The Dr Dolittle Challenge

Giving animals a voice of their own.

The Dr Dolittle Challenge
  • £119

    pledged of £5,000

    • 12


    • 0


This project received pledges on Mon 16 Mar 2015

A short summary of My project

  • Will you help fund me in forging a new field of science?  I am currently studying for an MA in Linguistics at Bangor University, Wales, which I began in September 2014.  It is my goal, in my MA, PhD and beyond, to bring Animal Communication to the fore as a distinct field of research, and within Linguistics - a very 'human' subject.  Most importantly, I will be exploring Animal Communication and its consideration as Language for the first time.
  • This subject will tell us more about what Language is and how it works, open up a world of information that currently only other animals have access to, and, most importantly, finally allow animals to - literally - have a voice!

Who am I?

  • I am a strict vegetarian, going vegan, from a working class background, studying for a three-year part-time MA in Linguistics at Bangor University, while working as a Waitress to help support myself.  The unsociable and uncertain hours of this employment are nothing when compared to how animals suffer daily, with little consideration, let alone compassion.  This is why I intend to work tirelessly for the rest of my career to try to achieve a better future for them.
  • In terms of my own language aptitude, further to my study of Latin, Classical Greek and Historical Linguistics as an Undergraduate, I have worked as a professional Translator of French and German, as a voluntary Research Assistant for the ‘Experimental Psychology’ and ‘Comparative Philology and Linguistics’ departments at my previous Uni, while I am currently learning Welsh as part of my relocation.
  • Animal-wise, I love animals of all species, and grew up with an entire menagerie, which instilled me with a sense of passion and respect for other animals, as well as enabling me to understand their behaviour, their needs, and their feelings.  I view them as equals, though in dire need of protection in the world at large.  I support numerous animal-related organisations, including purchasing memberships and adoptions, fundraising, signing petitions, letter writing for campaigns, and volunteering.  At my previous University, I set up and ran a flourishing Animal Ethics Society.  I have had a book review published in the Journal of Animal Ethics.  And, as a child, I looked after a Little Owl, while I have also had plenty of encounters with wildlife over the years: from swimming with wild seals off the coast of Norfolk, to being approached by a month-old foal in the New Forest, and nurturing a baby hedgehog back to health.

The Dr dolittle challenge

  • Animal Communication and Language: what’s the difference between the two?  Well, we have been conditioned to believe that there is a big difference between basic communication and complex language, and an even bigger difference between animals and humans. 

    Only humans possess the capability for, and usage of, language is what we’ve always been told.  But not anymore.  Over the last decade, I have come across not only compassionate texts, such as Elizabeth Hess’ summary of primate language experiments in Nim Chimpsky, but also engaging, informed works such as Con Slobodchikoff’s Chasing Doctor Dolittle, which objectively assesses the small amount of research already carried out in Science into Animal Communication, and shows there are clear indications that it has been completely underestimated.

    ‘The basic question should not be whether animals have or have not human-like language... having to pass our tests as measured by our yardsticks...The real how the animals themselves experience the world and how they organize this experience and communicate about it.’ Beyond Boundaries: Humans and Animals, Barbara Noske.

    Indeed, language comes in many forms.  The intricacies of body language, even for humans, would substantiate this point right away, especially considering the complex nature of differing gestures and expressions:

    Gestures come in ‘sentences’ called clusters and invariably reveal the truth about a person’s feelings or attitudes. The Definitive Book of Body Language, Allan & Barbara Pease.

    Moreover, nature or nurture theory aside, language is tied up with its usage.  Just as the Amazonian Pirahã tribe do not have words for many numbers or ‘internet,’ so pigeons are not to be judged for lacking the vocabulary to balance a chequebook.  In addition, there is recent Cognitive research which suggests that there is more of a continuum of communication forms, rather than there being a solid divide between humans and other animals.  Meanwhile, recent BBC programmes, such as Monkey Planet and Inside Animal Minds, as well as articles repeatedly cropping up in newspapers about dolphin signature whistles, alarm calls by prairie dogs, and the complex structure of bird communication, along with canine scent-marking, all show a variation of a world we have yet to discover. 

