I close my suitcase slowly and try to hide the sound; but still I hear a movement from the living room couch, and then four feet scream up the stairs, her tail beating rhythmically against the balusters. My dog Mathilde finds me in the bedroom and stares first at me, then at the suitcase and then back again with a half worried, half accusing look.
“It’s okay, don’t worry,” I say, trying to hide my frustration that she caught me trying to hide from her that I was leaving. Of course, I often go to my office or the gym – but my briefcase or gym bag doesn’t get the same worried look in them. In these cases, she doesn’t bother moving from her place on the couch, knowing that it won’t be long before I get back.
But the suitcase is different – as if time matters to dogs like her in very real ways, though some early philosophers and researchers thought. As an animal scientist, I have come to believe that she knows and anticipates the difference between a few hours’ absence and a journey lasting several days. The suitcase means something to her, has consequences somewhere deep inside her and she wants to tell me that.
For the biologist / ethologist Jacob von Uexküll the early 20 subjects of their worlds and not just objects in them. In other words, it is not simply machines that respond to stimuli, as Descartes suggested in the 17th century.
True, for some animals there are very few signs in the world that matter. Uexküll seductively describes the world of the tick, which only reacts to three signs: temperature, touch and smell. Since the tick can only be influenced or moved by these three things, we could agree that the tick’s world is impoverished compared to that of a human, filled with books, computers and music.
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger described the essence of “the animal” in general as “poor in the world” and made no attempts to differentiate between species or individuals within species. That would mean that for Mathilde only a finite number of stimuli could be of importance and limited to those to which a dog, any dog, can respond.
But what about the suitcase? And do fewer stimuli necessarily mean their world is impoverished compared to mine? Is their world poorer or just different?
True, the difference between a Sauvignon Blanc and a Chardonnay may be meaningless to them. But the scents that she carefully follows around trees and bushes are also meaningless to me.
If the Anthropocene is the most apt term for the geological age we live in today, there is no species that has not been influenced by the way we humans built our homes on earth. All living beings had to adapt to new climatic zones, changed or reduced habitats or simply the noise of technology, not just the animals that we consciously bring into our homes. Especially with pets, richer and poorer are not enough to describe the differences between the worlds that they experience with or because of us. For the chickens, pigs and cows in factory farming, sensible stimuli are reduced to a minimum: food, pain and light (if they ever see it). In fact, we could hope that their ability to be influenced by their surroundings has been destroyed so that they don’t really know what is happening to them or have a feel for what life might have been like.
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For our happier pets, expanding the ability to be affected can be compared to some form of education. Since we house residents are all pets, we train each other and make our worlds overlap and interact. Because of this, science historian Donna Haraway says that we become “more worldly” with other animals. We learn to perceive the stimuli in the other’s worlds and to be influenced by them.
Such education does not mean that there is equal control or power over the outcome; there is seldom a classroom setting or a domestic relationship. But what coexistence with animals can make possible and encourage is finding meaning in things – objects or movements or changes in our senses – that we had not noticed before and that had no power to influence us. For a dog, this can be a frisbee, leash, doorbell, or suitcase. For a person, it means attuning to the difference between barking and whimpering, between ears raised or tucked back, and learning to follow the tip of the nose to see beyond our field of vision, to imagine what we cannot smell will. Just as we train them, they train us too.
And not only dogs get used to the silent expressions of our moods and our bodies. In 1907, Clever Hans became famous as a horse that could count – stamping its feet to count the correct answers to his trainer’s questions. Hans, as it finally turned out, couldn’t count, but what he could was even more important. He discovered clues in the human bodies around him, clues that they themselves didn’t know offered, but that he could read to give the correct answers.
We may wonder why Hans and Mathilde pay us so much attention, why they seem to care about us, and what, if anything, they want in return. We have the luxury, yes the power, to answer this question at will or to avoid it. Most of the time we avoid it – avoid it so as not to see how much we don’t know about them, or avoid it so as not to face when we abuse their trust. Of course, we may not always know what they want, and there are times when other responsibilities of work, life, and love come in to keep us apart for a while. It takes effort and imagination to step into their world and help them, just as it takes constant effort and imagination on their part to help us in ours.
I don’t expect to know exactly what Mathilde thinks when she hears the zipper, what she imagines or perhaps fears. But I know that if she looks at it that way and looks at me, she says something to me. I can only hope that she will find an answer in me that she can accept and that she will be happy to see me when I come back.