After the refrain “Are we there yet?”, the favourite question my children asked on long trips was: “What animal would you like to be?” It was a great question because it occupied so much time (and kilometres) in fantasies about flying like an eagle, playing ball with dolphin mates and scuttling up drainpipes.
During those long drives, the process of putting ourselves into the skin of another animal gave us a window into lives that lay just outside the windscreen but was forever out of reach. And, even though a rat’s life was not their favourite fantasy, my exploration of being one gave them a good insight into household plumbing.
It turns out kids aren’t the only ones who enjoy this question because there is a genre in nature writing that goes beyond biological notes, scat samples and binoculars. These nature lovers try to be other animals.
The most famous of these is a British don, Charles Foster, who wrote Being a Beast, but other enthusiasts include Thomas Thwaites with Goat Man, Jonathan Balcombe with What a Fish Knows, Thomas Nagel with his classic, What Is it Like to Be a Bat. David Sedaris toyed with the genre with Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls but I wouldn’t trust his biology.
Foster’s account of being a badger, otter, deer and fox is the most recent, and many have been astounded how an academic could leave Oxford with his young son to live in a muddy hole, eat worms, distribute scat and swim through grass rushes — and that’s just the first chapter.
While I spot an opening in this genre for a rat biography, many Australians may scoff at the wimpy choice of animals. How about being a brown snake? Or a crocodile at a tourist spot?
But adventure is obviously not the point of these exercises. The point is to get a deeper understanding of the lives of animals.
Goat Man’s author discovered never to stand higher on a hill than the alpha goat; Foster’s son developed an ear for the sound of a bird’s pecking; Balcombe discovered Machiavellian traits in fish; and Nagel discovered that we can’t know what it’s like to be a bat — phew.
But, just as important, we learn to appreciate a different way of being in this world. We get an animal’s perspective of landscape, an insight into food chains, a lesson into how other animals engage their senses and how they relate to each other — and sometimes how they relate to goats with prosthetic legs.
As enchanting as these discoveries are, the takeaways are more about being human than being an animal. In short, we discover a lot about what makes us human by mimicking what makes other animals tick.
So, in a way, it’s an exercise in empathy and, when we put ourselves in the skins of other animals we inevitably become more sensitive to their needs. We won’t look at goats and think gouda. We won’t look at a badger and wonder what Mole and Toad are doing today. We can accept them for their Otter-ness.
If immersing ourselves in nature makes us leave behind our user’s guide to the planet, then it’s no surprise scientists are exploring the same concept to give us a better understanding of animals and their place in the world. Already, some Australian researchers are using virtual reality to reconstruct the environments of threatened species, so we can all explore what it’s like to be jaguar in the Peruvian Amazon.
An even bigger step into the lives of others will come with the work being done in augmented reality. This is the technology that places you in your own setting but enables you to be, say, a fly in that setting, with all the buzzing and spitting on people’s lunches that entails.
And yes, before you ask, there is an app that lets you walk with dinosaurs and take a selfie with your favourite Rex. But for serious scientists, the point is not about us, and when it is about us, it’s about us as animals. After eating grass for a week on a Swiss alp and hobbling about on prosthetic legs, trying not to look too attractive to the herd, Goat Man’s lasting impression of being an animal is a pretty simple one. “Now, whenever I get worried or down, I just think, Thomas, be more the goat.”