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becoming turtle becoming animal becoming human

a life companion

a life companion

To be, just for a moment, in the mind of another is a worthy ambition – all the more so if the being whose head you want to get inside is a non-human being.

As I type these words, my box turtle Marmaduke is staring up at me from the floor beneath my desk. Having lived with him for than 48 years, I know this particular expression means something: very likely that he has noticed his dinner bowl is empty or that the leftover food therein has dried out. In his own reptilian way, he is telling me that this will not do!

After the very many years of our relationship, I have learned to recognize that look.

But what would it be like to be him? To look out at the world through those baleful, red eyes? To truly experience it all from his point of view, without the baggage of anthropomorphism so drilled into us through too many childhood Disney films?

I am not, nor ever will I be – a turtle, though I would very much like to understand something of a turtle’s subjectivity.

The bio-semiotician Jakob von Uexküll made great strides in such imaginings, laying out a detailed framework on how we might perceive the perceptual worlds of the animal other.

He begins his (1934) ‘A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Man’ with an entreaty to participate in a thought experiment, to imagine ourselves wandering through a flower-strewn meadow, blowing:

 a soap bubble around each creature to represent its own world, filled with it perceptions that it alone knows. When we ourselves then step into one of these bubbles, the familiar meadow is transformed. Many of its colourful features disappear, others no longer belong together but appear in new relationships. A new world comes into being. Through the bubble we see the world as it appears to the animals themselves, not as it appears to us. This we call the phenomenal world or the self world of the animal.

Von Uexküll goes on to visualize what the world might look like from the point of view of a host of creatures – ticks, sea urchins, jackdaws, flies, dogs, chickens – each living within its Umwelt;  the German translating literally as ‘surrounding world’, of a given subject, perceived and interacted with through its own organs. This seminal text, a combination of astute scientific observation and self-described ‘ramblings’, influenced everyone from Deleuze  to contemporary UX designers.  In it, Von Uexküll  challenges us to reconsider the universe from the non-human point of view, which is after all something people have been obsessed with since our very beginnings. Even in the earliest cave paintings, we see a longing to inhabit, to become the animal; at once the object and the subject of our desire; much more than simply an aesthetic preoccupation. Depictions of becomings animal, of interstitial states, of hybridity, have appeared throughout human culture, from the falcon-headed Egyptian god Horus, to the Minotaur, to the shape-shifting  Japanese tanuki, to the vampires, werewolves, the princes disguised as frogs, Batman, Spiderman – you name it!

We wonder what it might be like to be an eagle, soaring over mountain peaks, its eyes far superior to ours, scanning the barren wastelands for a glimpse of the scurrying marmot? Or to put ourselves just for moment, inside the head of our trusted dog, for whom the air we breath is redolent of convoluted odour narratives and invisible signifiers.

The minds of our pets are frequent objects of our narcissistic conjecture: What do they think of us? Do they love us? Do they miss us when we are away? and so on.

Though we share our homes and lives with them, and have substantially altered their genetics to suit our sense of ‘what an animal should be like’, the power relationships between us aren’t completely one-sided, which any pet owner can verify. Yes – pets are objects, but they are also articulate subjects; compliant enough and yet quite adept at getting what they want.

And I’m not just talking about belly rubs here. The hunting relationship that emerged between early man and certain wolves, fundamentally changed the fortunes of both and caused far-reaching consequences for entire ecosystems. There is considerable evidence that this brutally efficient partnership pushed our cousins the Neanderthals, who were reliant on the same food supply, toward extinction, as well as wiping out such iconic megafauna as woolly rhinoceros, mammoths and giant bison. These big, dangerous beasts could be tracked down and held at bay by the wolves-becoming-dogs, until Homo sapiens could catch up with them, wielding spears and arrows lobbed from a safe distance, reducing the risk of themselves being killed or injured in the hunt. These early human-imprinted wolf lineages gradually morphed into the manifold forms that are the domestic dog today – everything from teacup Chihuahuas to French bulldogs to Great Danes; the beloved beneficiaries of canned food, over-priced veterinary care and doting human companions who reverentially follow them around wrapping their hot faeces up in plastic bags.

