Umwelts: What's It Like To Be Another Animal?
Pretend for a moment that you are gliding through the sea as a Dall's porpoise, being pushed along by the pressure wave at the bow of a small ship. Can you feel the freedom of movement, weaving back and forth in front of the ship and twirling 360 degrees along your axis as Dall's porpoise often do while bow riding? What's it like? Switch now to the forest where as a wolf, the ability to smell means almost everything to you. Because you can smell at least 100,000 times greater than humans, olfaction can help find you food, a mate, and define your territorial limits. What's it like? How does it compare with the sea - where Dall's porpoise, like all other whales, lack the ability to smell?
Imagining the life and the world of another animal, especially another mammal like ourselves, can raise many questions. Inherently, other mammals are obviously different than humans. Why then are humans, along with other animal species, classified as mammals? Are there similarities among mammals that link us together? Do animals feel emotions, problem solve and behave in ways similar to humans? The answers are a resounding yes but in ways you may not expect.
Looks can be deceiving. Dolphins, with their permanent smiles, may appear eternally happy or in a constantly good mood. Like humans, however, dolphins have their “down times” and can become quite sad or irritable. Because of their lumbering gait, bears are often perceived as clumsy and intellectually slow. As our increasing knowledge of bears demonstrates, this perception is far from the truth. Wolves are another example of animals that are misperceived. For centuries, humans have thought of wolves as evil, ruthless killers. On the contrary, wolves can be shy and sensitive creatures, characteristics that are needed for getting along with pack members.
Although it is beginning to weaken, many human beings have a strong prejudice towards animals, viewing them as emotionless, stupid creatures that simply react or lumber their way through life. Using cetaceans and wolves as examples, the sensitivity and intelligence of animals can become startling apparent. Cetaceans are the group of mammals known as whales, dolphins and porpoises. They are from the Order Cetacea which is a taxonomic grouping of mammals - in this case, whales. At least some animal species are known to have emotional and intellectual lives, many of which can be remarkably similar to our own.
Despite the similarity among animals, however, each lives in its own specific world and responds to the environment based on its physiology, perceptual abilities and past experience. Jacob von Uexküll (1937) was one of the first people to try and imagine the different worlds of animals. He created the term Umwelt to describe the world an animal perceives and experiences. An Umwelt is not shared by all animals. It is specific and special to each and every individual. In his attempt to describe an animal’s world experience, von Uexküll stated:
We now know that there is not one space and one time only, but there are as many spaces and times as there are subjects, as each subject is contained by its own environment which possesses its own space and time.
This helps explain why some of my students show up to class the day after an exam and say, “I didn’t know we had a test!” The other students just roll their eyes because they know I had stated to the entire class several days earlier that a test was eminent. The point here is that Umwelts are based on truths of the world. For example, there is a cliff over there. Those who don’t perceive it in some form or another only make that mistake once. Individuals of some species would see the cliff, while others would smell the odors wafting through the updraft or hear the sound differences compared with the nearby woods. It wouldn’t matter how you perceived it – just perceive it. Otherwise, like some students, you would walk off the academic cliff.
Umwelts and Captivity
The concept of Umwelts is not only important in understanding how animals think but plays a critical role in the capture of wild animals. By capturing a wild animal, its previous Umwelt is disrupted or destroyed and the animal must construct a new subjective world based on its captive conditions. This would require it to struggle with completely new and strange factors by fitting them into its new perception of a captive world. It would be expected that not every newly captured individual could successfully complete such a task. In addition, success would be contingent upon not only the animal's adaptability, but its access to the “tools” needed for “building” a new subjective world, such as proper housing, adequate space, food, low stress, etc. Keep this in mind the next time you get a new puppy. Perhaps one for Christmas? Happy holidays and may your umwelts be filled with turkey and presents.