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Listening to the animals

Adam's Task: Calling Animals by Name, by Vicki Hearne. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 274 pp. $17.95. Vicki Hearne is a trainer of horses and dogs who also happens to be a professor of English at Yale and a poet. Her unusual cross-disciplines have led her to some fascinating speculations about how animals and people communicate -- with animals on the whole coming off the smarter in their attempts to make us comprehend their language.

Consider the cat's habit of patiently rubbing against your leg to indicate a need for food -- and if it takes the slow-witted owner a while to figure this out, the cat can wait, purring all the while.

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Patience, Ms. Hearne suggests, is a necessary virtue in every animal that dwells with man. She offers the example of an inexperienced horseman on a well-trained horse. The rider, in his confusion, will nudge the horse with his knees and pat the horse with his hands in a manner the animal is not accustomed to. Because the horse realizes his rider is ignorant of the correct physical vocabulary, he will more often than not oblige the greenhorn by moving, if only a step or two.

Take a third domestic animal -- the dog. In training a tracking dog, the trainer introduces the object or creature to be tracked and commands the dog to begin the search. At this point the dog's superior sense of smell dominates the pursuit, and the trainer, relying on vision, must make herself ``lose her sight.'' If trainers insist they know the location of the quarry, they inadvertently punish the dog by taking if off its scent and leading it elsewhere. In almost all cases the trainer is wrong. The poor dog must bear the shame of an owner who presumed to have a better sense of sight than the dog's sense of smell. (Silly human.)

Ms. Hearne tends to dress up her animal fables with literary examples and philosophical quotations that sometimes have only a forced connection with the subject at hand. Wallace Stevens can be challenging enough to understand -- never mind in context with a cat's behavior. But it's all in a good cause -- to support Ms. Hearne's thesis that for living beings to communicate there must be a mutual respect and ``obedience'' (a listening on the part of both animal and trainer).

A reader comes away from ``Adam's Task'' determined to listen to other humans, as well as animals, with the concentration required to honor and understand them. But in the end, the book gives credit where credit is due: to the animals. So pay attention when your dog or cat turns those soulful eyes on you. He might have something vital to say, like: ``Read `Adam's Task.' ''

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