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Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012

Look who's talking: Whale tells a tale, and a cat goes to court

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Latest by allhans 1 year 38 weeks ago

If you haven’t read the story by now, maybe somebody’s pet goldfish told you: Scientists have identified a whale they say has mimicked human speech.

In 1984, a diver emerged from the whale and dolphin tank at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego, asking his co-workers who asked him to get out of the tank. Nobody did. The sound, it turned out, came from a beluga whale named Noc.

When a whale talks, you better listen – or at least get it on tape. So for the next several years they recorded the sounds Noc made, both underwater and when he surfaced. The scientists’ findings from their acoustical analysis, published Monday in the journal Current Biology, concluded that Noc’s closeness to humans all those years led him to lower the frequency of his “voice” to mimic the sounds people make.

Sailors had been reporting this beluga behavior for years, but the scientific community, to borrow an unscientific phrase, blew them off. But researchers finally turned on their tape recorders, and proved the sailors right.

I know what you might be thinking. One day a whale’s talking like a human, the next day he gets opposable thumbs, and before you know it the Senate is confirming him as the next secretary of commerce or something.

I wouldn’t worry. First, the entire animal kingdom doesn’t seem to be conspicuously evolving into acquiring human speech. Second, animal rights don’t appear to be evolving into human rights.

Which brings me to the landmark court case of Miles v. City Council of Augusta, Ga. – and Blackie the Talking Cat.

 

BLACKIE COULD meow “I love you” or “I want my mama.” In 1981, Blackie’s owners, Carl and Elaine Miles, took the cat’s act on the road – specifically the streets of downtown Augusta – to request spare change from passersby who cared enough to financially subsidize a talking cat. They made enough to pay $35 week in rent and, according to court documents, “other necessities.” I’m thinking catnip.

But Augusta authorities told the Mileses they needed a $50 business license. They bought one, even though they didn’t consider what they did a business – they said they just asked for tips from “curious people.”

They also filed a $500,000 federal lawsuit against the city and the police chief, charging that Augusta’s business license law was too vague; it violated their right to free speech; and apparently the law didn’t specifically mention talking animals. (But really, outside of Disneyland, what law does?)

U.S. District Judge Dudley Bowen ruled against the Mileses the following year. He found that (1) the business license law was not vague; (2) the Mileses’ rights weren’t violated; and (3) heck, even he was amused enough by the cat to give the Mileses a dollar when he saw them on Greene Street one summer day in 1982.

And you would’ve been amused, too, and don’t you even try to lie.

 

THE MILESES appealed, and a three-judge panel on the 11th District Court of Appeals upheld Bowen’s verdict in 1983. I like the judges’ amusing footnote in their ruling:

“This Court will not hear a claim that Blackie’s right to free speech has been infringed. First, although Blackie arguably possesses a very unusual ability, he cannot be considered a ‘person’ and is therefore not protected by the Bill of Rights. Second, even if Blackie had such a right, we see no need for appellants to assert his right jus tertii. Blackie can clearly speak for himself.”

Sometimes I wish more animals could.

Then maybe authorities could ask the surviving dogs from a Screven County puppy mill bust last week how their owners could allow such deplorable conditions, and why so many dead dogs were found decomposing on the property.

Maybe gentle orangutans could tell loggers and hunters in Asia to quit destroying their habitat and stealing their babies to sell as pets.

Maybe an American bison would say, “Thanks for not wiping us out like you did the passenger pigeon.”

Maybe any loved, rescued animal would simply tell its owner, “I love you, too.”

I think the Miles v. Augusta thing is a fascinating court case, but when I told all this to my dog, she couldn’t care less. Tootsie is a 13-year-old miniature dachshund. She can’t talk. If she could, she’d just say something like, “Stop writing and just take me on more walks.”

And after I type this last period, that’s exactly what I’ll do.

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