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“What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”

This post is by contributing writer Shiri Raz, PhD candidate in the psychoanalysis and hermeneutics program at Bar-Ilan University, Israel.

In his well-known article “What Is It Like to Be A Bat?” from 1974, philosopher Thomas Nigel argues that though anyone can imagine how a bat feels, they can never truly experience the world from a bat’s point of view. In his opinion, human experience is limited in its senses and its structure of consciousness to understanding itself and that alone.

Many disagree, including Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee. In The Lives of Animals, Coetzee’s protagonist Elizabeth Costello argues that in the same manner, one can empathize with fictional literary heroes, one can just as readily identify with animals. The prerequisite for this understanding is the recognition that we are all mortals, sharing life and death on Earth: “If I can think my way into the existence of a being who has never existed, I can think my way into the existence of a bat or a chimpanzee or an oyster, any being with whom I share the substrate of life.”

These days, the complex philosophical discussion of our ability to share the experience of animals in our world is no longer merely theoretical. Now the tables are turned, and we can now see, hear, and breathe the world as the environment and animals do under man’s tyrannical, violent rule.

As our lungs struggle with the risk of fatal pollution, the Earth’s lungs are recovering. The skies are clear of planes, roads are empty, unimpeded, forests grow, and global air pollution is on a dramatic decline.

As we are isolated, imprisoned in our homes, many animals have been recently spotted in places where they have not set paw for centuries: monkeys are visiting certain areas of Thailand; deer visiting Japan’s desolate cities.

And, as we keep an anxious eye trained on the numbers, with their exponential increase in fatalities and infections, the marine biosphere, for which researchers have predicted death within three decades, has begun to glimmer with initial signs of recovery.

All of these are reminiscent of the ironic caricature featuring a doctor that examines a dying Earth, who gravely announces, “I’m sorry, I’m afraid what you have is humans.” We cannot but stop to consider which of the two global viruses is more dangerous – corona or humanity.

We are now forced to cope with our allegedly limited imagination when trying to conceptualize what it feels like to be a bat in a human-dominated world. Or a calf, or a chicken. Afraid, helpless and hopeless, victims of some other being that uses our bodies for its selfish use.

The desolate streets, the grounded planes, the locked amusement parks, hotels that became quarantines from which not everyone would eventually check out. All these and other images are reminiscent of futuristic dystopias and films of the apocalypse, but in reality, Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Linda Hamilton, or even Dustin Hoffman are nowhere to be found.

We have lost control of our health, our livelihoods and our most fundamental liberties as human beings in the free world, seemingly unable to do anything. We believe that our responsibility in preventing this pandemic – and the more sophisticated ones to ensue – amounts to basic personal hygiene and maintaining social distance. But our true responsibility goes far beyond remembering to sneeze into our elbows. Ours is the momentous responsibility to stop the maintenance and existence of those toxic, disease-riddled habitats and the source of the next (and worse!) pandemic that are chicken coops and henhouses, meat and dairy farms – all crowded with sick animals pumped full of antibiotics to keep them alive.

Only humans can create such an ironic reality in which the pandemic has shut down thousands of businesses, the economy is crippled by hundreds of thousands of unemployed, kindergartens and schools have closed – but slaughterhouses continue to operate. People stockpile their freezers with meat and fill the fridge with dairy products and eggs – all coming from the source of the next patient-zero — and fail to make the connection.

We are so busy blaming the victim, with the futile obsession with whether the virus came from a miserable bat or suffering pangolin, while deliberately avoiding the realization that all animal food industries are a ticking time bomb, a petri dish for deadly and dangerous viruses that will soon inherit the corona crown – and outdo its havoc.

We are indifferent to the possibility of saving ourselves from future pandemics. Those of us already aware of the connection between outbreaks and the animal food industry are finding it increasingly difficult to keep our anger and despair in check. It’s hard not to acknowledge the sadness behind one of the most widespread sentiments among vegan groups during this era, as we all-too-painfully know it is true: “We wouldn’t be in this mess if the world were vegan.”

We have long passed the “carrot” phase of learning about the benefits of a plant-based diet. We are currently licking the first wounds from the blows of the “stick,” many of which are yet to come, as humanity continues in its systematically violent industrialized exploitation of animals and the environment.

We will probably never know what it feels like to be a bat, but it isn’t because of any limitations on human thought or sensory capability. Rather it is because of our mere reluctance to do so. We don’t want to imagine the terror experienced by a newborn calf after being torn from his mother at birth, or the horror of a cramped truck on his journey to slaughter. We have no interest in imagining what it feels like to spend two years in a cage no bigger than your body, and your legs supported only by a mesh chain floor as you lay eggs without the ability to spread your wings or turn around. Nor are we particularly inclined to take the time and imagine how a young bat feels when snatched from his family, forcefully bound and then thrown alive into a pot of boiling water. We balk at imagining these experiences: and now we are paying a very high price for the fact they exist.

At this time of crisis, we all find ourselves forced to face an essential lesson in the actuality of suffering. The lesson – should we allow ourselves to learn it – will be the discovery of our empathy, modesty and responsibility for this planet as humans. These rediscovered abilities will enable us to hope for a better future and to give our children a world in which we all – humans and animals alike – will be able to live and breathe freely.

It would be a simpler life, more interdependent with nature, less selfish, less hedonistic perhaps – but life. As the bat promises, in the final words of “The Dark Knight”: “It will be a good life. Good enough.”

This post is by contributing writer Shiri Raz.

Shiri Raz – PhD candidate; psychoanalysis and hermeneutics program at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. Shiri focuses her research on the psychoanalytic and linguistic aspects of people’s mental attitudes toward the consumption and use of animal-based products. Shiri serves as a therapist for couples and individuals, specializing in work with vegans and mixed couples (vegans and non-vegans) in Israel and worldwide (through video chats). She is an animal rights activist, academic lecturer, resident lecturer for the Vegan Friendly association’s educational program and for the Animals Now (non-profit) organization, and a public speaker.


“What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”

Christine Jackson, LICSW

Christine Jackson has been a therapist for fifteen years and maintains a private practice in Washington, D.C. She has been an animal advocate for over four decades.

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APA Reference
Jackson, C. (2020). “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 17 May 2020
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