Raising the Peaceable Kingdom by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

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“I did not want to fail, because the stakes were too high. After all, I was after nothing less than the secret of human harmony.”

The challenge that bestselling author Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson set for himself was formidable: to create a true interspecies peaceable kingdom within his own household. He hoped to learn if several different species–some, natural enemies–raised together from an early age could live peacefully side by side. So he took into his home seven young animals–a kitten, a rabbit, two rats, two chickens, and a puppy–and set about observing the whole process of socialization (or non-socialization) from the very beginning.

The initial results were mixed. Tamaiti, the kitten, made herself instantly comfortable, but Hohepa, the Flemish giant rabbit, remained inscrutably reserved. Kia and Ora, the rats, slept all day and became active at night. Moa and Moana, the Polish frizzle chickens, bonded with each other but to no one else. Mika, the stray pup, barked much too much. But as the hours and days passed in this never-before-attempted environment, the animals began to change in startling ways, as Masson wondered which animals would bond, and which would recoil from one another? Can animals, including humans, truly change when direct experience tells them it’s safe to do so? Would the experiment end in triumph, or in tragedy?

Raising the Peaceable Kingdom poses universal questions we’ve all had about relationships, social strife, and peaceful coexistence. In its intimations of the potential for planetary harmony, this elegantly written book is a work of major significance. As a unique account of life in an interspecies community, it offers unmitigated enchantment, joy, and delight.


This book is about a simple, benign experiment, or perhaps we should call it an inquiry, to learn what are the essential ingredients in interspecies friendships and even love. The basic idea was to raise together a kitten, a puppy, a bunny, a chick, and a baby rat in close circumstances to see if they would all get along and even become good friends.

A modest enough venture, and not only one that I hoped would be successful, but—considering the religious hatred, bigotry, war, and political animosity that appear on the front pages of our newspapers every day—one that I hoped in the end might offer some lessons to us humans, lessons that we might apply to the sorry state of our own relationships with one another.

I deliberately set out to achieve what usually happens only accidentally. What I wanted to know was whether animals who normally do not associate could, if raised together from an early age, learn to overcome a tendency toward at best indifference, and at worst enmity, and learn to tolerate one another, perhaps even play, develop friendship, and, with luck, become soul mates. There are many reports of this happening accidentally, but I have not heard of a concerted attempt to observe the process from beginning to end. In any event, what did I have to lose? I hoped to adopt animals whose prospects were not otherwise good. Even if my project failed, at least I would have given all of these animals a happier and a freer life than they would have been likely to have otherwise.

There is no doubt that tolerance can be learned. After all, tolerance is not an emotion. Even though we can say, colloquially, that we are “feeling tolerant,” what we really mean is that we have made a conscious decision about something that demands us to think. Tolerance is a point of view, and points of view can be learned, they can be taught to others and transmitted via acts and words. Affection, on the other hand, is different. You cannot coerce affection, you cannot force one animal to like or love another animal. But the conditions that permit affection to grow can be cultivated, encouraged, and rewarded.

That is what I set out to do. I hoped, first of all, that the animals would cease to consider one another as enemies or to feel threatened. Second, I wanted them to tolerate one another. I hoped tolerance would lead to conditions that made playing together possible. Playing together would lead or could lead to friendship. Finally, it was my perhaps unrealistic hope that an animal might discover his or her soul mate in an animal from a different species. In my own experience, I had seen all but the last. (Tolerating an animal, becoming friendly with an animal, and feeling you have found your soul mate are all different conditions; a close friend, as opposed to a soul mate, is still not somebody you are inseparable from.) I had known dogs to become close friends with cats, and I had even seen some cats, if their training was begun early enough, bond with a bird. This was not surprising, but there was surprisingly little written about it beyond the anecdotes themselves, of which there are hundreds, if not thousands. I may not be the first to ask these questions, or even the first person to conduct this very experiment, but I may be the first person to write it up at any length.

At least half the reason I began this project (a less disturbing word for some than experiment) was to see if I could, in this manner, learn more about the essential characteristics of enmity between human groups and, by extension, what made for the opposite—comity, friendship, cooperation, affection, empathy, and even compassion. Almost every explanation that has been proposed in the past has been shown to be lacking, beginning with the most supposedly cohesive of all bonds, that of blood ties (family). Family ties do not guarantee cooperation, empathy, compassion, or even love. We have only to remember Tolstoy’s famous opening lines of his novel Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—hence interesting (at least to the novelist). But it is not only fiction; unhappiness within families has spawned a whole genre of memoirs in recent years.