  • Beyond the academic, I wanted to get a feel for public opinion too.  So I created a short anonymous survey online, along with emailing a handful of colleagues.  Overwhelmingly positive, out of 44 people so far, 100% of people found research into animal language to be interesting and worthwhile.  Comments included:

    ‘As long as they do not test on or hurt the animals’

    ‘Sounds fascinating!’

    I think it's interesting to know more about how different species communicate, including humans, but I don't see why humans should be the central point we always want to relate everything to... [it] might distract from discovering really interesting things if we can be more open minded about what's there to be discovered. I hope you might be able to do something about this!’

    In addition, 38.6 % of people would be more likely to support animal charities as a result of science showing that animals do have language, while the same percentage would even consider turning vegetarian in response.  This was just those who would be positively influenced by animal language studies.  Already donating were 22.3%, and already vegetarian 20.5%, with a small percentage of those who ‘don’t know’ in both categories.  Those who said ‘no’ absolutely to being influenced to support organisations or become vegetarian were 17.3% and 31.8% respectively.  This means that a striking 70% or more of all people could be more supportive of animals, and vegetarian, if animals were shown to possess linguistic ability.  The comments were even more telling:

    ‘it would actually imply so much that everyone would have to think about changing their attitudes’

    ‘Language would bring a greater closeness to animals’.

    And where vegetarianism is concerned:

    ‘Might affect which animals I eat though,’ following a ‘no’ response.

    ‘I’m not vegetarian only because I’m morally feeble’ also following a ‘no,’ while another ‘no’ stated they suffered when eating meat supplements, their only barrier to vegetarianism.

    If representative of the UK, and the western world, you can already begin to see the dramatic effect that this research would have on the world and its consumers.

    And who doesn’t have their favourite anecdotes about animal behaviour and intelligence?  Ones that give us pause to question the long-held doctrines that animals aren’t smart, and don’t communicate on anything like the same level of complexity as we humans do?  Personally, I loved (cf. Links section at the bottom):

    ·         the video of the crow snowboarding on a roof;

    ·         the alligator inspiring Disney to create a water park with his love of the ski slope-turned-water slide;

    ·         the dog who took himself and his lead to a neighbour, knocking on their door, so he could have a walk;

    ·         dolphins working with humans to fish off the coast of Brazil;

    ·         the bear trying out a hammock in Florida;

    ·         Unlikely Friendships, Jennifer Holland, with its beautiful photographs of different species bonding with an improbable buddy;

    ·         the ethereal majesty of witnessing a wolf pack howl together;

    ·         hearing about tarantulas who herd their children in single file across roads in Mexico;

    ·         not to mention having a pod of seals trail my family’s footsteps out of curiosity, as we walked the entire coastal path of a Scottish island.

    This is not to say, by any means, that we shouldn’t be aware, as Cesar Millan – The Dog Whisperer – eloquently puts it in Cesar’s Way: that we should not treat animals as ‘humans in dog suits.’  Certainly, if we were shooting for complete equality, it would see me filing an anti-social behaviour report against the ‘cute’ squirrel who regularly vandalises my pot plants! 

    No, just as we are ‘only human,’ with our limitations, flaws, and reasons for our behaviour, so too we will find that other species differ from us in their mode of living, and greatly at times.  But as we know from any sojourn into history (family or otherwise): different never means wrong or inferior.  It’s just not what we would have expected.  But the same can be said for any of our greatest discoveries and experiences too.  We now know the world to be round, just as we now know not to judge the foreigner who does not speak English well, but is quite eloquent in their native tongue.  Animals have already shown how capable and intriguing they are in their everyday worlds, and in coping with ours.  Why should their self-expression and communication be any different?

  • What are the real world applications of research into Animal Language?  Animals are already in service with the police and army, as guide dogs for the blind, and as soothing companions for those who would otherwise be isolated from the world.  By building further bridges of communication with other animals, we might gain access to a potential treasure trove of information about their natural environment; there would be reciprocal understanding, which would make life easier with pets and their ‘behavioural issues;’ there could be much greater mutual assistance, such as rescue dolphins working with the RNLI, in exchange for hunting bans and human fishing restrictions; we could encourage ecology beneficial to the harvesting of food; there could be prevention of roadkill and related costs; while we could popularise eco-tourism and related jobs, in place of hunting and trade of furs and ‘trophy’ objects.  All this is possible, but communication with animals is utterly essential.

