At first everyone thought it was hilarious when dogs began meowing like cats and cats began chirping like songbirds. The first dogs became celebrities. Videos of meowing dogs went viral on YouTube and one chubby pooch even serenaded Jimmy Fallon. I found humor in the video of a rampaging Doberman charging after a postman while meowing ferociously like a tiny kitten. Nobody yet knew we had made a terrible mistake.
The chirping cats garnered somewhat less attention. Cats are naturally less humorous so nobody bothered uploading videos of them. The cats did pose a significant threat to local songbirds fooled by the feline’s gentle cooing. Jonathan Franzen launched an awareness campaign.
Life continued much as expected for several weeks right up until the live season finale of American Celebrity Challenge with host Ryan Seacrest. Americans huddled around their televisions as the grueling five-year-long reality contest was at last coming to an end. But then, just as Ryan Seacrest was about to announce the winner’s name, he was interrupted by a roaring lion. Flummoxed viewers called the network believing they had missed the exciting conclusion. Only when Ryan Seacrest opened his mouth a second time did everyone realize the roar came from him.
Within hours of the broadcast, people around the globe found their ability to speak replaced by a throaty roar. They were helpless. One minute a person could be having a normal conversation, and the next, capable only of roaring. Whole cities were left speechless, millions of voices turned into rumbling growls.
The afflicted flocked to the internet. Their written language skills, although not necessarily proficient, remained unaffected even as they lost their human voices. They Tweeted and Facebooked in frustration. Even Jonathan Franzen, unwilling to be silenced by his condition, launched a Twitter account in order to communicate. “Remember the birds!” he Tweeted.
The Center for Disease Control issued a statement suggesting a biological cause for the mixed up animal noises. Immediately following the press conference, Congress defunded their research. A Senator from Florida spoke out against the tax and spend liberal agenda right up until he began to roar live on camera. The same week, horses began to moo like cows, cows began to cluck like chickens, and chickens began to hiss like snakes.
No other symptoms appeared. Most of the population went about their lives omitting only the ordinary pleasures that required speech like asking Siri to send an email or ordering fast food from the drive up window. Some things remained unchanged like yelling at baseball umpires on television or BMW drivers that just cut you off.
A group of roarers promised to develop an app so as to translate roaring into a comprehensible language. Their Kickstarter broke fundraising records, but the programmers found collaboration challenging. Then the rats began to quack like ducks. Ducks continued to quack like ducks as well, but everyone accepted that their time would come.
The President planned to address the nation. She had been infected with the roaring disease and so the task fell to her Vice President. Despite the language crisis, the Vice President felt no urgency with the efficiency of his words: “It is with great optimism and enthusiasm that today I can proudly and excitedly announce preliminary evidence suggesting we may have possibly found a likely or at least potential cause to the recent linguistic challenges facing our proud and great nation. We can say perhaps with some certainty that we might have found a conceivable link between roaring—” and then just like that the Vice President was roaring too.
Scientists had nevertheless found the culprit, a genetic CRISPR gone rogue. The breakthrough miracle intended to save humanity with cheap and easy genetic modification was quickly stripping our species of language. Evidence pointed to Monsanto’s BarkBeGone, an inoculation intended to solve the dual crisis of flea infestations and yappy dogs. The genetic sequencer had misfired. A defect in the protein used to alter DNA was systematically resequencing the wrong strains and the resulting change meant animal vocal cords were being swapped around between species. The discovery was an essential first step to finding a cure. And then the dolphins began to speak.
The early reports were not believed. A fisherman reeled in a dolphin on his line without other witnesses or even a vertical cellphone video. He claimed the dolphin demanded he be returned to the ocean. The local news picked up the story: “the dolphin flopped around on the deck insisting I free him. What was I going to do, argue with a dolphin?”
But how could anyone deny the possibility dolphins could speak when half of us were roaring, rabbits were barking, and lizards were oinking? The facts didn’t stop Bill O’Reilly. A week later a pod of talking dolphins surfaced in New York Harbor. “We talk now, two legs. You listen,” the pod’s leader demanded.
A think piece on the Huffington Post argued the dolphins couldn’t possible have been endowed with intelligible language, since after all, we humans were unable to decipher the roars of lions. Slate dissented claiming evidence of dolphin intelligence before the change occurred. The New Yorker published a satire piece that many people on the internet cited as factual journalism, including Bill O’Reilly.
The Church of the Divine Dolphins promised salvation. Roarers and speakers alike joined in worship, the church welcoming anyone with a checkbook. The preachers promised the dolphins shall inherit the earth and the true believers paid a plastic surgeon to construct blowholes in their necks.
TMZ interviewed a dolphin and the clip surpassed Gangnam Style as the most watched YouTube video of all time. “Two legs bad. You poison water. We talk now. We rule two legs,” the dolphin claimed. There is nothing quite like a scolding from a talking dolphin to make you realize the kind of terrible mistakes collectively made as a civilization.
The President signed a trade pact with the dolphins. The United States agreed to stop fishing in their territorial waters and in exchange the dolphins promised to protect American intellectual property rights. No pirating music, no copying our trademarks, no generic drugs. The President stood at her podium to announce the victory with a deep, chilling roar.
Looking back, part of me wonders what life would have been like living under dolphin overlords. They always seemed like nice creatures whenever I’ve seen them at the zoo or performing in Sea World shows, and I suspect they would have been benevolent dictators. We of course will never know. Shortly after signing the Trans-oceanic Trade Compact, the CDC announced a vaccine. The scientists had secretly skimmed money from a Congressional allocation to the study of the impact of male pattern baldness. They announced a series of three simple shots that would correct the errant CRISPR protein.
Within a week most of the population began speaking normally. There were holdouts of course, pockets of the population afraid the vaccinations might push them onto the autism spectrum or allow the government to track them with satellites. Most of those people died in the measles epidemic the following year.
Many insurance providers denied coverage of the vaccine claiming it was an untested experimental procedure. Congress finally passed universal health care legislation, although the President refused to sign it into law. After leaving office, she explained the controversial veto during a closed-door speech she delivered in Las Vegas at the National Health Insurance Providers Conference. Her speaking fee remains confidential.
Dogs began barking, cats began meowing, horses nayed, cows mooed, and even Jonathan Franzen was allowed to speak again. Congress returned to defunding the CDC, and just about everyone forgot they had ever roared like a lion.
As for the dolphins, there are rumors they retained their ability to speak, and many conspiracy theorists claim the President negotiated a secret pact with the dolphin kingdom. Dolphins are well known monarchists. The Dolphin Truthers claim the animals possess the secret of eternal life or perhaps that the dolphins control a vast underwater city built of gold. I for one think Dolphin Truthers are crazy. Everyone knows the lizard people ruling our planet already have eternal life.
Ian MacAllen is the Interviews Editor at The Rumpus and the founder of English Kills Review, a web magazine focused on authors, books, and the New York literary scene. His writing has appeared in The Billfold, Electric Cereal, Thought Catalog, and io9, and is forthcoming in Joyland Magazine. He holds an MA in English from Rutgers University and lives Brooklyn. Reach out at: www.ianmacallen.com/; twitter @ianmacallen; or on tumblr