Peaceable Kingdom


Some years ago I conducted a fairly ordinary experiment in group living: I introduced a baby rabbit, two baby rats, a kitten, a puppy, and a rooster and a chick to one another at a very early age, and surprise, surprise, they were good friends.

Kind of obvious, right? Yet, think about how cautious we are when we attempt anything to do with the Sunnis and Shiites, with Catholics and Jews, with Bosnians and Serbs, with Hutu and Tutsi; indeed, we can barely hold a party with doctors and electricians (unless you live in Australia and New Zealand where egalitarianism is alive and kicking). We think we are tribal. We believe in rank. We think familiarity breeds contempt, rather than harmony.

And we often add: This is part of our “animal” heritage, our tie to the jungle. It is “natural” we believe, for like to like like and to dislike unalike.

But every human experiment and every animal experiment that attempts to familiarize the unalike with one another ends in success, not the failure we would expect if it was “their nature” or “our nature,” to keep to ourselves, to distrust “the other” or simply others. Young children who go to school with other children from different cultures, or who are of a different color, or speak a different language, form friendships and close ties that seem to have nothing to do with what adults regard as basic differences. Once familiar, the children fail to see them.

I found the same when I conducted my own small and rather benign experiment of raising these five different species together in our house on the beach. I even wrote a book about it called Raising the Peaceable Kingdom, and I see in re-reading the book that maybe I had in some way intended that book to be this book: I have a chapter in which I briefly examine the ugly history of the 20th century in human terms, examining with some dismay the dismal figure of 200 million members of our own species murdered by other members of our own species.

I contrasted this with a photo of my cat with one foot over the neck of the rabbit, both sleeping peacefully on our sofa. Another showed our older Bengal cat, who was not part of the experiment, nonetheless eating out of the same can as Rani the Rat. Hohepa (Maori for Joseph) the Flemish giant rabbit had to be sent to a remote country home because he had learned to trust all dogs, and would run up to them eager to play just as he was accustomed to doing with Mika. We knew that tragedy was in wait if we allowed his naïve friendliness to prevail. Strange dogs walking the beach were not part of our experiment and we could not expect them to conquer their chase instincts, which often lead to heart attacks from rabbits.

The same thing happened to the chickens: not only were they absolutely insistent on being part of the family, tapping angrily on the window when we shooed them outside, but they also believed they had the right to expect friendship from unlikely sources on the beach. Their life too was in danger, and are now safely on a farm in the far north of the North Island of New Zealand, surrounded by hundreds of progeny in no danger of being eaten. The rats lived out their lives with us, often free to roam the house (they would find their way to our bed at night and settle down near our feet to sleep). Tamaiti the ragdoll cat is still with us and the three older cats who adjusted, albeit grudgingly, to my experiment. Mika learned to live easily with other species; but he kept a certain hostility to other, smaller dogs, and is now living with our good friend Conny, a dog trainer who is able to keep a closer eye on him.

The idea was to get all the animals as babies more or less at the same time and raise them as if they were siblings of the same species. We expected to be faced with natural aversions, instinctual needs to either flee or chase, and indeed this was the case. I did not want to “correct” this in any flagrant way, simply prevent harm and let familiarity work its magic. My theory was that in a short time the fleers would recognize there was nothing to flee from, and the chasers would acknowledge there was no reason to chase. This is indeed what happened, and in very short measure. My only lack of success turned out to be the chickens and the rats. The rats were all too willing to co-exist, but for some reason I could never quite ascertain, the chickens were invariably hostile to the rats and it was not safe to allow them any time together without supervision.

The only near-tragedies we had were with uninvited guest animals: I can still remember with horror how we heard the terrible screaming of the hen and quickly followed the sound to the side of the house where she was in the mouth of a strange dog. We freed her immediately, but were afraid she had been literally frightened to death and might not make it. But she surprised us all by making a startlingly quick recovery. Nor did she show any signs of hostility to Mika, the dog, after that, as we feared she might, thinking he belonged after all to the category of perpetrator. As might be expected, Mika became every other animal’s favorite. There is something about a dog that exerts charm on all other species, humans included.

My own favorite activity became the daily walk along our beach. This is because everyone wanted to participate, even Hohepa and the chickens. It became quite a spectacle for onlookers to see the four humans walking with their dog, four cats, two chickens, rats in sleeves, and Hohepa hopping along as best he could. Now what could it possibly mean for these animals to “want” to go on a walk? I really can’t answer beyond saying that there was no coercion involved, and the only reason that comes to mind is that they positively enjoyed it. They did too. That was easy to see and easy to read. I don’t think humans make all that many mistakes when they read pleasure and joy in the animals they know. It is usually pretty obvious, and was so in this case: they could hardly wait for their daily walk. Did they get any special pleasure in walking with members of other species? I cannot answer for them, but I certainly did.

What became clear to me from this attempt, mostly successful, to raise animals together was how easy it was for animals to ignore the species barrier. When they had nothing to fear, when they did not expect to become lunch, they were happy to live and let live, and also to enjoy the company of “the other.” You see this whenever you visit an aquarium, where large predator fish are housed in large tanks with their prey. As long as they are not hungry, the shark poses no danger to other fish.

