Upon reading Jacob von Uexküll’s A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, and Jesper Hoffmeyer’s Biosemiotics, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of “Umwelts”. Coincidentally, I visited the Bronx Zoo this past weekend, and could not help but try to apply these two texts to the animals I saw. Uexküll defines the Umwelt (via Hoffmeyer) as “the subjective or phenomenal world of the animal”. Hoffmeyer writes that Uexküll saw each animal “locked up…inside their own subjective worlds, each in its own Umwelt…one might say that the Umwelt is the ecological niche as the animal itself apprehends it” (Hoffmeyer 171).
In the case of zoos, humans try to recreate each captive animal’s Umwelt – hypothetically, a space big enough for comfort, and for the animal to feel “at home”. Naturally, this concept difficult to define and produce, yet the size of the animals appears to matter, to an extent. The wild dogs have a large, outdoor area, so large, in fact, that it is difficult to see the fences that create a boundary between their space and “outside” (that is, unless you’re looking at them through a glass wall). The fish seemed crowded, but they appeared to have their own patterns of navigation and negotiation with each other. The smaller reptiles, mammals, etc., all had equally small enclosures.
One representation of an Umwelt I found especially disturbing was that of the giraffe enclosure. During the warmer parts of the year, they are allowed to roam outside, but they are currently in a straw-floored, wooden-walled, tiny pen. I could have sworn, by the way they were looking at each visitor, that they knew they were not “at home”. There was a savannah scene painted on the wall, but that was about the only effort made to recreate the giraffes’ “natural” environment.
My friends and I kept asking each other “do you think they know that we’re here?” And if so, “do you think they care, or understand at all the difference between this and “nature”?”. One of the snow leopards was pacing back and forth along a small log…he looked bored, but then someone pointed out he might just be waiting to be fed. In that sense, he was completely dependent on the false Umwelt and environment that had been created for him. I also wonder about animals captured in nature and put into zoos (a rarity these days, I believe), and those bred in captivity. Are their Umwelts completely different? Is there a way to figure this out?
We talked last class about a bee in Central Park: its Umwelt is fairly small, and therefore, it was argued, the bee wouldn’t care or realize that its niche was in the middle of a bustling urban metropolis. But what about the primates, or the mammals in the zoo? Their eye contact was unavoidable, and, at the risk of anthropomorphizing, they seemed to be trying to convey some sort of realization or message of displeasure or sadness.
Hoffmeyer, Jesper. Biosemiotics: An Examination into the Signs of Life and the Life of Signs. Scranton: University of Scranton Press, 2008. Print.
Von Uexküll, Jacob. A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans: With a Theory of Meaning. Trans. Joseph D. O'Neil. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Print.