A brave new bark: what if animals spoke?

Imagine a normal morning at Colby College. We wake up, get dressed, and leave our dorms for breakfast and classes. As we begin walking, we notice the same squirrels that we see on campus every day. As always, our feelings towards the squirrels are an enigma; they are comforting yet confusing, entertaining yet concerning, comical yet strangely terrifying. But today, as we look over to observe their strange habits, one of the squirrels looks right at us and exclaims “good morning” in perfectly formed English.

For some reason, on this morning, every single species on our planet has gained the power of human speech. They know our languages, and can therefore communicate with us in the same way that we communicate with each other. It’s an interesting thought – what if we actually lived in a world where this was the case? What would change?

First off, we probably have to make the assumption that because animals have gained the power of human speech, they have also gained the power of human intelligence, too. Given that most species don’t even have the ability to think, much less organize thoughts and sentences, it would be unlikely that they could communicate with us even if they had speaking ability. So let’s imagine that animals have both gained the power to speak, and the power to think and communicate to the level that we do.

People’s immediate thoughts would probably be ones of a much happier world, a world where animals rights would greatly grow because we would respect animals on a different level than we do now. Because we would look at animals more like ourselves, beloved foods such as hamburgers and fish n’ chips would become far less popular in society. The number of animal rights activists would greatly grow, and although history of human oppression suggests that it might take a while, eventually we would respect animals to the level that we do each other.

But to me, it’s more important to note that, ironically, we could probably also come to disrespect animals as much as we do each other. There are actually many ways that humans often think of animals more highly than people. We love our household pets such as dogs and cats because of their blind loyalty; even if they whine at times, they can’t actually argue with us or communicate with us in the same way people do. Because of this, having them around gives us a certain level of comfort. If suddenly these animals became able to communicate with us like people, those endearing qualities would go away, and we might not appreciate them as much.

Furthermore, many people also argue that our intellectual capacity as humans compared to animals has caused us to do more harm than good. Animals don’t pollute, animals don’t murder each other for no apparent reason, even if animals are selfish they don’t have the same capacity for “evil” as humans do. So if animals had the same intellectual capacity and speaking capacity as people, by this logic, wouldn’t they then follow this track too? The world might become even worse off, and eventually, despite an initial moment of respect for animals, we might come to disrespect them as much as we do our own kind.

At the very least, everyone has other people they strongly dislike. People might love a certain animal, but not many of us love all people. So with all this in mind, imagine that same normal morning years later. Same morning, people walking to the same classes, watching a similar squirrel on campus.

Now, the squirrel saying “good morning” is completely normal, but in a strange way, the way we feel about the squirrel is just as ambiguous as it would have been before. We might love and appreciate the squirrel, we might loathe it. We might want to help it, we might want to hurt it. Our feelings toward this squirrel now could be much different than our feelings towards it before it could speak, but they could also be exactly the same.

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