Or consider the many accounts and pictures of watering holes in Africa, where the big cats can be found coming for a drink along with their wary prey. Wary, true, but not in fact frightened to death, because they know the difference between a hungry lion and a satiated or a thirsty lion. They do not expect to be used for target practice, and their expectations are correct. No animal hunts down prey for the fun of it. It is not recreational, ever, only a matter of eating. Humans cannot claim as much, not even close. The most common answer to why did he do that (read whatever horrible deed is in the paper at the moment) is the simple “because he could.” When Primo Levi famously asked a guard why he was not allowed to slack his thirst with an icicle hanging in a windowsill he was told “There is no why here.” That is, he was refused the ordinary pleasures or necessities of life because the guards could. Such would never occur to an animal.

This is fundamental. I realize I am treading on very delicate ground here, raising the question of why, along among all animals on this earth, we are the only species to torture others of our own (and other) species, for the sheer pleasure of it. Indeed, we are the only species who can even conceive of getting pleasure from treating others badly. Sadism is a uniquely human trait. I won’t get much argument about this. The arguments come when we try to understand why.

Some will argue that there is no moral value in lack of sadism if sadism cannot even be envisaged: an animal, they say, who cannot conceive of evil, gets no points for not engaging in it. As if we must be tempted to do something before we can get any merit for having resisted the temptation. This is a familiar argument that comes up frequently when discussing particularly egregious crimes against humanity: We all have inside us the Nazi beast. (I am always sorely tempted to point out, when somebody says this to me, that there are no Nazi beasts). We can all envisage ourselves engaging in the worst possible human behaviors. My answer to this is simply no. It is not true. I know, and so do you, many people who simply would not behave this way. Needless to say, it cannot be proved either way, since it is in both cases hypothetical.

Another argument goes something like this: Our being able to use our hands and their opposable thumbs to create things (read weapons); our being able to communicate our creations to others (put plans for building home made bombs onto the internet); our big brains that allow us to come up with such brilliant ideas of bombs capable of incinerating the earth and all that lives thereon, is what differentiates us from all other species. OK. But does it follow from this that it makes us superior? Most would say yes.

Am I insane in not finding the ability to destroy the entire planet something of which to boast? If all other animals manage to live without ending life on earth is this because they are stupid? Is that not a rather strange definition of “intelligent?”

Well, but the experiment was entirely artificial. No, not entirely. We like to think that we live in a world where all other animals spend their time hunting one another down. But that is not true. First of all, only a small percentage of mammals actually live by eating other animals, about 10% of mammals. The rest live on plant life. Secondly, even when a herd is threatened by a predator, only a very small number are actually killed and eaten; the vast majority live out their lives without predation. Prey species live in risk, it is true, of being eaten, but it is a bit like our living at risk of falling prey to an accident, or falling ill. It happens a lot, but not all the time, and not to all of us. Most of us manage to live life without being murdered, and most animals, even prey species, manage to live their life in the same way. When you look at big vegetarian animals like elephants, and rhinos and hippos and giraffes, the charismatic megafauna as they are sometimes called, the vast majority live out their life spans in peace. They may not make friends with other species (in fact they do not), but nor could they be said to have any enemies. Is the word “indifference” justified? I am not really certain, but if it is, I see nothing wrong with the state it describes. True, in my experiment I was not aiming at indifference, but at friendship. Perhaps that is my human bias showing: I value friendship over indifference. Did I in any sense enrich their lives? I like to think so. It could be a naïve sentimentalism of mine.

About jeffreymasson

My new book BEASTS is out this March from Bloomsbury http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/beasts-9781608196159/ or the eBook http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/beasts-9781608199914/
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3 Responses to Peaceable Kingdom

  1. Marga (researcher, editor, and indexer says:

    Jeffrey–this is such a beautiful write! I treasure the image of you and your fellow sojourners of other species on your daily walk on the beach, just as you walked with your first dogs on the Berkeley Marina. I place it with Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s writes on the lions that walked peacefully through the African village, Susan Chernak’s beautiful nature studies in Oregon and the Grand Tetons, and the walks I’ve had with all three of you.
    Here in Oakland I’ve continued to tend my lot by a creek in Oakland and enjoy watching the Peaceable Kingdom as it plays out here in feral cats and dogs, blue jays and songbirds, squirrels, raccoons, and possums. A few swipes and spats, but no corpses, as long as I model after Eden and make sure everyone has enough food. I do love it, and love the way you put this human longing to return to the Garden where we all can live in a peaceable kingdom.

  2. barbheath says:

    I am new to the blog, referred by the wonderful Ace Bourke’s blog. I take walks with my cats, also, as a quick touch point. I am an ardent student of both human & animal nature, most experience with felines, with whom I have a uncommonly good rapport. We just dig each other, it’s unspoken rather than worked at. I can vouch for many ESP types of communication with them. And it us possible that being female and gentle, they and I process information enough alike that they can “tune in” as well as they always can with me. More on this another time. Anyway, Ace so highly recommended you, I had to start reading your blog. This week I will set about getting your books from the library.

    Thank you for the fine work.

  3. “My answer to this is simply no. It is not true. I know, and so do you, many people who simply would not behave this way. Needless to say, it cannot be proved either way, since it is in both cases hypothetical.”

    And yet you know. This irrational, fundamental, unreflective, innate certainty of one’s own goodness and superiority is the essence of the common man’s unassailable happiness. We should all be so lucky, and of course, most of us are.

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