March 21, 2013
Katy Payne —
Whale Songs and Elephant Loves

Katy Payne is an acoustic biologist with a Quaker sensibility. From the wild coast of Argentina to the rainforests of Africa, she discovered that humpback whales compose ever-changing songs and that elephants communicate across long distances by infrasound. Here, she reflects on life in this world through her experiences with two of the most exotic creatures.

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is an acoustic biologist and founder of The Elephant Listening Project. She is the author of two books, including Silent Thunder.

Pertinent Posts

Compelling video of elephants mourning the death of a calf, and a magnificent segment on the secret language of elephants.

SoundSeen (our multimedia stories)

"Life in the Dzanga Clearing"

Researchers at the Elephant Listening Project assembled a dozen of their favorite images taken during their time in central Africa. See what Katy Payne describes as "Grand Central Station for elephants."

Selected Audio

Communication in the Wild: Recordings from Katy Payne's Research

Listen to the magical music of the humpback whales and hear Katy Payne's recordings of elephants in the Dzanga forest clearing from 2002.

About the Image

Elephants cool off at the Dzanga forest clearing.

Photo by Melissa Groo

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I have always loved animals and as an adult have collected my own herd of 6 cats and 1 horse. But the incident that struck me most occurred while observing a gorilla in an exhibit at Disney's animal park. The enclosure was open and you could see various individuals across the well hidden moat as you walked along the path, but in one area a was a glass wall you could look through. It must have been feeding time because a big silverback male came over carrying his 'cookies' and leafy greens. He sat down in front of the window facing us and watched what I call "The Human Show". As he munched on his lunch he watched the antics of the humans through the glass, the noisy bouncy children, the movement of people in and out of the area. As I was watching him he looked directly into my eyes and I felt a connection with him, his intelligence. It brought home to me that to be human isn't so different from some of our neighbors on this planet. I knew that animals had their own thoughts and feelings, but this was clear recognition of being from an animal so similar to me but so unfamiliar. I felt honored to have shared a moment in his life. I wonder if anyone else noticed the mind behind his eyes?

Yes. I was walking down the street near USC in Los Angeles and saw a group of dogs pulling a "sled" on roller skate wheels, with an Alaskan indeginous person leading the pack for a car commercial. The dogs had thick white coats and almond-shaped, wide-spaced, small and slanted eyes, I remember them as blue/grey. I felt blessed to see them, the dogs, the driver and as I passed close to them on the side walk there was yelping and one looked straight into my eyes, and saw me, the "mind behind his eyes". I felt he saw me with all of his great past of ancestor wolves, the heritage of the wild, the wisdom of his heart of service and he knew me. And I was blessed there on the sunny-warm, busy street in L.A., students mostly from Asia pedaling by to class, and me on my way to a dental appt. Cassandra

It's a wonderful show, and thank you. I am concerned that you misnamed the Quakers, though. We are the Religious Society of Friends. That first word is very important. I hope I'm not the first to mention it.

Thanks so much,
Jody Kinney

I once owned a rabbit. She was a hand-me-down gift from my inlaws who could no longer keep her, and I had just moved into my own apartment while I was in college. They figured I might want some company. So I named her Anna for 'prayer' because she was the friend that I needed at that time in my life. We became very close, as close as a person can become to a rabbit, but that relationship took much time to earn.
Anna was a norwegian dwarf rabbit which is a breed that is peticularly skiddish. All rabbits are very fearful. You have to earn their trust. Rabbits are prey animals and so every instinct draws them to take cover. I learned that I could not be loud with my pots in the kitchen when I was cooking and that sudden movements through the house would put her on edge. Gently gently, our relationship grew. She came to let me hold her, which was quite an accomplishment. She let me rub her nose and even closed her eyes when I caressed her cheeks. Her love was so precious to me because I knew that it was not given freely; it was given at the price of her instinctual guard that she let down for us. She came to know her name and was able to hop around my living room feeling safe in her surrounding. She made me remember what it took to make a friend,what it meant to become familiar, and how precious it was for one person to open themselves up to another. Anna reminded me what it meant to be afraid and vulnerable. I saw myself and the people around me in her meekness and in her hesitant heart when our relationship began. I also saw the beauty of our relationship in a more brilliant way than I had ever looked or appreciated in the friendships I interacted with everyday. It is something taken for granted, the trust that is needed and the sacrafice that is given every time you open up to another being, and I am so grateful to have seen that in Anna.

How lovely that you should share in your email your life with Prayer. How beautiful , such learning. I must remember in my relationship with others when I "storm" about rattling my pans. Cassandra

I beleive that the animals we have dominion over are exhibiting more of what we used to call human emotion then we are.We depend on technology so much and let it control to much of our daily lives.As our technology continues to increases I think our humanity to ourselves and animals will continue to decrease.If it werent for people like Katy Payne and Jane Goodall,et al many species would have already dissapeared.If you havnt seen it already the new documentary,'Last Lions',is a great example.Its hard to beleive that there are only 2,500 Asian tigers left on this planet.Think about it.

Along the line of what you shared clear back 10 years ago here on this site, I am reminded of somewhere reading, "Animals teach us how to be human." And that is true for me with my daughter's Boston Terrier, Charliy, as I become more loving through caring for her, relating and talking to her, and "seeing" her. And the latter expands out to others, the two legged and the four and I become more human.

