When I first picked up Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s Raising the Peaceable Kingdom, I really had no intentions of writing about it, especially not here. I mostly was drawn in by the book’s tagline “What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Tolerance and Friendship.” As of late, I’ve been an even more staunch animal-lover than usual, so this appealed to newly invigorated animal sensibility. With this book Masson essentially documents his journey of socializing seven animals from five different species to uncover truths about love, friendship, hatred, and the inborn nature of these deeply felt sentiments.
Masson attempted to bring into his household 5 different species of animals in as close a period of time as possible so they could grow together and, hopefully, forge relationships as deep as those of soul-mates. With two rats, a bunny, two chickens, a dog, and a kitten, along with his home’s two mature cats, Masson and his family were consumed with feeding, walking, entertaining, cleaning up after, observing, and learning from and about their new pet friends.
The majority of Peaceable Kingdom is spent in chronicle of advances and observations made, friendships forged, barriers crossed, and lessons learned about these varied creatures. Though entertaining at times, some of the passages grew a bit tired; I continually heard about conflicts between the adult cats and the rats, about the kitten’s unparalleled and good-natured disposition, the rabbit’s preference for solitude, and the chickens’ various demonstrations of love and trust of their owner and perceived protector. However it seemed that many of these accounts were repeated over and over again in different words. At least the book clocks in at a relatively short 170-some pages so it stands as a quick and easy read, allowing me a bit of forgiveness to Masson for his reiterations of already-established animal personalities.
Even when I had reached the last formal pages of the book, I wasn’t really sold. Mostly I felt content about having nearly reached the end and grateful for the few new insights into animal nature and behavior provided within the book’s pages. With the epilogue, however, Masson finally brought his project full circle, back to the insights into human nature that had set this story in motion and had so intrigued me when I first came across the book. Masson takes no time at all to lay claim to what he feels to be the greatest distinction between humans and all other animals: “Humans are the only animal to engage in wars, genocide, torture, and crimes against humanity.”
All too often when humans are colloquially compared to animals, they are analogized to the wildly, beastly nature of undomesticated creatures. When we use the phrase that someone “behaves like an animal,” what are we really saying? To whom are we really making a comparison? Surely not with any animal I know. True, I’m mostly accustomed to spending my time with domesticated animals, but even the wild ones I come across in my hikes, travels, and even everyday activities in settings from rural to urban rarely display the sort of deep-seated animosity, ruthlessness, and gratuitous hatred that inhabits the hearts and minds of humans. As suggested by Masson, our assessment of animals, most specifically when utilized in comparison to the worst of human nature, seems to be entirely inaccurate.
Sure hunting, killing, and territoriality are common to the animal kingdom but only in the context of need. For animals, there is no mass murder within or across species, whether motivated by differences real or imagined, pure cruelty, or hatred. Rather, we primarily see animals take one another’s lives in the name of food. Ultimately predator-prey relationships can explain nearly any and all of the deaths incurred to animals by animals, for the only reason they have to kill is to feed themselves or their pack.
Humans, on the other hand, have an outrageously and shamefully heinous history of killing with motivations much less fundamental, integral, and honest. Masson points out how many of the tyrants behind acts of genocide conceptualized the people they aimed to make extinct as animals, as belonging to another species. The reason that humans are able to wreak such mass destruction on animals is, as Masson wisely notes, the underlying “assumption that humans are always and everywhere entitled to eliminate any animal species they choose.” The self-serving human attitude that this world and all of its inhabitants are here for the taking perpetuates travesties not only across the species boundary but also among those of our own kind.
Within the epilogue of Peaceable Kingdom, Masson makes a heartfelt observation about our incomprehensible capacity for hatred on grounds imaginary, exaggerated, and unjustified. Following a brief review of the mass murders, genocides, exterminations, and massacres of the twentieth century, Masson contemplates those most simple incidents of dislike on an individual level, such as the way people from different regions of the very same country, or even the very same city, could house such deep hatred of one another for reasons invisible to the outsider, and even the sparing parties themselves. For animals outside the human race, such incidences and emotions are virtually unknown. Mice aren’t born with an innate hatred of cats, they don’t even learn to hate cats, but rather they fear them as only prey could fear a most dangerous predator. In the wild, animals don’t harbor murderous intents but instead follow their hunting instincts when hunger strikes, and in most cases, only then.
