Comparing human emotions with those of animals

Music: Rossini - The cats’ duet.

Are they cats? Can animals make music? We'll come to that. All Animal Beings is a gorgeous book of photos of animals, cats and dogs, shown with compelling flair. But does this show you more than straight matter-of-fact depictions? Ken Drake took these striking pictures.

Now, you weren't born a photographer. How did this change occur?

Ken Drake: Well, I'd been working in IT software for about 18 years and I had pretty much burnt myself out, I'd been travelling around all over the planet, having lots of fun, I really enjoyed it as a career, but it was time to do something different, and I didn't know what, so I took a bit of time off. And at that point I also met my wife Bec and we got a couple of cats. I hadn't been able to have pets at all throughout that 18 years because I had been travelling too much. And I also got my first digital camera. And really the cats and the camera came together very, very quickly. And initially my goals were just to get some nice photos that I'd be comfortable putting up on the wall.

But I quickly noticed that these two cats had very different personalities and it was coming out in the photos, and that is what interested me far more than beautiful pictures, actually capturing their portraits properly, if you like, and showing that they were very, very different individuals, even though nominally they're the same breed of cat.

Robyn Williams: I thought you said that it's so difficult to direct cats, make them do what you want.

Ken Drake: You have to trick them into making them think things are their idea, and a lot of reverse psychology goes into it. So at the beginning of the session I'll invite them to sit where I'd like them to sit, where all my lights are set up, but they will soon tell me if that's a place they think is suitable for them or not. And I do end up moving the studio around with cats quite a lot, just to find where they are comfortable. Are they the sort of cats who like to sit in the middle of the room and see everything, or would they rather be in a corner and looking down from on high? And it's also a question of knowing what motivates them in life. If I'm lucky I can get them playing or I can get them eating. I always say if I can get them playing or eating then we're sorted because I've got a way of motivating them to interact with me. Or if they love a cuddle. But other times they just want to explore the studio and then they don't want to be bothered with an idiot like me taking photos, and that's when it gets difficult.

Robyn Williams: Talking about the studio, you have this wonderful lighting, dark background. How do you manage them when you need to take things so definitely?

Ken Drake: It's a question of motivating them rather than managing them. So take dogs for example, if I want them in a certain spot then I'll just be in that certain spot, maybe with a favourite toy of theirs, a bit of chicken from my back pocket, or even just a cuddle. If they like a tummy rub, for example, they'll come over and I'll get them in the right spot in that way, and then it's a question of getting them motivated to stay there and do the sorts of things I want them to do for the photos.

Robyn Williams: Any theory behind this in terms of animal behaviour? Have you studied that?

Ken Drake: I wouldn't say I am particularly scientific but I do like to keep abreast of the latest animal behaviour and cognition news. When I was growing up many, many years ago back in the '70s when I was a kid, my mum always had lots of animals around. We always had dogs and cats. And science at that point were saying that especially dogs weren't particularly interesting, they weren't particularly intelligent, there's nothing special about dogs. And us dog owners are saying, oh, but they love us and they do all this and they do all that. They were just saying, oh, you're just being anthropomorphic, just stop it.

Then about 20 or 30 years ago science actually decided that, no, there is something more interesting about these dogs actually, and now they started studying them and we are getting all this information coming out about exactly how special dogs are.

Robyn Williams: Yes, in fact they've looked at dogs in machines that can actually read the colours of their brain, you know, the lights going off and so on, so you can see which parts of the brain are being stimulated, and showing that there is a kind of allegiance between our brains and their brains to some extent. And given you've had thousands of years breeding, this is not a surprise really, is it.

Ken Drake: It's not a surprise at all. I'm surprised it surprised the scientists. But one of the wonderful things that has come out of some of this science is that science now says dogs do love us. They see the oxytocin coming into their brains, they see the same areas of their brains light up when they hear our voices or they see pictures of their human family, and it just demonstrates what dog owners have known all along, dogs do love us.