Amazingly, one of the key factors facilitating the success of our co-mingling seems to have been the whites, the sclera of our eyes; an unusual trait in animals shared by both man and dog, which enabled us to quickly and noiselessly perceive what the other was looking at – ‘I am seeing–you are seeing me–seeing’ – an immense advantage in the fast-moving context of the hunt.

Our relationship with dogs has stood the test of time, despite our frequent cruelty towards them; the beatings, pitting them against each other in fights, sometimes even eating them.

So it might seem as if dogs were incapable of holding a grudge – but what if they finally had enough? The recent Hungarian film ‘White God,’ imagines a scenario in which abused dogs band together to take over the streets of Budapest in a mass revolt against their human tormentors. What results is a cinematic love child  of  ‘Lassie Come Home’ and ‘Battleship Potemkin’. More than any film I’ve seen lately, ‘White God,’  portrays the world from the animals point of view. The schlocky 1971 ‘rat-sploitation’ film, ‘Willard’  broaches similar territory, (if I am not misremembering it too egregiously) but nowhere nearly as adroitly. In both films,  the human protagonists, while sympathetic, are basically just catalysts for the unleashing of raw animal rage.

Yet dogs, revolutionary or otherwise, do share with us a mammalian physiology which we can closely relate to.

But what of the creatures we choose to live with that are less like us? How might we imagine their Umwelt?

Birds have long been popular pets and some of them, notably parrots, can perform what to us seem like prodigious feats of intelligence. The famous African grey, Alex, was not only conversant in English but used it in a way that showed a grasp of syntax and numbers. Though they don’t all use our vocabulary, other birds like the Chestnut Babbler also use syntax in their communications, using different word combinations to convey different concepts: nest, food, sky etc. Though they use language, birds are physiologically much more distant from us than are dogs, having much more in common with the therapod dinosaurs they descended from than with any of us upstart mammals.

What must it be like to experience the world through a super light weight, hollow-boned body, capable at any point of launching itself into the air, every breath sucked in by a hyper-efficient respiratory system that can power marathon, trans-hemispheric flights through the vastness of the sky, with minimal food or rest? And they start their lives by pecking their way out of a hard-shelled, externally incubated egg!

Clearly, bird subjectivity is not our subjectivity and yet we may figure in their Umwelten, especially if we have established some kind of a relationship with them, as the people who keep them, the people who enjoy feeding them in their yards, the people who obsessively watch them, recording their sightings on lists.

Birds though, are usually most interested in other birds, their predators and prey, as well as the complex topology of trajectories and territorial designations that signify their habitat.

Even that is somewhat of a generalization, for it is what Von Uexküll calls receptor images that turn out to be the major drivers for bird behaviour. He describes certain jackdaw (a small crow-like bird) that would attack any cat or human experimenter  carrying a dead jackdaw. When the experimenter showed up with a limp pair of black bathing trunks in his hands, the jackdaw similarly goes on the offensive. Yet it didn’t bat an avian eye when a dead white jackdaw (presumably an albino) was paraded by it. It was the blackness combined with limpness that seemed to trigger this specific bird – not the ‘bird-ness’ of what he was seeing.

By cultivating a practice of not anthropomorphizing, but trying instead to grasp the semiotic universes in which animals exist; what they think is important; we can develop a much more nuanced appreciation for those with whom we share the planet. Their worlds are not our worlds, but sometimes they overlap!

Says Von Uexküll:

We are easily deluded into assuming that the relationship between a foreign subject and the objects in his world exists on the same spatial and temporal plane as our own relations with the objects in our human world. This fallacy is fed by the belief in the existence of a single world, into which all living creatures are pigeon-holed. This gives rise to the widespread conviction that there is only one space and time for all living things…There is no space independent of subjects. If we cling to the fiction of an all-encompassing universal space, we do so only because this conventional fable facilitates mutual communication.

