Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Colliding Umwelt’s: Commuter Strays in Moscow

 Guest Blogger: Cecily Sophia Culver

“Moscow's resourceful stray dogs are just one of what are now thousands of recorded examples of wild, feral and domesticated animals demonstrating what appears, at least, to be what humans might call flexible open-ended reasoning and conscious thought” says animal intelligence writer, Eugene Linden, of the thousands of commuter dogs in Moscow Russia. The presence and experiences of these dogs has recently achieved noteworthy attention; just as the wonder about the experiences of beings outside of our species has persisted on.

Recently this phenomenon of commuter strays has made news and traveled around the social media circuit. This is in part because of the affection people have for “man’s best friend” but additionally because the experience of the animal, that we can try to imagine, is not that far of a stretch, because it has so much in common with our own.
This is why, when examples of colliding environments and disruption due to industrial growth and development are abundant, this story sticks out. Pigeons, squirrels, rats, cockroaches, etc have all adapted to our anthropocentric city planning. We casually, or startlingly, bump into their “soap bubbles,” as Jakob Von Uexküll might imagine, with our own; however, imagining the existence within their umwelt, like Thomas Nagel, Uexküll and Vilem Flusser did with the bat, tick and Vampire Squid, is a far stretch from our human perception. 

It is not so far of reach with the dogs of Moscow, their story is one many people can directly relate to. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990’s the industrial complexes, that served as shelters to these animals, were moved to the suburbs. Like people, they find sustenance, by begging for food in the city centers; thus, they have decoded a system developed solely for the transportation of people in order to survive (Marquardt, Blakemore,and Eichenholz.)

Every day the umwelt’s of human passengers collide with those of the strays. In a system coded with perceptual signals for human cargo, these dogs have developed ways of perceiving this environment to reach their own goals. By painting the Umwelten of a dog in the environment of the subway system, as in the exercise Uexküll walks through in “Receptor image and effector image” of A Stroll through the Worlds of Animal and Men, we can see that area of crossover space within the venn-diagram of experience.
Despite what is shared between the experience a dog and human might have within the same transportation system, that allows this story to touch the hearts of humans, as Nagel points out: what it is like to be a commuter stray in Moscow will never be fully rendered by the human mind or described with human language, “if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind and those resources are inadequate to the task” (Nagel 439.)

The dogs float along in their bubbles of individual experience, perceiving the world through vision, through tactile sensation and prominently through smell. Based upon these perceptions and their goals, they have adjusted and honed their behavior based on these cues. Linden says, "The take-away is that animals are not just passive in this…They are figuring out what we're about and how they can game the system, and work it to their advantage as well." One tactic based upon smell, is to bark and startle passengers causing them to drop their food. Another based upon perception of the humans they are surrounded by is to “play cute” and beg for scraps, frequently from youthful passengers. The strays have learned to judge the length of time spent on the train in order to get off at the right stops. They adjust their behavior according to crowding in the carriages: it seems that they understand that looking threatening in situations of close encounters with humans will work against their ultimate goals of being fed and cared for (Marquardt, Blakemore, and Eichenholz.)These behaviors bring the umwelten of dogs and humans into collision, bumping along together on the trains through Moscow.
We are attracted to the Moscow commuter dog story because we feel a kin-ness with the animals and a commonality with their experience, one that has ultimately been caused by our human actions over a duration of time. As the trains continue to jostle man and animal alike into the city centers will the system evolve to account for the experiences of the resilient species? 

Sources and Links:
Marquardt, Alex, Bill Blakemore, and Ross Eichenholz. "Stray Dogs Master Complex Moscow Subway System." ABC News. ABC News Network, n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2013. <http://abcnews.go.com/International/Technology/stray-dogs-master-complex-moscow-subway-system/story?id=10145833#.UXcH-LWsjTp>.
Nagel, Thomas. "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" The Philosophical Review 83.4 (1974): 435-50. JSTOR. Web. 23 Apr. 2013. <: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2183914>.
Uexkull, Jakob Von. A Stroll through the World's of Animals and Men. Ed. Thure Von Uexkull. N.p.: International Association for Semiotic Studies, 1998. Print.

Cecily Sophia Culver is a graduate student at Arizona State University, studying sculpture and interested in these occurrences of the animal revolution.