What Is an Animal?

"The animals, sesame-white and eternally calm, preserved in cylindrical jars of clear thick glass."

There was one in the clouds. At all times and as yet: in the air and under water, on and under the ground, in forests and on fields. In this language, on these shelves: animals.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the animal as ‘a living organism which feeds on organic matter, typically having specialized sense organs and a nervous system and able to respond rapidly to stimuli; any living creature, including man.’ Answer 1.b.: ‘In ordinary or non-technical use: any such living organism other than a human being.’

The traditional biological, philosophical, and linguistic concepts of the animal construe it as the Other in juxtaposition with the human. Heidegger, in his lecture course of 1929 and 1930, Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, distinguished humans from animals saying that while the former are ‘world-forming,’ the latter are ‘poor in world.’ Claiming that humans have a “richer” world than animals is to say that humans have a more extensive and complex range of experiences and sensations available to them in comparison with animals. In the same lecture course, Heidegger noted that unlike humans who die or demise, animals ‘merely perish.’

The word animal derives from the Latin anima meaning “breath” or “soul.” Subsequently, the adjective animalis means “having breath or soul.” The physical body will give up. We might say that animals perish and humans die. Whether rich or poor in this world (or resisting any such classification), the heart will stop. Is this where the breath ends? It is not necessarily where the animal ends.

The Hunterian Museum in London houses a collection of preserved animal specimens collected by the 18th-century surgeon anatomist John Hunter. A large unassuming building with a large unassuming lobby accommodates a labyrinthine assembly of narrow rooms. A few minutes into the museum, the uncanny sensation that the sole dim light in the blue-walled rooms is not engendered by any electrical lamps but emanates from the fluorescent anatomical preparations lining the walls floor to ceiling. 

A battalion of twenty three and a half human skulls overlooking the ambling living. Placed on three levels of aluminium-framed glass shelves, the grey skulls’ wide jaws grin in a welcoming amused demeanour. Deep empty eye sockets, inward-pointing nose; the posthumous lack of soft tissue makes breathing impossible.

hunterian museum

Sloth fetus, almost fully developed
Young crocodile removed from its egg but still attached by its umbilical cord
Lizard with regenerated tail
Brown rat (fetus): showing umbilical cord and placenta

The animals, sesame-white and eternally calm, are preserved in cylindrical jars of clear thick glass. The floating ephemeral bodies attached by barely visible thin threads; ensuring no animal – no anima – escapes, the jars are topped with tightly sealed black-rimmed tin lids. The jarred specimens are surreal – the skin too perfectly textureless, the floating position too perfectly revealing. Not extraterrestrial but superterrestrial. Celestial: as if some strange power visited the collector one dark stormy winter night and handed over 10,000 jars of anatomical preservatives. To trick us into believing there’s a tamed and predictable mechanism to describe the indescribable. As if by understanding the anatomical structure of an animal it is possible to expose some ultimate secret of this world.

Each fetus floating in these jars could have been a life.

Sheep: ovary and fallopian tube, six days after mating
Cow: fetal membranes and cotyledons
Electric eel: digestive system
Squid: stomach and digestive tract
Ostrich: small intestine, showing blood supply to lining
Lion: ileum and caecum (sac at start of large intestine)
Bottlenose dolphin: intestine
Harbour porpoise: intestine
Asian elephant: intestine
Polar bear: intestine
Human: intestine

The strange preoccupation with intestines, as if the secret might hide in digestion. Going by the gut feeling. The supposition of there being a secret propounds there being something already known. 

The preserved viscera and tissues and bone shards – lifeless mechanical parts of some larger entity. Like toys made of playdough and wood and plastic, these lifeless objects can only be brought to life by magical thinking. Here is the secret: the fragments constituting an animal body need some unknown hand to stitch them together. For an animal to come into being, something – the secret – needs to say: “Breathe.”

In the park next to the Hunterian Museum, a squirrel burying a chestnut. The Latin name Sciurus stems from Greek skia (“shadow”) and oura (“tail”). One who sits in shadow of its own tail. All the strange words we’ve created to name that which we might not have needed to name in the first place. Does naming an animal make it more familiar to us? Grey squirrel: Sciurus carolinensis. It is not enough to call it a “squirrel,” all sub-species are provided a different Latin name by taxonomists. Not Sciurus but Sciurus +n. Where did the additional Latin classifications come from, at a time when the language itself was long dead (but not perished)? Like surgeon anatomist, the taxonomists sat in workshops stitching new Latin words onto the corpse of a mummified language, preserved, as of yet, by the Church; and the Science – the newly-appointed Crown Prince.

The squirrel skips ahead and jumps onto a tree. Calling the creature Sciurus carolinensis holds no power over its animal nature. We can’t know what it thinks, we can’t know what it feels. Perhaps it doesn’t care whether it will die or perish. Animals have a soul? Another squirrel appears on a tree trunk. For a moment, it freezes. Then, a blink of an eye. It breathes.