the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Deirdre Macken

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.”

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