Short Film – “Looking At Animals”

For the past several weeks, I’ve been working on a short film as my final project for the class, ‘Animals, Art, and Technology,’ taught by artist Gal Nissim as part of New York University’s Master’s program in Animal Studies. The film (above) represents a personal essay and commentary on the nature of how we (humans) look at and communicate about (nonhuman) animals. I am keenly interested in expanding this project into something larger in scope but, in the meantime, I hope that you enjoy the current version and welcome any and all questions, comments, and feedback. Thanks for watching!

Do Animals Experience Music? In a sense, yes. 

In spite of a significant heap of scientific research, I believe that nonhuman animals can appreciate music. In order to understand my argument, though, we’ll have to expand the definition of what music can be. 

When I was an undergraduate student, back in the early 2010s, two of my housemates got into a late night debate about what defines “music.” (The fact that mild psychedelics played a role is worth noting for context, but ultimately beyond the point.) It started when one of them expressed his hatred for the band, The National (he didn’t think their work could be called music), and slowly devolved into a heated discussion about the nature of our human auditory experience. I sat by as a spectator, at one point trying to interject with a gesture of peace and reconciliation by saying, “Everything is music.” 

While part of my comment was half-baked, it’s something I believe to this day, and it makes me wonder about the nature of the musical experience for both humans and nonhumans. Science tells us that, for the most part, the appreciation of music is unique to human beings. While cockatoos, for example, can sense and mimic rhythm, there are gaps in their comprehension of other musical elements. 

Merriam-Webster defines music in its barest sense as “an arrangement of sounds having melody, rhythm, and usually harmony.” The Oxford definition invokes music’s “expression of emotion.” Both of these notions reflect music’s external-facing characteristics, though, that which it presents to the world. But what of the other side? Can music also be defined by the impact that it has on an individual, by the way in which it is received?

That is, might music also be considered any sound or collection of sounds that elicit an emotional response in the listener? In that sense, I imagine animals do appreciate music. Does a bird not enjoy the call of their mate? I can’t help but imagine that a thirsty deer relishes the sound of a flowing brook. Maybe this argument is as half-baked as it was back in college, but I stand by it, if only in order to further the point that there is an unseen richness to the lives of nonhuman animals that we people can barely fathom, let alone aesthetically appreciate.

Perhaps this contention can spur someone else’s late night argument over what is (and is not) music. Until proven otherwise, though, I’ll go on thinking that a bullfrog’s late night croak is the powerfully elegant drumbeat of a yearning mate. Whether or not they like The National, though, is a totally different story.

(Photo by Robert Zunikoff on Unsplash)

Essay: Evicting My Rodent Roommates

The following is a reaction paper to Animal Spaces, Beastly Places, edited by Chris Philo and Chris Wilbert.

Does the apartment that I rent belong to me, or to the mice and rats that frequent the space behind my oven? A wire leading to the oven’s ignitor had broken. A repair person fixed it, and pointed out that we had a lot of rodent feces behind the oven. A day later, the oven stopped working, and when the repair person returned, he observed that the animals had chewed through the new wire. I asked him if there was a way to reinforce the wire, to which he replied, “You need an exterminator to come and kill ‘em.” I don’t want to kill them, but if I don’t address the fact that there are mice and rats living behind my oven, chewing through ignitor wires, I will not be able to cook, and will be forced to pay hefty appliance repair fees. But do they have to die?

In Animal Spaces, Beastly Places, editors Chris Philo and Chris Wilbert explore the sociological, anthropological, and historical underpinnings of my dilemma. They expound on the notion of “imaginative geographies of animals,” which alludes to the ways in which human beings come to “place” animals and define them in terms of the spaces they inhabit, and the ways in which those spaces interact with those that we humans inhabit. “Humans are always… enmeshed in social relations with animals…” they write (2), in a manner most often defined by “an oppressive, dominating power by humans over animals” (4). Their investigation is, broadly, a study of “where and how… the lines get drawn… between human and non-human animals” (7). 

The “eco” exterminator that came to the apartment recommended some structural fixes and a round of poison traps, which kill the animals through severe dehydration. In my house growing up, we used “Havahart” traps and released any mice that we caught into the woods several miles away. Naturally, I asked the exterminator to use his humane, catch-and-release traps. These would, he noted, be more costly and require additional visits. 

While no animals will be killed in this process, it remains difficult for me to justify removing them from a place that, presumably, they have inhabited longer than I, who only moved in two months ago. Philo and Wilbert touch upon this notion of agency, too, assessing whether animals have any say, any role to play, in the spaces that we delineate as “theirs” or “ours.” Indeed, my relationship with the animals behind my oven “raises broader concerns about non-human agency… and the extent to which we can say that animals destabilise [sic], transgress or even resist our human orderings, including spatial ones” (5). Out of disorder behind my oven, these animals made order.The authors suggest that we extend human “courtesies” to animals, “allowing them the decencies of life, space, and place that we humans would expect and want for ourselves and others” (25). I agree, and I suppose I’m doing the best that I can with my furry roommates. Maybe these “in-between animals” who inhabit “in-between spaces” (21) are unique in that they have the agency to find a new place to live. Still, I can’t help wondering, is this apartment really my home? What is it about humanity that gives us the right to claim a place, but not a mouse or rat? I’ll think about it over dinner tonight in this apartment, this place that is mine but not really mine, and go to sleep with the humble hope that the universe lets me stay the night.

Cover Photo by Mert Guller on Unsplash