookie me me…gimme drink thirsty.”  Koko eventually was able to use 125 words regularly and was familiar with another 150 words, words like “pillow, love, necklace, baby, hot, up, down, in, out, finished, yes, no, don’t, can’t.” Koko could also understand spoken words. One day a visitor asked what would be the sign for “good” and before the doctor could respond, Koko made the sign for the visitor.

Koko could also use language inventively. She did not like the birds who screeched outside her window, so when she was dealing with someone or something she didn’t like she would call it “bird.” Later she even started calling people “stupid devil,” “devil head,” “dirty toilet,” “stupid toilet,” or even “Penny Dirty-Toilet Devil” (which would make an excellent drag name). She was also able to invent language. “Barefoot head” to describe a bald man, and “giraffe bird” to describe an ostrich. (Info gleaned from “How do animals communicate?” by Nacie Carson.)

We are not the only animals to tell stories, but we might be the only animal who uses signs to write down our stories (if you don’t count stories in urine). But the story of reading stories into existence is for another blog.

6 thoughts on “The Tale a Tail Tells”

  1. The worst dog bite I ever got was from that of one wagging his tail, so dogs tell tales with their tales.
    I am scared of German Shephards to this day.
    perhaps your dad did not know enough -dog- to be teaching it. 😉

  2. Is every form of communication a story?

    I wonder if a statement such as “I was here” can be considered a story on itself. It certainly is derived from some untold one.

    In “One Hour Photo” Robin Williams is obsessed with old discarded photographs of people found in flea markets. His characters puts it beautifully when he explains the untold story of those photographs:

    “I was here, I am alive, and someone care enought for me to take my photo.”

    That is the short story of a Polaroid

  3. I almost got bit by a tail-wagging liar. On my way home from elementary school a cute-looking dog ran up to its fence, wagging so excitedly that its whole body wagged. I reached over the fence to answer the dog’s apparent call for attention and the monstrous thing lunged for my throat with an angry growl–grazing my upper chest as I recoiled. The liar lied not only in its body language, but also in its cuteness. It appeared to be faking the whole thing (what a difference bared fangs make).

    Another possibility, as I think of Ron’s post, is that the dog didn’t lie, but had two truths to contend with that only came into conflict when I reached over the probably heavily marked fence. These truths might be reconciled by a greater truth: “I love people that don’t cross my fence.”

    And don’t we all?

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