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  • Writer's pictureKen Campbell

Animal Consciousness



Whereas much of what happens in life is routine and unremarkable, there are times when the happening is so bizarre that you could not have made it up. I speak specifically of the time my 13-year-old grandson, Ivan, gave me a live mole for Christmas.

To put this in context, I had, over the course of the year, received three relevant books as gifts from my children: 1) What the Robin Knows by Jon Young, a gift from Ellen and Jay; 2) Of Orcas and Men by David Neiwert, a gift from Ivan; 3) The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery, a gift from Jody. Each of these books delt with the consciousness of the selected animal and through that, the animal’s awareness of its environment and its relationship to humans. The environments encountered by each of these animals were vastly different and the way in which the animals used those environments, were likewise different. Consequently, the authors wondered what each animal’s view of the world might be and how dramatically different humans must fit into each animal’s world view.

A second relevant fact is that on Soggy Bottom Farm where we live there is an abundance of moles. We never see this animal because it spends its time underground. We know it is here because of the innumerable molehills scattered over the property and the fact that new molehills appear regularly and overnight. Additionally, the youngest of the farm’s dogs spends considerable time digging up the underground tunnels that lead to these molehills and, not infrequently, catches the mole that made the excavation. Because we don’t keep manicured lawns on the farm, the moles and their diggings are not seen as a blight on the grounds but rather as an accepted part of the landscape; moles are just another one of the marvelous, intriguing animals that share this property with us. In fact, an argument can be made that the moles are valuable because they contribute to the fertility and aeration of the soil.

Now, one day I was talking to Ivan about the world these moles live in. Living underground, it does not matter to the mole that it doesn’t have eyes that it can see with nor ears that it can hear with. More important is that it has feet that are wonderfully adapted to dig with and fur that can bend easily both forward and backward allowing the mole to go forward and backward in its tunnels. Further, its highly-sensitive tactile sensing of vibrations in the soil arising from motion of worms and grubs and its taste/smell apparatus allowing it to identify edible things serve it with all the sensory-information it needs to extract its food from its environment. So, what kind of world exists in the mole’s consciousness and how does that world compare with the world of the robin, the octopus, and the orca? And, how does it compare with our world? How do we fit into the mole’s view of things?

Having posed these questions to Ivan, when Ivan later asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I replied that I wanted a mole. I told him that if I could watch a mole up-close in a confined space, I might learn something about the mole’s perception of the world. Of course, I was being facetious with no expectation that Ivan was going to get me a mole for Christmas. It is very difficult and impracticable to acquire a mole.

But lo-and-behold, on Christmas morning, Ivan brought me a living mole. I was dumbfounded. Ivan had teamed-up with Barley, one of the farm’s mole-catching dogs, to capture this animal. We put it in a tub of soil and inoculated the tub with numerous worms from the compost pit for mole food. Then we watched the mole burrow into the soil and disappear. That was the last that we saw of the mole alive. Two days later, it had died.

Later I learned that moles are notoriously difficult to keep in captivity. This is why you will never see one in a museum or zoo even though these places often have fossorial animal displays. Rodents of various kinds do well in these underground exhibits but moles do not. Thus, there was no possibility to visit moles in the zoo and commune with this animal at such places to learn of its perceptions.

So, as I peruse the molehill riddled pasture and grassland of Soggy Bottom Farm, I must be satisfied with the fact that I will never come to grips with the mole’s awareness of the world. And, I will never again receive a Christmas gift quite like the one Ivan gave me for Christmas some years ago when he presented me with a live mole.

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