John Bradshaw Ph.D.

Pets and Their People

Becoming a Badger

Is it possible to inhabit the world of another species?

Posted Jun 30, 2016

It’s my view that to be a true anthrozoologist, you have to try to imagine what it’s like to be whatever beast it is whose interface with mankind you’re interested in.  Any relationship between two species can only be fully understood in terms of the extent to which their two worlds mesh, and to what extent they collide.  The alternative is pure anthropomorphism, treating animals as mere ciphers for humans – and it’s becoming clear to me that this is what distinguishes anthrozoology from “human-animal studies”.  

Unfortunately for the anthrozoologist, getting under the skin of any non-human animal is far from easy.  A constant effort has to be made not to overlook the many differences between humans and other mammals, let alone the even greater divide between us and birds, reptiles, fish or insects, all of which are represented among what we are abjured by the supposed demands of scientific rigour to refer to as “pets”. 

To oversimplify somewhat, there are two potential stumbling blocks.  One is that few non-human animals have identical sense organs to our own.  Where theirs are inferior to ours, it’s possible to work out what they’re perceiving.  Cats, dogs and many other mammals are red-green colour-blind: not too difficult to imagine.  Where they exceed ours, it’s less easy: many birds can see in the ultraviolet.  But at least we have an intuitive grasp of how light of all wavelengths behaves  - for example, that it doesn’t flow round solid objects.  The world of smells that most animals live in (apart from ourselves – we’re the weirdoes here) is much harder to imagine.  Odours move around unpredictably, even if in a generally downwind direction, and can disappear and re-appear unexpectedly – think of the sudden burst of aroma that emerges from the ground after a sudden summer rain shower.  What must it be like to get much of one’s social information from such sources, as dogs and cats undoubtedly do?  I’ve been struggling with this concept for over 40 years, and I’m not sure I’ll ever get there – though I’m heartened to see that Alexandra Horowitz has also been on the case. 

Ethologists sometimes refer to those parts of the environment that are of most relevance to an animal as its “Umwelt” – no simple English equivalent (which feels slightly bizarre, post-Brexit).  Cognitive ethologists are at pains to point out that sensory impressions are not the only difference between species, that the way the brain filters, organises and interprets the sensory input is equally important.  Again, anthropomorphism is a serious barrier to appreciating the differences between us and our animals, the temptation being (as I’ve pointed out in a previous post) to assume that all mammals have primate-like brains when they demonstrably do not.  Most pet owners believe their animals are capable of both forward planning and ruminating on the past: most biologists think they have little capacity for either.   

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Much as I’ve wished to inhabit the world according to cat (or dog), I’ve never gone as far as Charles Foster, Fellow of Green College Oxford, veterinarian, lawyer, philosopher and general polymath, who, taking his eight-year-old dyslexic son Tom for company, lived for several weeks as a badger in a hole in a mid-Wales hillside.  They ate worms (supplemented with lasagne supplied by the hole-digger’s wife), they crawled everywhere, they tried to become nocturnal. Appreciating that badgers live in a world of scent, Foster had tried to prepare his brain as thoroughly as he could.  He arranged blind smellings of his children’s clothes.  He put a different type of cheese in each room of his house, then blindfolded himself, had all the furniture moved around, and tried to find out where he was solely by reference to the distribution of the arôme de fromage.

Foster describes these and other experiences of exploring animal Umwelts in his recent book “Being A Beast”.  As an anthrozoologist, I have some issues with it.  His depiction of evolutionary biology is significantly out-of date: no serious biologist these days talks of “inching down the evolutionary tree”.  He seems to never have encountered any scientist who accepts that animals have emotions. He appears to have swallowed Rupert Sheldrake’s fantasies of animals’ ability to perceive “morphic resonances”, hook line and sinker.  He “hates cats” because they kill birds, whereas I think that in today’s urban societies pet cats provide one of the few opportunities that many children have to interact with a semi-wild animal, hopefully drawing some of them into a deeper appreciation of what being a beast actually is.  But Foster’s heart is in the right place: he wants us to keep in touch with the “real” world from which “civilisation” increasingly isolates us.

At the book’s end, he confesses to having failed, but at least he’s tried.  And he rightly urges us to spend time away from “places that smell of fear, fumes and ambition”.  At the beginning of the book, he includes the following valuable advice “Learn old tunes; eat food that comes from where you are. Sit in the corner of a field, hearing. Put in wax earplugs, close your eyes and smell. Sniff everything, wherever you are: turn on those olfactory centres.”  Would that this could be part of everyone’s education – but especially that of the budding anthrozoologist.