For several years, I worked as an animal caretaker at an outdoor education facility in New Mexico. Every day, I had the privilege of introducing children to the animals in my care: chickens, burros, sheep, goats, cows, and ponies. Some of these kids had never met an animal besides their dog or cat, and seeing their faces light up as they interacted with these creatures made every day special. Knowing that this connection with animals could lay a foundation of love and respect for the natural world made filled my days with purpose and passion.
But as much as I cherished my work with those young souls, my favorite part of the job were the hours spent between classes, when it was just me, my animal friends, and the Sangre de Cristo mountains around us. I loved sitting on the front step of the barn and having one of my ponies leave his hay to come nuzzle my hair, telling me I was a beloved member of the herd. I loved visiting with my chickens and hearing their quiet singing as they hunted for bugs all around me, completely at ease in my presence. I loved playing tag with the goats, finding the burros’ itchy spots, and feeling my cows lean against me as I filled their water troughs.
I also loved the wild animals that somehow knew this was a safe place for them, too, like bull snakes, rabbits, pronghorn, deer, and a vast array of birds. It was an experience with the latter that forever changed the way I saw our ability to connect and communicate with other species.
It was a particularly hot day toward the end of July, and the burro pen needed to be cleaned. I didn’t have a class scheduled for another hour, so I grabbed a shovel and the wheelbarrow and set to work. The burros busied themselves with their hay, and I busied myself with their muck pile.
As I worked, I noticed a magpie sitting in a nearby tree—a regular whom I’d taken to calling Maxwell. I paused my shoveling for a moment to admire the green and blue sheen in his black feathers and how regal he looked, perched on the bleached, white branch of the old cottonwood. “Good afternoon, Maxwell,” I called. “You look mighty handsome today.”
And to my surprise, Maxwell flew down to land on the fence post not ten feet from where I worked. “Oh, hello!” I said, pleased that he was brave enough to be so close. He cocked his head and uttered a raspy wock wock wock, almost like he was responding.
“You don’t say!” I said, laughing at this unexpected conversation. And this time, not only did he chatter at me again, but he hopped a few inches closer on the fence.
There was no mistaking it—Maxwell really was talking to me. I would speak, he would respond, and the gap between us closed a bit at a time until he was within arm’s reach. As tempting as it was to extend a hand and touch him, I was afraid of spoiling a rather magical moment. So we just sat there, a human and a magpie, looking right into each other’s eyes and connecting in a way that human words don’t have the power to explain. After a few minutes—but what seemed like ages—Maxwell chattered at me one last time and flew away.
My experience with pets and my animal co-workers had given me decades of experience learning to understand the different ways domestic animals have learned to communicate with us. But there was something vastly different about this encounter with a wild creature, an animal who doesn’t depend on me for food and shelter and had no reason to communicate with me other than pure curiosity and desire for companionship.
In the years since this experience, any time I hear someone say animals can’t talk, I say, “Can’t they?” We may not be able to understand their language as well as we understand our own, but Maxwell taught me that not only can animals communicate with each other, but they can—and do—try to communicate with us. This desire for connection is not limited to our own species, nor is our curiosity, enthusiasm for learning, and willingness to try something new. I saw this in Maxwell, and I saw it in the animals that I worked with every day. The children who visited weren’t the only ones who expressed excitement over these new connections: the burros would bray in excitement when they heard the kids coming up the path to “the Pony Barn,” the ponies eagerly put their heads through the fence to welcome petting, and the goats lived for play time. They craved connection as much as we humans did.
How foolish we are if we believe that we are the only intelligent beings on this planet, and how much more fulfilling our lives become when we acknowledge the intelligence, emotions, and desires of the plants and animals we share this world with.