My instincts tell me that Kubań is correct in suggesting that a more likely culprit than overpopulation in the mice demise in their utopia was this: 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 an important stimulus that would otherwise encourage learning what works and what doesn’t, and possibly even pride in accomplishment (if mice are even capable of such a sentiment). Maybe, just maybe, personal growth in each mouse was inhibited by the welfare-state conditions in which they lived.
Signs in national and state parks all over America warn visitors, “Please Don’t Feed the Animals.” Some of those government-owned parks provide further explanation, such as “The animals may bite” or “It makes them dependent.”
The National Park Service’s website for Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan 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 any lessons for humans who might be subjected to similar conditions? Not having to work for food and shelter sounds appealing and compassionate, doesn’t it?
These are fascinating questions that I am certainly not the first to ask. Because they require knowledge beyond my own, I cannot offer definitive answers. Readers should view what I present here as a prod to thought and discussion and not much more. I report, you decide.
Our personal pets live in a sort of welfare state. Moreover, for the most part, they seem to like it. My two rat terriers get free food and free health care, though I am not only their provider, but I am also their “master” too. In fact, my loving domination is a condition for the free stuff. It seems like a win-win, so maybe a welfare state can work after all. Right?
Let us avoid hasty conclusions. Perhaps the human/pet welfare state works because one of the parties has a brain the size of a golf ball or a pomegranate.
This is an area illuminated by ethology, the scientific study of animal behavior. One of the more famous ethologists in recent decades 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 9 x 4.5-foot metal pen complete with water dispensers, tunnels, food bins and nesting boxes. He provided all the food and water they needed and ensured that no predator could gain access. It was a mouse utopia.
Calhoun’s intent was to observe the effects on the mice of population density, but the experiment produced results that went beyond that. “I shall largely speak of mice, but my thoughts are on man,” he would later write in a comprehensive report.
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 in this mouse utopia, Calhoun observed, occurred on Day 315 when the first signs appeared of a breakdown in social norms and structure. Aberrations included the following: females abandoning their young; males no longer defending their territory; and both sexes becoming more violent and aggressive. Deviant behavior, sexual and social, mounted with each passing day. The last thousand mice to be born tended to avoid stressful activity and focused their attention increasingly on themselves.