So perceptions of time as well as space are key elements of a given Umwelt.

Looking back down at Marmaduke, staring up at me from the floor makes me wonder how our relationships to time differ. There are for me,  the obvious physical markers. In the nearly five decades we’ve lived together, I have progressed from boyhood to adulthood, to middle age, with all its attendant physical complications and catastrophes. For his part, Marmaduke seems nearly indistinguishable from his dapper, youthful self, save for a slight fading of his orange neck pigmentation and the unfortunate cross-bite he acquired after breaking his beak some years ago, when he fell off a pile of books he was climbing.

Does time move slower for him – or faster?

Again Von Uexküll offers us insight, reminding us that time is the product of a subject:

Time as a succession of moments varies from one Umwelt to another according to the number of moments experienced by different subjects within the same span of time. A moment is the smallest indivisible time vessel, for it is the expression of an indivisible elementary sensation, the so called moment-sign…

The question arises whether there are animals whose sense of perceptual time consists of shorter or longer moments than ours, and in whose Umwelt motor processes are consequently enacted more slowly or more quickly than in ours.

Which is fascinating…

In his novel ‘The Possibility of an Island,’ Michel Houllebecq imagines the bittersweet feelings of an immortal protagonist living in the near future, toward his little dog ‘Fox’, which is not ‘a’ little dog per se, but many little dogs, or rather a never-ending succession of the same dog – cloned: each replaced by its own puppy self as soon it has lived out its normal, dog-appropriate life span.

The variance in perceptual time between dog and master invokes some sombre reflection on the part of the post-human Daniel, who otherwise experiences the ebbs and flows of the post apocalyptic world outside his gated compound with an almost geologic detachment. Years pass, and not much consequential happens, except his dogs dying every once in a while to remind him of the chronology of the natural world.

But what if we turn the tables and imagine ourselves in the mind of a creature that can outlive us?

Spare a thought for example for that bowhead whale killed off the coast of Alaska in 2007.  It had a harpoon tip lodged in its neck blubber dating back to the 1890’s. This venerable but unfortunate leviathan, possibly over 150 years old, spent more than a century dodging a repeat encounter with our murderous species, out-lasting the end of the commercial whaling industry, only to wind up dead in a relictual aboriginal hunt. Had it become world-weary, plying the plastic-strewn, anthropogenically warmed polar sea and thinking:

‘To hell with it! I’m exhausted… Maybe I’ll just end it all and offer myself up to these Inuit. They seem like nice people…’

Or maybe it just got unlucky.

Then there are the tortoises – venerable, patient as boulders…

Tu’Malila, a Madagascar radiated tortoise lived with successive generations of the Tongan royal family from 1779 until 1965, after having been brought there by the peripatetic Captain Cook. Jonathan, a giant Seychelles tortoise is still alive at 182 years, exiled like Napoleon, to the distant south Atlantic island of St. Helena. What do these ancients think of us as they observe, through rheumy reptilian eyes, our frenetic comings and goings? We must seem like crazed, bipedal ants,  our over-clocked, distractible brains constantly driving us to keep doing things, while they blink and wheeze and munch placidly on soft weeds, noticing perhaps the shift in the angle of the sun as the season progresses or the promise of rain in the great vault of weather boiling high overhead.

Compared to these Methuselahs, Marmaduke is but a spring chicken yet I can’t help wondering how, over our past half century of cohabitation, he thinks about the time passing – or if in fact he even thinks about it! His routine has been remarkably constant: he enjoys basking in the patch of sun that conjures itself up beneath the office skylight at a certain hour in the morning. He tucks into his miniature portion of organic dog food and lettuce leaves with apparent gusto, if the ambient temperature is high enough. There are also his long soaks in his water dish to relieve constipation. That might be fun!

