The fennec fox is the smallest fox on earth and cute as a button. It has mischievous dark eyes, a small black nose, and impish six-inch ears—each several times larger than its head. The fennec is native to the Sahara, where its comically oversized auricles play two key roles: they keep the fox cool in the baking sun (blood runs through the ears, releases heat, and circulates back through the body, now cooler), and they give the fox astoundingly good hearing, allowing it to pick up the comings and goings of the insects and reptiles it hunts for food.
The children’s section of the Bronx Zoo features a human-sized pair of fennec-fox ears that give an approximation of the fox’s hearing. Generations of New Yorkers have pictures of themselves with their chins resting on a bar between the two enormous, sculptural ears, taking in the sounds around them. I first encountered the ears as a kid, in the eighties. In my memory, inhabiting the fox’s hearing is disquieting. The exhibit is not in the middle of the Sahara on a moonlit night. The soundscape is not deathly quiet, dusted by the echoes of a lizard whooshing through the sand. The effect is instant sensory overload. You suddenly hear everything at once—snippets of conversation, shrieks, footsteps—all of it too much and too loud.
Imagine, for a moment, you find yourself equipped with fennec-fox-level hearing at a work function or a cocktail party. It’s hard to focus amid the cacophony, but with some effort you can eavesdrop on each and every conversation. At first you are thrilled, because it is thrilling to peer into the private world of another person. Anyone who has ever snuck a peek at a diary or spent a day in the archives sifting through personal papers knows that. Humans, as a rule, crave getting up in people’s business.