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Animals We Can Learn From

Take away the motivation to overcome obstacles—notably, the challenge of providing for oneself and family—and you deprive individuals of a critical stimulus

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There’s an old story worth retelling about a band of wild hogs which lived along a river in a wild and remote area. These hogs were a stubborn, ornery, independent bunch. They had survived floods, fires, freezes, droughts, hunters, dogs and everything else. No one thought they could ever be captured.

One day a stranger came into a town not far from where the hogs lived and went into the general store. He asked the storekeeper, “Where can I find the hogs? I want to round them up. I could sell the meat for a small fortune.” The storekeeper laughed at such a claim but pointed in the general direction. The stranger left with his one-horse wagon, an ax, and a few sacks of corn.

Two months later he returned, went back to the store and asked for help to bring the hogs out. He said he had them all penned up in the woods. People were amazed and came from miles around to hear him tell the story of how he did it.

“The first thing I did,” the stranger said, “was clear a small area of the woods with my ax. Then I put some corn in the center of the clearing. At first, none of the hogs would take the corn. Then after a few days, some of the young ones would come out, snatch some corn and then scamper back into the underbrush. Then the older ones began taking the corn, probably figuring that if they didn’t get it, some of the other ones would. Soon they were all eating the corn. They stopped grubbing for acorns and roots on their own.”

“About that time, I started building a fence around the clearing, a little higher each day. At the right moment, I built a trap door and sprung it. Naturally, they squealed and hollered when they knew I had them, but I can pen any animal on the face of the earth if I can first get him to depend on me for a free handout!

I first heard that story from a wise gentleman named Tom Anderson from Tennessee, many years ago. I have thought of it ever since as a fairly good summation of what’s happened to many civilizations once people discovered the political process as a way to vote themselves a living instead of working for one. It is a vivid illustration of the tradeoff expressed in this saying: “A government that’s big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you’ve got.”

Signs in parks warn visitors, “Please Don’t Feed the Animals.” Some provide further explanation, such as “The animals may bite” or “It makes them dependent.” The National Park Service advises, “It transforms wild and healthy animals into habitual beggars. Studies have shown that panhandling animals have a shorter lifespan.”

What would happen if animals in the wild could count on human sources for their diet and never have to hunt or scrounge? What if, in other words, we humans imposed a generous welfare state on our furry friends? Would the resulting experience offer lessons for humans under similar conditions?

Our personal pets live in a welfare state. Moreover, they seem to like it. My rat terriers get free food and free health care, though I am not only their provider, I am also their “master” too. In fact, my loving domination is a condition for the free stuff. Maybe a welfare state can work after all.

Or perhaps the human/pet welfare state works because one of the parties has a brain the size of a golf ball.

One of the more famous animal behaviorists was John B. Calhoun, best known for his mouse experiments in the 1960s when he worked for the National Institute for Mental Health.

Calhoun enclosed four pairs of mice in a metal pen complete with water dispensers, tunnels, food bins and nesting boxes. He provided all their food and water and ensured that no predator could gain access. It was a mouse utopia.

At first, the mice did well. Their numbers doubled every 55 days. But after 600 days, with enough space to accommodate as many as another 1,600 rodents, the population peaked at 2,200 and began to decline precipitously—straight down to the extinction of the entire colony—in spite of their material needs being met with no effort required on the part of any mouse.

The turning point occurred on Day 315 when a breakdown in social norms and structure commenced. Aberrations included females abandoning their young; males no longer defending their territory; and both sexes becoming more violent and aggressive. Deviant behavior mounted with each passing day. The last thousand mice to be born tended to avoid stressful activity and focused their attention increasingly on themselves. They could not cope with unusual stimuli.

Because of the abundance of water and food, combined with zero threats from predators, the mice’s life skills necessary for survival faded away.

The culprit was the lack of a healthy challenge. Take away the motivation to overcome obstacles—notably, the challenge of providing for oneself and family—and you deprive individuals of a critical stimulus. Personal growth was inhibited by the welfare-state conditions in which the mice lived.

By relieving individuals of challenges, which then deprives them of purpose, the welfare state is an unnatural and anti-social contrivance. In the mouse experiment, the individuals lost interest in the things that perpetuate the species. They self-isolated, over-indulged themselves, or turned to violence. Does that ring a bell?

We have so much to learn not only from ourselves but from animals too!

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