Robyn Williams: What about those relationships you've got in the book of different species together. Give us some examples and how they actually occur. Did you set them up, or what?

Ken Drake: No, where we've got multiple species together it's because that's how they live their life. So one of my favourite examples is a sheep and two dogs. The sheep was bought actually as a companion for a horse. Horses don't get on as solitary animals. If they are alone in a paddock they do fret and they stress, so they need to have company. It doesn't have to be other horses. And these people decided to buy sheep to keep the horse company. The sheep loves the horse and the horse loves the sheep and they spend all day together. When it's raining you see the sheep hanging out underneath the horse to stay dry.

But one thing they did notice, when the owners started taking the dogs out for a walk, the sheep started creating a fuss and sort of rattling on the gate and just basically saying, hey, I want to join in too. So they bought a collar and a lead for the sheep and now the sheep goes for a walk with the dogs every day around the suburbs of Brisbane.

Robyn Williams: Give me another example.

Ken Drake: There's a pig and a parrot in there, and I was a little bit dubious about it in the studio. I remember, I was thinking the parrot is never going to stay on the pig's shoulder. And we got some photographs of the pig and made sure the pig was quite happy, and then we got the parrot out and placed the parrot on the pig's shoulder and they just stayed there. And they would have stayed there for the rest of the session. They obviously enjoyed each other's company. The bird was comfortable, the pig was comfortable, they kept looking at each other, the bird kept rubbing its beak along the back of the pig's neck. It was just such an easy photograph to get in the end because they were a natural pair.

Robyn Williams: Exactly, and they are both famously intelligent. Pigs are as intelligent as dogs, and the parrots, famously, like the corvids or the crows which I go on about all the time, very smart indeed.

Ken Drake: They're really, really smart. I've had my brains blown lots and lots of times by birds in the studio, and it's not just the big parrots, even though a humble budgie has got so much smarts going on up there, it really can blow my mind. I remember one particular budgie whose name was Crumbles, and I'd taken about five photos of him and he was being very inquisitive, he was just looking at the equipment, looking at me, wondering what was going on. So he just said, 'Whatya doin?' And I was like, 'Did he just say that?' And his dad said, 'Yeah, he's always saying that.' But he is always saying it in context. It wasn't something that he repeats 'parrot fashion', it was something that was natural to him to say at that particular moment in time. And I've seen other birds say things in context as well. You can have a conversation with a bird.

Robyn Williams: Well, of course there's the famous book by Irene Pepperberg in America about her African grey parrot, and the conversations they used to have are quite extraordinary.

Ken Drake: I've read that book, and the conversation…the parrot was called Alex I believe, and the conversation Alex had to the accountant in the vet clinic was really mind blowing, fabulous all at the same time. But Alex had a little brick-shaped toy that he loved to play with, and he asked the accountant, 'Do you want a brick?' Because the accountant was working there late at night. And the accountant just says, 'No thanks Alex, I'm fine.' So Alex then says, 'Do you want a grape?' And the accountant says, 'No thanks Alex, I don't need a grape, I'm fine' And then apparently Alex said, 'You don't want much, do you!'

Robyn Williams: Have you thought of applying the scientific part…you know, you're obviously so well versed in it, apart from taking pictures, do you want to be involved with animal behaviour in a more direct way?

Ken Drake: I think really my thing is showing in photos that they do exist as sentient individual beings, and that's the name of the book for a reason, All Animal Beings, as in we are all animal beings. I'm knocking on 50 now, so although I never think it's too late to start new things in life, I was never all that academically minded as a kid, so I think the answer to that will be no, I'll keep on with the photography for a bit. But I'm going to definitely keep on focusing my camera on animals and what they do, because I have no interest in photographing anything other than animals.

Robyn Williams: Congratulations on a fabulous book, hope it does well.

Ken Drake: Thanks very much Robyn, thanks for having me on.

Robyn Williams: And the book is called All Animal Beings, and it's a delight.


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