What Do Animals Think About Me?

I consider myself a close observer of this thing we call life. Often, morningtimes, I drive to work from my home in the country and see all manner of small family farms and large gardens. In them, I’m sure, sometimes, there might be a rabbit, peeking out from under the lettuce leaves of the tolerant rural gardener’s plot, or a turtle, waiting until I have passed at my usual time to make his crossing from one bog to the other bog he uses as a quiet place of solace. Mostly, though, I look for the horse farms, with their comforting lengths of white-rail fencing and expanses of no-doubt delicious grass. If it’s a lucky morning, I might catch a glimpse of a mare peering over the fence, and I cannot help but think: what exactly is she thinking about me?

I realize that it’s difficult for all the horses and rabbits and turtles to see me as I’m driving past, since having the windows down is just too windy at 50 miles per hour—even in the fall, when the air is so much calmer. Perhaps I’m underestimating their observational powers, since I do pass that way every day during my flex-time work week, and I have read somewhere I think that animals have an amazingly acute sense of time. Of course, I also know that many animals such as birds and squirrels may be busy at their own kind of morning commute—isn’t that funny to think about—and might be too busy to spare me much of a glance. But I also know that I heard on a radio show at some point that animals have pretty good eyesight and are always looking around at their surroundings, like people and houses and other animals that they must have strong feelings about. But if they do chance to notice a middle-aged woman named Tricia thoughtfully driving by and looking in their direction, do they think: ah, there’s that woman again! She seems like a nice person.

There’s so much research out there these days about the intelligence and emotional capacity of animals. My dog Bilbao, who every day gives me a first-person (many times humorous!) tutorial in animal-human communication, could tell you a thing or two, I’m sure. If I’m in a room without him (it sometimes happens! ha-ha!) and move a piece of furniture, that’s the first thing ol’ Bibly will check the next time he’s there. So I know he’s thinking all the time. Perhaps he is thinking, “Why did she move that? She’s so quirky and fun.” And it is so enlightening to read about dolphins and apes and captive polar bears and all the new things they are finding out about their itty-bitty minds. But how much do we really know? Does Bilbao think, oh I’m so glad she’s home so I can get out of this crate and tell her how much I love her, or does he just think, oh I’m so glad she’s home so I can get something to eat for the first time in eleven hours? Perhaps it’s a bit of both, and his interior life is more subtle than I could fathom.

What I do know is that it’s easy to feel a connection with that speckled white horse I pass, thoughtfully gazing over her/his/its fence on foggy mornings; or with the exact same chipmunk that’s returned every spring for the past twelve years to devour the bread I am always throwing in the yard; or especially the deer families that try to jump over the barbed wire that protects my own vegetable beds (I’m no professional rural gardener that can easily tolerate the loss of some tomatoes!). I’m pretty sure that if the animals knew my name, they would say, “Tricia, I can’t speak your language or think abstractly to quite the degree that you strange standing-up creatures can, but I feel deeply and longingly just as you do, and I wish we could just for a moment share what our lives are like and how strongly I feel your intense interest in my mental state. Let me psychically give you a glimpse of how wonderful grass tastes and make you feel how much I want you, Tricia, to peer over this fence through my soulful eyes.”

I think they’d find that I’m very receptive to learning about what they value most, and what their daily life is like—the barn politics! The tree nut wars! The seasonal starvation!—I’d want to know so much. But I’d also want them to know that I understand them and feel for them—that I don’t just reflexively dismiss their existence because they’re too dumb to understand how to run a shift at the nursing home or drive an automatic while listening to some podcast or another. When it comes down to it, we’re all animals, and we all have feelings, and we all dwell on them a lot. I would tell the horse that she’s not alone in wondering about my life—that the deer wonder too, about what’s in that garden of mine (“why is Tricia growing so many tomatoes, since she lives alone?”)—and the chipmunk wonders why I haven’t thrown out bread recently (“what’s Tricia going through? Aren’t I the self-same old, dear friend who has visited her every year since she moved in?)”—and of course, my dog Bilbao, too, wonders things that I can’t even begin to guess (maybe “Am I a good boy? Am I?”), even though I take care of him and let him out in the yard (“Yes I am! Yes!”).

I think we’re finding out more and more every day, and we’ll soon know what goes on in their tiny, limited brains. We’ll know what turtles are always brooding about, and why dolphins are so spunky, and whether apes can understand sign language for “banana.” I guess I’ll read about it online or in a magazine in the grocery line or something like that. I hope it’s soon, because I can tell that that horse wants to know all about me. I’d love to be able to explain it.

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