Communicating with Animals in Fiction
Humans have communicated with animals in one way or another since before the last Ice Age. Most often, the exchange of information comes with repetition and practice, verbal or physical signals given to result in a specific behavior. We tell our dogs to sit. We communicate direction and speed to horses with our knees and hands. Our cats learn that they should come for food by associating feeding with certain sounds.
Sometimes, though, communication with non-humans is far more complicated. Animal behaviorists have proven over the last century that several species are capable not only of mimicry where human speech is concerned but of language acquisition. That is to say, these species understand words and can use them in unique patterns to communicate thoughts, both concrete and abstract. When a car struck and killed the kitten who had been Koko the gorilla’s companion, Koko conveyed not only sorrow in sign language but also an understanding that the kitten had died. Alex, the African gray parrot, had a vocabulary of over a hundred words and used them in a sort of code to communicate with humans. Beluga whales have been documented learning how to use their vestibular sacs to mimic human speech in what appears to be a genuine and spontaneous attempt to communicate with us.
In fiction we often get to use different rules—talking animals in Oz and Narnia, telepathic ones on Pern and so on—but the easy route isn’t always one that fits the story. In Wild Rose, Silent Snow, one of the questions I had to ask myself was if a human intelligence were trapped in an animal body, one without the proper larynx to make human sounds or opposable thumbs to make human letters, how would that person communicate? Beyond the most basic types of communication such as nodding or shaking the head, pushing toward or away from an object, leading or refusing to follow, how would such a person communicate ideas that are more complex?
Alex the parrot actually provided inspiration on that front. Dr. Pepperdine, who had been working with Alex in her avian language project, had decided to teach Alex to spell short words by using letter blocks. I’m uncertain whether any African gray might eventually be taught this with enough work and patience or if Alex was simply a linguistic genius, but he did understand the letters represented certain sounds. He was a bit of a contrary soul, though, and refused to show visitors this skill once, demanding a nut instead, and eventually sounded out the word nut (N-U-T) to emphasize his displeasure rather than using the spelling blocks. (You can read about Alex and Dr. Pepperdine in Alex and Me, if you’re so inclined.)
Which is all a rather long-winded way to say that I ended up using plastic letters, the magnetic backed sort, as a means for a character without hands to communicate. While I don’t want to give too much away, it seems to have worked.
About Wild Rose, Silent Snow
A huge bear at the door, a handsome, naked stranger in the snow, magic fish, enchanted beards—and Rowan thought his life was odd before.
Content with the quiet isolation of their lake house, Snowden and Rowan Hadley survive on summer jobs and winter hunting, unable to move on since their parents died. Their peace is shattered by a strange, human-acclimated bear who insists on following Rowan like a giant hunting dog and again by the discovery of a naked, surly stranger in the snow.
Both bear and man lead the Hadley brothers into a strange, surreal world where sorcery and RPG software intertwine. Curses and magical traps lie in wait around every turn. Rowan and Snowden will need to adjust their view of how the world works, and quickly, if they want to live through rescuing their enchanted princes.
About Angel Martinez
The unlikely black sheep of an ivory tower intellectual family, Angel Martinez has managed to make her way through life reasonably unscathed. Despite a wildly misspent youth, she snagged a degree in English Lit, married once and did it right the first time, (same husband for almost twenty-four years) gave birth to one amazing son, (now in college) and realized at some point that she could get paid for writing.
Published since 2006, Angel’s cynical heart cloaks a desperate romantic. You’ll find drama and humor given equal weight in her writing and don’t expect sad endings. Life is sad enough.
She currently lives in Delaware in a drinking town with a college problem and writes Science Fiction and Fantasy centered around gay heroes.
Wild Rose, Silent Snow Excerpt:
After the storm, their little island wood had taken on fairyland qualities, the sun sparking off frost jewels on stone and turning the trees’ icicle banners to cold fire. Rowan loved the winter, despite the hardships it brought now. He took a moment at the back door to pull in a deep, biting breath. A pristine blanket overlay the mud and detritus of the back of the property. Only the lonely beanpoles sticking up from Snowden’s garden plot gave any signs of domestication.