But mostly he just sleeps in one of his several favourite hiding places under my bookshelves. When the house cools down in the winter, these naps can go on for weeks. Being able to remain inactive for long periods confers tangible benefits to turtles, helping them avoid predators, endure inclement weather and interruptions to the food supply. Perhaps these super naps have cognitive benefits too – a pause from too much stimulation, a time to process all they have taken in. Perhaps they meditate Who knows? Perhaps these naps are the way box turtles mark time…

Though his sense of time is opaque to me, I can see that the locations of objects within his operational space seem to matter a great deal. Marmaduke promptly investigates the appearances and disappearances of my knapsack on the floor or any new pile of books or magazines that get put there. Maybe this is evidence of some sort of spatial prioritization, an Umwelt consisting primarily of assemblages of obstacles and hiding places he must negotiate in order to move about efficiently and unobtrusively. Time may have no meaning in such a world, other than the cycles of light and darkness by which objects are illuminated.

As a narcissistic human, I am particularly curious if after all these years Marmaduke has developed any emotional attachment toward me. I’m resigned to the fact that it’s not likely I’ll ever find out. Affection, in the way we humans might understand it, is not something reptiles tend to exhibit, despite this turtle’s entreating use of eye contact when wants to be fed. There is no way of telling what my face even means in his reptilian Umwelt, merely that he has learned that if he stares at it long enough, I will eventually notice him and take care of his needs. In the Venn diagram of our lives, these moments of turtle-initiated communication are where we most overlap. At least it’s something…

Cousteau in a pensive moment

Cousteau in a pensive moment

In contrast to their slow-pokey terrestrial cousins, water turtles can seem quick-witted and engaging. Of the freshwater species, the softshell turtles and the similar pig-nosed turtles are the most thoroughly aquatic, gliding through their watery realm with an almost balletic grace.  Though I’ve only admired pig-nosed turtles with my face pressed up against the glass of the Berlin Aquarium, I have been living with a pair of soft-shelled turtles, since 1997, having raised them from tiny hatchlings.

Pig-nosed turtle at Berlin Aquarium

Pig-nosed turtle at Berlin Aquarium

To say these creatures are odd is a supreme understatement. Their flexible shells are the texture of wet baseball gloves and they have curious, tube-like snouts, which they employ like snorkels. Temperamentally, softshells are highly idiosyncratic and thus require a fair amount of sensitivity and attention on the part of their keeper, which makes them, it needs to be said, terrible pets, for anyone not willing to devote massive amounts of time to understanding their subtle emotional cues, let alone their physical needs for commodious aquaria with fastidiously filtered, expensively heated water and a carefully chosen substrate in which they will bury themselves for hours at a time, switching over to anal breathing so they don’t have to come up for air.

Cousteau, a female and by far the larger of the two, is a Florida softshell (Apalonia ferox) and neurotic in the extreme. The last time I weighed her, she came in at over 16 pounds and that was some years ago, so the two hundred gallon plexiglass tank of swamp water she inhabits no longer seems as excessive as it once did. Though she could easily amputate a finger with a snap of her wire cutter like jaws, Cousteau is painfully shy and goes into deep conniptions at the slightest departure from her accustomed routine: an unexpected noise, perhaps the clunk of a drinking glass on the coffee table, someone entering or leaving the room too abruptly, or even a play of light on the wall she may suddenly find disturbing. Thus agitated, she will bolt to the far corner of her tank with the back of her shell facing the room to sulk for possibly days before deigning to engage in the world again.  She is similarly particular around her meal times, preferring her food pellets to be offered  late at night, after midnight ideally, once the overhead lights are dimmed,  the television tuned to BBC World News at an appropriately modest volume. And yes, I realize this is weird!

I came to discover these predilections through an arduous process of trial and error. On a couple of occasions, Cousteau put herself on a multi-month hunger strike when the conditions of her confinement were not quite to her liking, coming dangerously close to starving herself. Extreme, suicidal behaviour perhaps, but how else could she get my attention? Despite my having obsessively pored over all the literature I could get my hands on pertaining to softshell turtle biology, Cousteau was not just any softshell turtle, but an individual, steeped in her own enigmatic subjectivity. I had to put myself inside her Umwelt, to see things from her point of view – from the watery vantage point of her big aquarium in the corner of the living room.