Another interesting point included within the final pages of Masson’s work: Much national symbology exalts predatory animals (think eagles, bears, lions) but in reality, these animals don’t wage war the way we do, they don’t kill with merciless and savage intentions. As Americans, we have so much pride in the bald eagle. Why don’t we mirror more of the majesty, honor, and beauty that this raptor embodies, rather than mistakenly manifest his predatory instincts in needless war and unwarranted cruelty.
Far too many of the ways we conceptualize violence, cruelty, hatred, and more are wrongly associated with animals. I’m having trouble writing this without resorting to synonyms that harken to wrongful characterizations of undomesticated animals – savage, wild, beastly. Sure, a lion could act in a savage and brutal manner when stalking its prey, but the killing is out of necessity and not spite. “Inhumane” is a more apt word to describe much of the hatred and cruelty that people from history and in the present demonstrate. Rather than comparing our wrongful thoughts and actions to the beasts, we need to conceptualize them as sub-human, as in opposition to humanity. I’d like to believe that our history of hatred is the result of a mistakenly learned behavior, a turn humanity took for the worse somewhere along the line, rather than an inborn capacity for depravity. I’d like to believe that, like other animals of all species, our actions are not meant to be motivated by loathing, animosity or cruel and baseless intentions.
If seven animals spanning five different species in a home on the beach in New Zealand can achieve such peace, such friendship, even soulmate-status as Masson’s kitten and rabbit ultimately did, what can the human race say for itself? How can we justify our history of inhumane actions and continue to erroneously believe we are better than other species of animals when we are unable to achieve such simple things as peace and kindness which Masson has demonstrated are attainable in merely a year in the animal community?
I think Masson’s point was best made by the example of his two-year-old son. He compares the ability of small children and animals to feel compassion without thought, hesitation, or equivocation. When out to eat at a sushi restaurant, two-year-old Manu asked what type of sushi a certain roll was and his mother told him it was cooked chicken sushi. Given Manu’s fondness for the chickens living in his home on account of his father’s peaceable kingdom project, Manu strictly declared he would not eat his friends. Even as a toddler, Manu decided to become a vegetarian after he made the connection between his love for two members of another species and the food on his plate. This isn’t a plea to stop eating meat – though I’ve dabbled in vegetarianism, I have done so for reasons other than animal cruelty, for there are ways to eat meat that don’t require ruthless slaughtering, inhumane conditions, and miserable lives for the animals before they reach your plate. Rather, I’m hoping to emphasize the connection that Manu made at a sushi restaurant and the point that his father hoped to explicate with this book. Manu knew those two chickens as people, he didn’t view them as another species, and he had yet to share in the feeling many humans have that other species are theirs to do with entirely as they please. Masson’s son demonstrated the peaceable, compassionate, and thoughtful nature that, I would like to believe, is ultimately innate in all human beings. But it’s interesting to note that he didn’t just demonstrate this love and feeling for another human, he felt it for an animal of an entirely separate species. So maybe it is only by channeling the innocent and pure love, kindness, benevolence, and friendship of a toddler that we can hope to overcome the strength of hatred, the terror of genocide, the heartlessness of humanity.
The animal kingdom is not full of brutal beasts and killing-machines as some humans are wont to believe. In fact, these phrases more aptly describe certain examples of human behavior than that of wild animals. I’m not saying all, or even most, humans are evil beings. I know plenty of people whose lives and work are defined by compassion, kindness, selflessness. I do feel that there are been gross atrocities committed at the hand of men to inflict uncalled for pain and suffering upon other men – and I feel that we have to do what we can to right these wrongs. Though we can’t make up for the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, or any of the other devastating actions, big or small, that have damaged the human race, we can set a new track for the future. By exercising generosity and understanding, by recognizing the cavernous need plaguing our neighbors near and far, by not turning a blind eye or rushing to feelings of indifference or hatred, we can help erase the face of our brutal human past in order to create a more gentle and promising world, not unlike the world in which Masson’s seven animal friends existed. Through Masson’s critical eye on the misconceptions and realities of the animal and human worlds, I hope that we, as humans, will attempt to create a more peaceable kingdom come by the example of animal nature, a nature in which humans have a large share.