Language: People who speak the same language are nonetheless often at one another’s throats (witness the natives of Bangladesh and India, or Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants, or Serbs and Croats). Religion: Internecine strife between religions is so common that it almost feels normative. Think of Israel and the Palestinians; Indian strife between Muslims and Hindus; Bosnian Muslims and Serbians from the Orthodox Church; the murderous hatred in Chechnya between Russian Orthodox Christians and Muslims; Sri Lanka, where the Buddhists and Hindus are eager to kill one another; East Timor, where the killing is between Christians and Muslims. Even within religions there is animosity: Look at the “troubles” in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants, or think of the Sunni and Shiite differences in Pakistan and other countries in the Middle East. Race: Hatred of white toward white (Europe) and black toward black (Africa) is, alas, all too common and has always been so. Nationality is often used as an exclusionary tool (as in the Third Reich). In France today, a common nationality (that is, citizenship) is not sufficient to create harmony between Muslims living in impoverished housing developments on the outskirts of Paris and other Parisians. The Balkans has given us the term balkanization to refer to internal turmoil and schisms of all kinds. Hardly any modern country is without some form of this dreaded condition. Class: Political groups cross class lines and are perfectly capable of expressing disdain and even going to war with one another. Dress, habits, and cultural similarities may help us choose friends, or even mates, but they do not prevent internecine struggle.

Are we bound, then, to hate outsiders? Is there a sociobiology of ethnocentrism that declares an in-group and an out-group a genetic heritage that we are doomed to repeat endlessly? Does science provide us with no way out? If we can take no comfort in recent history, is there any reason to believe humans capable of developing the necessary feelings or the necessary intelligence or the necessary information that makes tolerance and goodwill possible?

I am hardly the first to note the interesting fact that no scientist speaks of enmity among animals of different species. Animals may hunt one another and eat one another, but the word hatred would seem out of place for any of them. The cat does not hate the mouse; he simply eats the mouse. He does not think “enemy”; he thinks “dinner.” Even when the cat looks askance at another cat, it is not hatred; it is not about not being like him, it is about territory or rivalry for reproductive success. The cat does not need to construct elaborate and purely imaginative categories into which to place different animals to justify his actions.

Moreover, most animals do not have conflicts with other animals in the wild. They seem to ignore one another except when they have no choice. How did they achieve this? When forced together, animals do much better than we do. That is what gave me the idea for this book: If animals from different species not known for their friendship can learn to tolerate one another and perhaps go even further than tolerance, why could we not do the same?

How artificial is it to create the conditions that may lead to a “peaceable kingdom”? Well, we should remember that all animals living with humans live in artificial conditions. Except, perhaps, for the cat, no animal has chosen to live with humans without coercion, whether as a pet, in a zoo, in a circus, or on a farm.

The ideal, of course, would be to observe animals in the wild over a period of many years. This is what all the good ethologists of our time have done, and with great success: Dian Fossey, Biruté Galdikas, Jane Goodall, Cynthia Moss, Joyce Poole, and many others. But their writings contain virtually no observations of interspecies friendship, not because these sensitive observers are unwilling to describe them, but because the circumstances under which animals in the wild make friends across the species barrier are very rare.

* * *

The idea of a peaceable kingdom is attractive because it speaks to a deep hunger many of us have to live in harmony and peace with one another and with members of other species, even though we know that our history does not suggest this is possible. How to achieve that goal is possibly the single most important question anyone can ask. Finding the solution or the direction of the solution is hardly a trivial pursuit. Who would ever say: My goal is to create conflict, anger, and ultimately war? Nobody.

Yet we must not lose our humility over our historic inability to understand the feelings of other people, let alone members of other species. We need to remember that one of the greatest minds of the Western world (Aristotle) thought that slavery was natural, that there were born slaves just as nineteenth-century psychiatrists believed (and many still do) that there are born criminals. Most people no longer hold such benighted views. Which of our current cherished ideas will appear inane in the future?

One thousand years from now, we will almost certainly look back with horror and incredulity at many of our beliefs and practices. A bit of humility among scientists is always a good thing. I fully expect that future humans will find it hard to believe that zoos, circuses, and factory farms ever existed. But I could be wrong. For thousands of years, our behavior toward animals did not improve greatly. Only in the last twenty or thirty years has our attitude begun to change.

What we can be certain of, though, is that our knowledge of animals will expand enormously, particularly our knowledge of their thoughts and feelings. These are the very areas that have been most neglected by animal scientists until quite recently. Part of the reason has been that we have not had occasion to live on terms of intimacy with animals. You cannot understand the inner life of a rat if your acquaintance with the rat is confined to laboratories. Your child who has a pet rat is likely to know more than you do about the feelings of the rat and even about the rat’s behavior. Did any of the thousands of scientists who observed rats or pigeons in laboratories leave us with any convincing accounts of their inner lives? If so, I have missed them. It is like hunters: Almost no knowledge about elephant behavior comes from elephant hunters. In fact, I will go further: We learned nothing about the lives of elephants from the books of elephant hunters. Only when women went into the field and simply watched elephant families did our knowledge begin to grow.

It is only once we have made the decision to live with an animal on some sort of equal ground that we are likely to learn what that animal is capable of from a more complex point of view: not just what they do during any given day, what they eat, and how they mate, but also how they find joy, what makes them sad, how they grieve, and even how they might express compassion for a companion or a friend. My experiment was an attempt to imitate as far as possible a natural experiment; to learn some of the lessons of field observations. It is not meant to resemble a laboratory experiment. And perhaps these animals will have something to teach us, too.

  • Published by: Untreed Reads

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