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Column: Donkey-elephant season over; time for robosquirrels


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We long-suffering citizens have been subjected to political ads from the various candidates since forever, it seems.

By the time this column comes out, though, we will be finished with all the TV talk and radio rants until, oh, probably next month. I am a lifelong student of communication in all its forms, and so political speech fascinates me in much the same way I suspect the rantings of a patient with a bizarre and unusual psychosis fascinates a psychiatrist.

However, for the next few weeks I look forward to concentrating on more pleasant news about communication.

The first news item to catch my attention is out of South Korea and concerns an elephant named Koshik and the confirmation by scientists that this ponderous pachyderm can vocalize five words in Korean. I was hoping to find out these five words were, “Let me out of zoo!” Alas, they are a bit more prosaic and consist of the Korean words for “hello,” “sit down,” “lie down,” “good” and “no.” Well, at least that last one shows he has a spirit of rebellion.

As a youngster, Koshik seems to have been a lonely little (relatively speaking) elephant, so his keepers would often spend the night in his cage near him. No reports of snoring or rolling over in his sleep were disclosed. At some point, Koshik started making words by putting his trunk down his throat to modulate the sounds. His trainers are working to develop his vocabulary. Sources close to Koshik say he has political ambitions and is hoping to come to America to join the Republican Party.

The next bit of weird animal communication news has to do with a potty-mouthed parrot who is having a hard time finding a new home. Not only does Beaky the parrot swear like a sailor (or should that be “like a pirate?”), the foul-mouthed fowl also has a tendency to bite people, says the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals spokeshuman Angelina Lusher. As you might guess, the organization is having a hard time finding someone to care for a rather grumpy and demanding bird who utters, “Beaky wants a #!&%@ cracker!” and in the next moment nips off the tip of your finger.

Sources close to Beaky say he is looking for an agent and would like to become a stand-up comedian.

The South Koreans have their eloquent elephants and the British have their angry birds, sure, but here in the United States we are still No. 1. We may owe $16 bazillion, and we may continue to spend our way into oblivion, but by golly we have nutty animal communication stories that put the rest of the world to shame. I’m thinking in particular of the robosquirrels the government has been developing.

Technically, it’s the University of California, Davis, which developed the rodent robots, but they did it on the government’s dime or rather, on the government’s $350,000.

Researchers are using the pseudo squirrels to study the communication between real squirrels and rattlesnakes. Squirrels don’t always run from rattlesnakes but often confront them. They flatten out while facing the predator and make flagging movements with their tails all the while emitting infrared heat which snakes can detect. Researchers aren’t sure if it is the flagging motion or the heat that cause the snakes to react.

The reason this is important is a little vague to me, but apparently it is worth $350,000 in tax dollars to find out. Sources close to the robosquirrels say they are shopping a script of a remake of the 1987 science fiction action film although staring a band called “Robosquirrels” is being considered, as well.

At any rate, now that the election is over I’m looking forward to being free of politicians and political ads at least for a little while. But no matter who won, I have full confidence that our government will continue to push the envelop on weird animal communication.

Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal.

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