Umwelt

Do you understand?

The visual world is a muted place to me

Movement is so much more fascinating than color

 

I can see through your eyes

I know you’ll love this bright pink sweater

And this bone-shaped bowl

 

Do you understand?

I want to run and chase

I want to explore everything

 

I can see through your eyes

We’ll go for a walk

No, no we’re staying on the sidewalk

These are new shoes

 

Do you understand?

I want to communicate

And tell the other dogs what I know

 

I can see through your eyes

We’ll go to the dog park where you can play

No, no don’t sniff that dog there

You’re embarrassing me

I don’t think you understand

I wish you would try to see through my nose

Instead of my eyes

Maybe then you’d understand

 

                The umwelt is a term I first heard in “Inside the Animal Mind” by George Page and then again in the book I’m reading now “Inside of a Dog” by Alexandra Horowitz. Umwelt is the sensory world that each living being inhabits, and is radically different from species to species. It’s interesting, but it’s not generally my thing. I prefer behavior to technical biology, but still it’s quite enlightening.

                For as long as I can remember I’ve grappled with the question “What is the difference between animals and humans?”, I grapple with it because when I was young I didn’t know there was a difference. But as I watched Animal Planet and Discovery and read the books more and more I would hear phrases like “What makes us human…” or “This trait is uniquely human” and I didn’t understand. It was just another of those things that the rest of the world seemed to inherently understand, that humans were different, they we were special and superior to all other creatures, but I didn’t. To me a life was a life, each life was an individual, and each individual was unique. Nothing more and nothing less. To lump any one group as better or worse was simply unfathomable, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that my I was largely alone on my view of this. So I started seeking, questing for what made us different and special.

                The problem is, the more I quest the less differences I see. All species and all individuals are unique. A human sees the world differently and has different things that it’s biologically good at than a rat does. But the rat sees the world differently and has different things that it’s biologically good at than a bear. I fail to see how humans are more different from a rat than a bear is.

                So when I recently saw a documentary that proposed that the difference between humans and animals was the ability to ask the question “why” I was intrigued. I actually thought that might be true, but then I kept reading “Inside of a Dog” and I realized it was just another false statement. Dogs have a very different umwelt than humans do. A dog’s primary sense is scent, they don’t see the world they smell it. While humans are clearly visual. The things that are important to humans are rarely important to dogs or vice versa. However the author brought up seeing-eye dogs and really blew my mind.

                Not every dog can be a seeing-eye dog; it takes a special kind of dog to be able to do it. Why? Because a seeing-eye dog has to learn to see through the human umwelt, instead of the dog one. Cross walks, curbs, traffic lights. None of those things mean anything to a dog or at least nothing close to what they mean to us; they’re completely irrelevant and purely human concepts. But a seeing-eye dog has to learn why these things matter and what they mean to their owner. They have to learn to think like a human in the day to day world, rather than like a dog. I think to understand why, they first have to be able to ask the question, thus negating the documentaries proposition.

                I don’t think a human could do that. I don’t think any of us could ever be the scenting-nose for a dog and I’m not talking about the biological limitations either. I don’t think humans could really learn to understand what is important in the day to day life of a dog, I think part of that is a lack of willingness, but the other part is that we lack the mental elasticity to do it. If wolves proved anything it’s that they are extraordinarily adaptable, morphing into everything from a Great Dane to a Chihuahua and I think their brains are equally adaptable. How else could to such different creature be able to coexist so peacefully? I don’t think people realize how much dogs put up with by living with us, how much of their dogginess is sacrificed for our sake. They gain a lot, certainly, but in the end it’s them that have to conform to our rules and I think we should be grateful that they do. Can you imagine a world without dogs? Whether you own one or not, whether you like them or not, can you imagine our culture without them? They’ve been a part of our lives long, long before written history and in some ways they have shaped who we are. We need to be careful not to take that for granted.

 

Image

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About jessicanix

I am a college student that loves everything about the written word. Stories and poetry are my mediums of choice and, with a little luck, I can show you why. Come visit me at Shadowed in Moonlight.

Posted on April 2, 2013, in NaPoWriMo, Natural Laws, Wolfsong and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I honestly think of all species humans see the least and understand the least for all our modern appliances we are way behind the animals in really seeing the world and life.

  2. Incredible picture!

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