I just want to say thank you for today's show with Katy. Listening to the interview, I felt like a kindred spirit. I am always happiest when outdoors in nature. Just being in the presence of others animals always leaves me feeling a sense of peace in what is an otherwise turbulent life. I currently am at a turning point in my life. I am making the decision, at 42, to go back to college. I've always wanted that environmental science degree. But, truthfully, I have been to afraid to pursue it. I feel like it was fate that I happened to listen to today's show. I'd give a lot to walk in Katy's shoes. In my opinion, every experience with an animal helps teach us what it means to be human. But, in searching for one specific example, I can think of a time when my oldest daughter was one. We were at the zoo in the chimpanzee enclosure. My daughter was standing with her hands on the glass window looking at the chimps. A mother chimp with a small baby drug her bed up to the window and sat down. She put her hand up against my daughter's. They stayed like that for a while. When another boy walked over by the glass, the mother chimp shooed him away with her hand toward the glass. It was obvious there was a connection between that mother chimp and my daughter. I was very happy (and maybe even somewhat jealous) that my daughter had that experience. Thank you again for a marvelous show.

I would love to know where you are in your passion to get your environmental science degree and what is happening with your daughter now at 13 that reflects what that mother chimp knew in her. And if she remembers that day. How lovely you should share it with us.

I had the good fortune of working w/Katy at her then home in Lincoln, MA, under the New York Zoological Society's Whale Research work. Like the elephants, her unmistakable and unforgetable voice has called me from a faraway room to my television on more than one occasion. Today is her Birthday, and so I am searching for a way to send her my best wishes. Even though it may not be a Quaker thing to celebrate birthdays, I just want to wish Katy a fabulous day and tell her I'm glad she was born. Be well, Katy.

Well done, as usual. It is a terrible shame to hurt so many elephants and whales when the science provides us with evidence of their ability to create and maintain a civil/social group. Wish we could do the same.

I felt this interview deeply. I have a few comments:
1) I always listen to the extended interview. But this time afterwards, in order to hear the sounds of the whales and elephants, I also listed to the produced show. I was very upset that you edited three words out of Ms. Payne's dream, "I was naked." Why in the world you do such a thing? The only reason I can think of is whoever decided to consciously remove these three words, could not bare the sublime nature of the dream and had to (unconsciously) diminish its power. I was quite shocked by this cut.

2) RE: How the elephants become silent and just listen to one another. I had this experience with 3 horses once. For one year, I spent time with 3 Fjord horses. I would walk, brush and sing to them. One afternoon, I started singing Amazing Grace to one of the horses, my favorite matron 25 year old Caroline. The other two came over to us and the four of us stood in a tight circle, facing each other, for some time during the song and afterwards in silence. A very powerful moment in my life that I will never forget.

The dream was so much more powerful, if that is possible, with her being "naked", but since Ms. Payne was tenuous about sharing, perhaps she herself asked that it be removed. Years ago before I visited two months in India I had an elephant dream, very clear, in color, and felt amazingly wonderful. Like a blessing. I am lying on the ground on my back with my head turned toward someone I do not see taking my photo of me and a huge elephant standing with her front foot on my head, ever so gently. In the dream I am so happy. And wake up with the feeling of deep gratitude and happiness.

Dear Krista, I continue to be deeply, or rather, profoundly moved to be able to hear the completed, integrated final show and hear the raw interview, raw in its humanity, integritity, and allowing me to close be there in your midst. I love even hearing the footsteps leaving the studio and sometime hearing the problems you are having with "dead air" as we just hang out in the silence as the equipment is repaired and readied. Raw means I am more woven into the sharing, the life, the beauty of two who share together in the quiet of the studio. And the guest feels "heard", someone who takes the time to know them, they open and soften into sharing their lives. My heart is full toinight here after midnight in southern california on the shoulder where the sea rubs up against, and I here in my kitchen cleaning up and preparing my meal, and writing to you... In gratitude. Cassandra

I have also been fascinated with animals and I always wanted to learn about them. I remember always reading the magazines (I don’t recall the name of the magazine) and watching the National Geography channel with my family. What I think is amazing is how they communicate with others and how different it is with human beings. For example, as Katy Payne says during her interview with Krista Tippett, whales communicate by what we calling singing. When human beings speak with each other, there’s no singing, at least that’s not what it sounds like to us. I wonder though, how do we sound like to animals? Animals are smart but may not be at the same level as us in certain things. My point is how do they think we sound like when we’re speaking with each other?
Katy Payne shared a story about a baby elephant dying. The calf was dying and was lying on the ground. Each elephant of the herd stopped by the dying calf to show remorse; even though they were not related to the calf. Katy also mentioned that a young adolescence male elephant was trying to pick up the dying calf with his trunks 57 times! And he came back 5 times to try to pick the calf up. As the broadcast goes on, they mentioned that it is also in our human nature when there is a need in help; we disregard the fact that we are related or not. I believe that is true because we show compassion towards others who are suffering, those who are hurt and those who are dying. For example, the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary was a terrible tragedy that took the lives of the young children and brave adults. Even though we are not related to the families that lost their beautiful and innocent children and loved ones, we still show remorse and have sympathy for those families. To show support, we would attend the funerals (the people who are close by of course), attend vigils, send letters, etc… All in all, I think it is in all of our nature to help one another.
Lastly, I love how Katy talks about the communication between the whales and how it changes overtime. Can you imagine being sing to, whether it’s from your husband, wife or significant other? To me, I would find that a bit odd but only because it is not in our nature to communicate by singing. If it was natural to communicate by singing, it wouldn’t be considered weird. It would be like singing an opera, at least that’s how I see it.

Bare with me while I sing to you... How lovely you are. How lovely in your singing your thoughts onto "paper", dancing your singing, your searching and sorting it all out, with us who listen deeply and move on . Your music so loud of the beauty you are. With deep respect and love I suppose I listen with something beyond my dear ears to the music of the movement of your mind, intertwined with your heart beating so bravely beneath your shirt or your blouse where your noble self lives and hears. With gratitude for all you are, Cassandra

I inserted the link to this show on the Ted Talk with Allan Savory above.