On this week’s episode of the podcast “This American Life,” host Ira Glass talked about people trying to become something they aren’t. The first part of the episode, entitled “Becoming a Badger,” included a report of a man trying to do just that: become a badger. As I listened to the ways this full-grown man shed his humanity and took on the characteristics of a badger, such as eating worms and forcing himself to become nocturnal, I was a little sketched out. At the same time, I was aware of the hypocrisy of my bad vibes.
I, too, once tried to become something I was not — a cat. For a good portion of my formative years, I could be found in my backyard licking the back of my hand and rubbing it against my hair, imitating my family’s pet as best I could. My play-acting went so far as to smell the spoon I used to get canned giblets into my cat’s dinner bowl. Don’t worry, I just smelled it, but still, the intent was there. Remembering this self-identity crisis, I got to thinking. Was I, as a child, any stranger than Charles Foster, the man-badger? Were we both just looking for the same connection to our animalistic side? Does that connection even exist?
I asked around campus to see if others had similar stories. Junior Sarah Sosland told me she also pretended to be a part of the feline clan, recalling, “I bit my sister and then I cried because I thought she was going to get rabies.”
Karen Loewy, a recent BU alum, told me that her sister “pretended she was a duck.” Duck, cat or dog was the general answer to my query. One student even told me they once thought they were a penguin. It seems that the more adorable the animal, the more dedicated a child would be emulating it. Loewy said her sister “tried to get out of bed like a duck [by] landing on her stomach.” Inevitably, she fell and split her chin open. And here’s where things get interesting. I asked Loewy if after her sister ever emulated a duck after hurting herself. She didn’t. Thinking back, I ended my feline career after the cat-food-spoon incident. It seems that kids wanted to be close to their animal counterparts, but so long as that closeness retained a certain dissonance from the animal’s more animalistic senses.
I was curious as to why children pretend to be animals in the first place. Is this a form of dress up? Or is there a deeper psychological reason? According to Beth Azar of the American Psychological Association, scientists are now testing the theory that there is a “possible connection between pretend play and the ability to get along socially in the world.” In terms of animal role play, this means that children do not fully understand the world around them. They positively disassociate from it into the animalistic world and return with a better sense of their own. With that in mind, it makes sense that children want to straddle the line of make-believe and reality, while living their animal lives. However, this sharply contrasts the story of Foster’s extreme measures to become badger-like.
Perhaps the root of Charles’ obsession is the antithesis of a child’s. Perhaps Charles wants to waddle between the world he lives in and the animal world in order to get a better picture of an animal’s own reality. I can’t say if his technique is any more effective than a child’s in connecting to the world around him. But I do know this — you won’t see me eating a worm to understand the badger any time soon.