Nearly every day my Goldendoodle does the same peculiar thing. We will be sitting on the couch, I’ll be reading a book and he’ll be laying on his back with his paws stretched out in the air like he is doing some sort of Kung Fu move. Then, all of a sudden he jumps up and races over to the corner of the room. He leaps onto the chair near the window, and starts barking exuberantly at something outside. I walk over to the chair and peer out the window and see nothing. I hear nothing. I swear there is just grass, trees, and silence. I ask him “what is it, Loki? There’s nothing there!” He persists and when I let him out sure enough he finds the chipmunk, squirrel, rabbit, or some other kind of intruder that he apparently sensed from the couch. It never ceases to amaze me how when the world is quiet to me, it is nearly always alive to him.
In the early 1900s, Jakob von Uexkülldeveloped the concept of the Umwelt. You’ve probably never heard of it before. And if you have I’m impressed about your knowledge of German biologists. Despite its intimidating name, the Umwelt is actually a simple idea that we just forget to spend much time thinking about. It states that each species of animal, and actually each individual living creature, experiences their own unique version of reality. What this fancy biologist means by this is that every animal is able to pick out and sense different things from the environment, based upon the physical features that they have, such that they experience the world in a way that is unique from other animals. For example, to a blind tick, the world is a place of smells and temperature. And since my Goldendoodle has much more acute hearing than me, the world is a much louder place to him. Every animal has their own world that is distinct to them.
We often don’t consider there to be multiple realities. The concept itself seems to be confined to the world of science fiction. We think the world is truly only one way and that that way is the way humans experience it. But this is not really the case. Furthermore, the problem with thinking this way is that other animals can’t experience life and the world in the same that way we do, and we fault them for it. Because their lives are so different than ours, we think their lives are more expendable. But should we think this way? Are our lives more valuable or just different?
It is true that most animals can’t read Shakespeare, fall in love, build the Great Pyramid of Giza, or reflect upon complex philosophical concepts like the Umwelt. They may never experience those things. But, likewise, we will never experience what food tastes like with the 25,000 taste buds that cows have (we have only 10,000). We will never know how vibrant the world looks with ultraviolet light or with 12 types of color receptors in our eyes like the mantis shrimp (we have three types of color receptors). We can’t feel the warm wind in our feathers as we soar through the air like a hawk. And when we walk through the forest with our dogs, we will never know what distant and seemingly imperceptible sounds they are taking in that we will never hear. Aren’t these experiences remarkable as well?
What it all comes down to is this: animals do not know they are missing out on what we experience. For animals, just like for us, their world is theworld. And it is full. It is complete. Just like a blind person does not know there is a world of vision out there until someone tells them, animals cannot know that they are at a loss because they cannot read Shakespeare. To them, their world does not lack. To them, their life is not only all there is but it is the best there is. And to them their life has the utmost value, just as our lives have for us.
Every animal is able to experience the world in a unique and incredible way. We must remember that just because we experience the world differently than other animals, this does not mean that we should disregard the valuable experiences and the lives of those animals. We should keep in mind that when thousands of chickens, cows, pigs, and other animals are killed each day for food, the loss is not just in bodies but in unique versions of reality; the loss is in worlds.