Meet the woman who talks to the animals

Lucy Cooke with a meerkat at the Kuruman River Reserve, Kalahari, South Africa. Credit: BBC/Boundle

Lucy Cooke with a meerkat at the Kuruman River Reserve, Kalahari, South Africa. Credit: BBC/Boundless, part of FremantleMedia UK - Credit: BBC/Boundless, part of FremantleMedia UK

Flirting with fireflies and learning how to say hello to hippos might sound somewhat surreal, but it’s just part of a day’s work for Lucy Cooke.

Lucy Cooke with vervet monkey in Diani Beach, Kenya. Credit: BBC/Boundless, part of FremantleMedia U

Lucy Cooke with vervet monkey in Diani Beach, Kenya. Credit: BBC/Boundless, part of FremantleMedia UK - Credit: BBC/Boundless, part of FremantleMedia UK

The zoologist and explorer travelled around the globe meeting scientists who have devoted their lives to cracking the animal code for a BBC documentary, Talk To The Animals.

Lucy, who lives in London Fields, met mongooses in Uganda and tungara frogs in Panama, learned how hyenas can count and that dolphins have names, on her quest to find out what animals are really saying to each other.

“As you would expect there are certain animals you would expect to have sophisticated communication skills, but what was more surprising was that much simpler animals were actually giving quite complicated signals to each other,” said Lucy, who was taught by Richard Dawkins at Oxford University.

As part of the two-part documentary which airs next week, she found out from scientists that a single mongoose squeal – which lasts less than a second long – actually contains a sentence’s worth of communication.

Lucy Cooke with a mongoose in Mweya Penisula, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda. Credit: BBC/Bou

Lucy Cooke with a mongoose in Mweya Penisula, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda. Credit: BBC/Boundless, part of FremantleMedia UK - Credit: BBC/Boundless, part of FremantleMedia UK


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“It’s like a status update on a social networking site – like Brian digging, Helen foraging or Esmerelda resting,” said Lucy.

“They are saying their identity and their activity, that’s all contained within a single squeak, and that’s surprising because a mongoose isn’t a particularly sophisticated creature.”

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Lucy, who filmed Freaks and Creeps about nature’s very own weirdos and oddballs for National Geographic two years ago, also travels to a meadow in Massachusetts for the BBC show, where she watched how North American fireflies attract their mates using the language of light.

“I was with these sweet geeky couple of blokes who got so excited about firefly mating behaviour in a way you have to love scientists for, because without them we wouldn’t know what was going on,” said Lucy.

“The females sit in the grass flashing, the males cruise looking for a female, and if she flashes back at the right speed he knows he has her, and he creeps up.

“I was pretending to be a female with my flashlight in the grass, I managed to attract a male and I got quite excited about it, he was coming closer to me, and I was reeling him in, but unfortunately he was eaten by a spider.”

One of the most amazing things about filming for Lucy was watching chimps in Uganda, where a scientist has just compiled the first-ever ‘chimp dictionary’ with 66 gestures after 12 years of observation.

“It was such a rare privilege,” she said.

“In the past chimp communication studies centred around getting chimps to speak human language, but this particular researcher has focused on observing chimps in their most natural state.”

Only Lucy and her cameraman were allowed to get close to the chimps, which are so habituated to human presence they carry on as if they are not there.

“You are allowed to look at them, you can get within a few feet but if they catch your eye you have to look away and have to pretend to be really interested in a leaf,” explained Lucy.

“I was disappointed not to interact with them, but observing their intimate conversations and the soap opera of their lives unfolding feet away was so much more profound than any attempt at communicating, it was a very moving experience I’ll never forget.

“As we were there the scientist would explain what things meant, a lot of the things you could guess, but it gave you goose bumps.”

As luck would have it, Lucy was filming on a day when a female had just given birth.

“They have their babies in secret and then introduce them into the group, and it was so tense as they practice infanticide and an alpha male will often kill the new baby,” said Lucy.

“As she came into the group there was a tussle going on, she walked into it, hunched down and held her hand palm up which is a submissive gesture to say, ‘Please don’t harm me’.

“That’s the instinctive thing to do, if someone was threatening you, you would hunch down and put your palm up.

“They didn’t kill the baby. It would have been ghastly to be there on a moment of infanticide. It would have changed my perception.”

The show is on BBC One at 8pm tonight, and will then be available to view on the BBC iPlayer.

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