Okay, I didn’t exactly climb into the tank with her, but started observing much more closely how she reacted to slight shifts in her living conditions – one variable at a time: the temperature of her water, at what time I was offering her food, the lighting, the ambient level of noise, the sonorousness and timbre of the way I spoke to her, and so on – until she slowly emerged from her deep funk. I live with a very large softshell turtle who prefers to eat late at night, with the television on and I need to talk softly to her while droppoing herring flavoured pellets in front of her tube-like nose. And I’m okay with that.

You know what it is to be born alone,

     Baby tortoise!

     The first day to heave your feet little by little

          from the shell,

     Not yet awake,

     And remain lapsed on earth,

     Not quite alive.

     A tiny, fragile, half-animate bean.

     To open your tiny beak-mouth, that looks as if

          it would never open,

     Like some iron door;

     To lift the upper hawk-beak from the lower base

     And reach your skinny little neck

     And take your first bite at some dim bit of


     Alone, small insect,

     Tiny bright-eye,

     Slow one.

     To take your first solitary bite

     And move on your slow, solitary hunt.

     Your bright, dark little eye,

     Your eye of a dark disturbed night,

     Under its slow lid, tiny baby tortoise,

     So indomitable.

DH Lawrence: Becoming tortoise.

‘Baby’, a male spiny softshell turtle, inhabits a slightly smaller tank adjacent to the dining room. He is the polar opposite of Cousteau in almost all respects and the closest thing I have ever seen to a ’social’ reptile; constantly solicitous of human attention – a regular life-of-the-party, especially if people are gathered around the dinner table. If he isn’t asleep or hidden under the gravel breathing through his anus, Baby spends his time furiously gesticulating towards the nearest human, his webbed feet performing a kind of frantic semaphore, neck fully extended : Feed me! Feed me! Notice me! Notice me! in the hopes he’ll be tossed a food stick or just hung out with, which he very much seems to enjoy. But why? Obviously he likes being fed, but there seems to be more to it; a kind of intrinsic exuberance that Baby has always had even as a hatchling, no bigger than a quarter. Both Cousteau and Baby came into my life at around about the same time; tiny turtlets only days old; a so-called ‘by-catch’ in a shipment of farm-raised tropical fish. Neither would have experienced much beyond the cosseted interior of the eggs they had so recently slipped out of, maybe bobbing haplessly around in the fish pond for a few days before being scooped up,  stuffed into an oxygen injected plastic bag and shipped to an airport. Yet right from the beginning, Cousteau and Baby were utterly different in the way they related to their respective worlds. Far from being ‘simple’ creatures they are –as we all are – individuals.

But must we live isolated within our unbridgeable solitudes?  Is our access to animal subjectivity such an existential impossibility or limited to the realm of arcane thought experiment? Perhaps they can really enter our minds and we theirs? Maybe the boundaries between our Umwelten are more permeable, our becoming-animal within reach; dangling like the fibres Deleuze and Guattari envisioned in A Thousand Plateaus, as already connecting us in an enmeshed co-presence.

Perhaps it is a matter of  memory. Maybe if we try to remember our animal dreams; the ones that remind us of what it is like to be them, we might be able to become them, at least once in a while.

The philosopher Paulo Virno declares dejà vu a memory of the present. How often have we looked at an animal and felt a deep connection, an overwhelming co-presence in which we briefly are: that cat purring, nestled by the warm hearth, the puppy gambolling in the soft spring grass, the butterfly unfurling its wings, the giant tortoise stoically observing the passage of the centuries through teary, brown eyes, now pausing to nip the petals off a flower?

Animals. We are them. They are us. That is why we like to hang out with them. That is why we should love them even more.

Like a titmouse, which a breeze gently rocks at the end of a sunbeam.

Proust: Remembrance of Things Past