Talk To The Animals: Witnessing a chimp apology


Presenter and zoologist Lucy Cooke meets a few engaging animal conversationalists while filming BBC One's Talk To The Animals.

Lucy Cooke tries to understand the banded mongoose squeaks that scientists have decoded

In addition to being hugely chatty creatures, scent also plays a key role in mongoose life. It actually allows them to identify each other.

They live in tight gangs - extended family units with distinct boundaries between rival territories.

One of the experiments that didn’t make it into the show tested the importance of scent in maintaining these boundaries and involved me standing in a mongoose latrine in the fierce midday sun collecting a bucket of fresh poop.

After a few minutes the mongooses themselves turned up en masse catching me red handed with a scoop of their poop in my hand.

They all stood up and looked at me as if I was nuts. Which was fair enough, I felt decidedly awkward being busted for such a peculiar theft.

I took the mongoose poo and dumped it in the middle of their neighbours’ territory.

The result was a frenzy of sniffing and chattering that suggested that scent is clearly very important for communicating an enemy invasion. 

I discovered that the clans have a distinct scent which allows them to work out who is in their gang and who isn’t.

A chimp dictionary: Lucy discovers saying sorry isn't so different in chimp

Ever since I was a kid and watched David Attenborough roll around with gorillas in Life On Earth I have longed to interact with wild apes.

So when I heard we would be visiting wild chimpanzees I was thrilled at the chance to connect with our closest animal relative.

But Dr Cat Hobaiter’s approach is different to past research into chimp communication in that she has a strict observational policy with no interaction allowed.

She wants to document their pure behaviour, uninfluenced by humans.

In the presence of the chimps we had to be careful not to catch their eye and if we did we had to quickly look away and feign interest in a leaf.

We also had to be careful not to point at the chimps or wave our hands while communicating with the crew.

Our gestures are too similar and could mean something to them. I thought this would be difficult. And I was right, it was.

I also thought I would be disappointed not to communicate with the chimps directly. But I was very wrong.

The privilege of observing their intimate conversations right in front of us, as if we weren’t there, was more profound and moving than I could ever have imagined.

Lucy finds chatting up fireflies takes serious commitment

We filmed fireflies on a steamy, stormy summer night in a field in Massachusetts where the Americans allegedly began their battle for independence.

It was the eve of the Fourth of July and our British crew were also under attack, from American mosquitoes, which were the most vicious I have ever known.

I had to hide in the van with a net on my head between shots and the poor sound man was so savaged he looked like he had chicken pox.

But we battled on with the filming. And much to my delight I managed to chat up a firefly.

Lucy Cooke presents Talk To The Animals.

Talk To The Animals is on at 8pm on Wednesday, 16 July and Thursday, 17 July on BBC One and BBC One HD. For further programme time please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


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