    It has long been an amusement for us to put words into the mouths of animals, whether in movies or just with our pets’ antics.  But wouldn’t it be incredible to discover what words those animals would (and quite probably do) choose for themselves?  Imagine what nature can reveal while science only speculates.

    This avenue of research, especially taking it into the realms of Linguistics, could have the biggest impact yet in persuading people to respect and understand animals.  Animal rights and welfare would take an uncontested leap forward.  The overwhelming sentiment that emerged from my survey was undeniably illuminating: 

    ‘I would feel that I am eating another human being.’

    And who wouldn’t look at their plates, or their pets, differently, if we had chance to understand why the hamster is ignoring his food, or the cows frolic in the fields? 

Where will the money go?

  • This taught MA course is composed of Core modules: Foundations of Linguistics; Introduction to Grammar and Meaning; Research Methods; and a 20,000 word dissertation;
  • and three Optional modules: with my intent to choose Language Acquisition; Issues in Cognitive Linguistics; and Psycholinguistics.
  • The whole course costs £4,610, spread over monthly installments of £128 for 3 years.
  • Educational/Research material such as Core texts, printing costs, and stationery also form part of my target fund to raise.
    • Should I somehow raise more than my target amount, this money will be kept in a savings account until I begin the PhD, taking this research forward, which will include field studies of relevant species and collection of raw Animal Language data, ethically of course!


      • In addition to my regular Tweets (@AnimalLinguist), there is a quarterly online newsletter about my personal achievements and progress in Animal Communication research available for all funders of £5 or more over the duration of my three-year MA, as well as other animal-friendly rewards if I can achieve certain levels of funding.

      Help Me succeed!

      • You don't need to give money to help me succeed! Please share this project with anyone you think would support this project – on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, by email, telephone, in a chat with your neighbours, or on your own blog.  But if you are able to donate a small amount towards this research project, it would help to bring us all a step closer to understanding other species in our world.  
      • Animals desperately need to come to life in our eyes, and be valued in their own right.  The most 'humane' treatement we can ever give them is to topple the wall that divides us from other species: allegedly Language; but, in reality, probably a fear of just what they will say to us.  This research is not just a lifelong dream for me.  This is a real chance to move forward, and the only chance, not just to be a voice for animals, but to give them literally a voice for themselves.
      • And with a voice comes choice.

      Choose reward

      Pledge £1 or more

      Select this reward if you just want to donate to the project without receiving a reward.

      5 claimed

      Pledge £5 or more

      Online quarterly newsletter with updates of my course achievements and progress in Animal Communication as a whole, for the duration of my three-year MA, provided I am kept up-to-date with your contact details.

      6 claimed

      Estimated delivery: 1 April 2015

      Pledge £25 or more

      Be named as a funder and supporter of my research in my MA dissertation, which will be completed and assessed in autumn 2017, provided I am kept up-to-date with your contact details.

      1 claimed

      Estimated delivery: 1 December 2015

      Pledge £35 or more

      A cartoon of your favourite animal or pet by artist benauld, illustrator of the artwork within this project, to be agreed with the artist in advance.

      0 claimed of 10

      Estimated delivery: 1 December 2015

      Pledge £50 or more

      Online Latin tutoring: the basics. A short course comprising of a brief history of the language and its people, a guide to pronunciation, an introduction to the grammar, a basic exploration of common vocabulary, a summary of how Latin has affected modern European languages, and a guided translation of some well-known Latin poetry, sayings, and political prose.

      0 claimed

      Estimated delivery: 1 July 2015

      Pledge £100 or more

      Entrance tickets for two adults to a local animal sanctuary or rescue, to be agreed upon. For example, the Seal Sanctuary in UK, Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre UK, Brightside Farm Sanctuary in Australia, and Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary in the USA.

      0 claimed of 7

      Estimated delivery: 1 June 2015

      Pledge £350 or more

      A painting of your favourite animal or pet by gifted artist and animal-lover: To be agreed with the artist in advance.

      0 claimed of 5

      Estimated delivery: 1 December 2015

      Pledge £500 or more

      Signed copy of my dissertation upon completion and University assessment in autumn 2017, as well as being named as a funder and supporter within the dissertation, provided I am kept up-to-date with your contact details.

      0 claimed of 3

      Estimated delivery: 1 December 2015