Reconstructing the Worlds of Wildlife: Uexküll, Hediger, and Beyond

Abstract

The theoretical biology of Jakob von Uexküll has had significant conceptual and practical afterlives, in Continental philosophy, biosemiotics and elsewhere. This paper will examine the utilisation of Uexküll in twentieth-century zoo biology and its significance for relating to wildlife in hybrid environments. There is an important though rarely analysed line of inheritance from von Uexküll to Heini Hediger, the Swiss zoo director and animal psychologist. Hediger’s fundamental theoretical position began from the construction of the world from the animal’s point of view, as determined by factors including species specific phylogeny, individual and group biography, and anthropogenic circumstance. He operationalised Uexküll’s approach to animal worlds in order to optimise the design of zoo enclosures, considered as both physical and psychological habitats, in which captive wildlife could flourish. This subjectivist and phenomenological perspective has often been sidelined in zoo biology by more objectivist and mechanising approaches. Nonetheless, Hediger’s work and thought, through its inheritance from Uexküll, has important implications for twenty-first century relations with wildlife.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For examples of such thinking in zoo studies, see, among others, Lee 2005; Spotte 2006.

  2. 2.

    Thanks to Alexander Beatty, whose translation of this text I have made use of in the following.

  3. 3.

    Hediger’s ideas were taken up and diversified by Thomas Sebeok (1988, 1990).

  4. 4.

    Of course, species’ typical behaviour is unavoidably transformed in captivity in a number of ways, including through taming (to enable handling and veterinary care), the suppression of predator-prey relationships, dependency on provisioning, and the forcing, disruption or elimination of forms of zoosemiotic communication (Mäekivi 2016a).

  5. 5.

    Mäekivi has demonstrated the continued importance of zoosemiotics and its attention to intra- and interspecies communication for analysing the complexities and transformations of the hybrid environments of zoological gardens (Mäekivi 2016a, 2016b). Zoos today are often assessed in terms of the ‘five freedoms’ (Mäekivi 2018).

  6. 6.

    An English translation of this book by Anna-Katharina Laboissière will be published as Understanding animals: Insights of an animal psychologist with Springer. All quotations are from this translation, with thanks. For a more detailed exposition of some of Hediger’s arguments in this book, see Chrulew 2018.

  7. 7.

    Hediger thus poses the important question of keeper effects — that is, how captive animals are changed by their relationships with their keepers — that has yet to be properly broached in zoo-biological research.

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Acknowledgements

This research was funded by the Australian Research Council DECRA project “Bewildering Animals: Towards A New Philosophical Ethology” (DE160101531). For further funding and support that made this research possible, thanks are also due to the Australian Academy of the Humanities, Ernst and Rosemarie Keller Travel Award; Zurich Zoo; and Curtin University’s Centre for Culture and Technology and HASS Grant Success Panel.

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Chrulew, M. Reconstructing the Worlds of Wildlife: Uexküll, Hediger, and Beyond. Biosemiotics 13, 137–149 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12304-020-09376-x

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Keywords

  • Uexküll
  • Hediger
  • Umwelt
  • Animal
  • Zoo biology
  • Hybrid environments