Snow’s garden… He hoped they’d be able to scrape together some money in early spring for seeds and a few little plants. When their parents had been alive, the vegetable garden had been a glorious achievement. Every plant Snow touched seemed eager to grow and produce for him. Each year his garden expanded in yield and sheer beauty, rosemary, marigolds, and geraniums blooming alongside the vegetable and fruit plants as guardians against pests.
This year… Something has to change. We can’t keep living like this.
But what? And how? Rowan trudged toward the woods in his snowshoes, mindful of hummocks in the snow that indicated downed branches.
He’d teased Snow once that if they went into a job interview as one person, someone might actually hire them with Rowan to speak for them and Snowden to fill out the application. If only they could somehow merge into one person and be whole again.
Familiar trees marked his route. He took his time, checking and resetting each empty snare. Anything would be welcome, of course—a squirrel, a pheasant—but with so much of the wildlife hunkered down for the winter, all the snares were empty.
With a disappointed huff, he reset the last one, turned back toward the house, and froze, his heart slamming against his ribs. Not more than ten feet away, his coat dusted in snow, stood a brown bear the size of a compact car.
How the hell does something that big make no sound?
Rowan backed a careful, slow step. The bear watched him silently, his only movement a shift of weight from one front paw to the other and the dragon steam of his breath on the morning air. He tried to remember everything he had heard about bears. Did you stand still and hope it went away? Did you run like hell and hope it wasn’t interested?
Running seemed foolish with the bear watching him so intently. Another step back…another…then his snowshoe caught on a log to send him flailing backward. The air rushed from his lungs as his back hit hard pack. The impact jarred his grip on his rifle, the weapon skittering across the clearing.
A heavy weight settled on his chest. The bear gazed down at him, pinning him with one huge paw. He lay as still as his trembling allowed, gulping for air that felt suddenly too thick to breathe.
I’m going to die. Snow, I’m so sorry… Oh, God, I don’t want to die like this…
Images of his poor twin coming out into the snow to find him and discovering only the blood and gore of his remains haunted him. He squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for the pain to start.
And waited. And waited.
He cracked an eye open, hoping the pressure on his chest was just anxiety and the bear had wandered off. No such luck. Bear. Still very much looming over him, head cocked to one side. Damn if he doesn’t look…puzzled.
“Mr. Bear,” he ventured softly, knowing it was just a hair shy of idiotic, but too nervous to keep quiet any longer. “Think you could let me up, maybe?”
The huge head lowered. Rowan’s heart lurched hard as if it recognized its last beat. Please make it quick. Tear the jugular. Still, no pain followed the bear’s movements. Even with all of Rowan’s personal proximity alarms screaming, his body urging him to kick out, yell, do something, he lay still, mesmerized as the bear snuffled at his hair and face.
A grunt in his ear sent shivers down his back, but the bear finished his inspection by nuzzling at his jaw. The heavy paw lifted and the bear sat with an odd, mournful moan.
Rowan sat up slowly, easing back to gain a few feet between them. Jump up, grab the rifle and run? But the bear sat squarely in his path to his Remington, staring at him solemnly.
That regard somehow struck him as alien intelligence rather than ursine, something both sad and curious in that steady gaze, if one could assign emotions to a bear’s strange, white-less eyes. The bear sat back, human-wise, on his butt, back legs stuck out in front. Definitely ‘he’ from that angle. The pose seemed an assurance of non-aggression.
“I’m getting up now,” Rowan said in that same soft, reasonable tone, uncertain of his sanity as he tried to negotiate with an ursine intellect who couldn’t possibly understand what he said.
The bear grunted and gave a resigned huff, but he didn’t move.
“Don’t have anything for you. And humans taste pretty awful…”
A snort from the bear.
“So I’m just going to go back home now if that’s all right with you.” He backed a step, risked turning when the bear still didn’t move, and started slowly through the ice-laden trees toward the house.
When he glanced back, his breath caught. The bear was following. He stopped. The bear stopped. He took another step. The bear echoed him, step for step, always keeping a few feet behind him.
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