Read an Excerpt
Starting the Peaceable Kingdom
Once I had made the decision to try to create a peaceable kingdom, my first challenge was to make sure all five species entered our home as close to the same moment as possible. I didn’t want territoriality to be a factor in how the animals related to one another. The more quickly I could find all the right baby animals, the more successful the bonding process was likely to be, with one another and with us. I did not want one animal to be there weeks before another and to claim territory or seniority. I wanted the playing field to be more or less level. Speed was therefore of the essence. I had to get a puppy, a kitten, a chick, a bunny, and a baby rat within as short a time period as possible.
From where should I get them? Ideally, I wished to rescue animals who needed a home, not purchase them. The principle was that if I could guarantee a “good” life to animals who would otherwise have a not-so-good life, my taking the animals into my home could be justified. We don’t want animals bred when there are many waiting for a home. Each animal bought is one fewer animal adopted.
In America, this would undoubtedly have been easy to achieve. For every species there is a group of dedicated people who rescue its animals from abusive situations. Indeed, for dogs there is a rescue group for each and every breed.
There are people devoted to rescuing cats, rabbits, and chickens and expanding public awareness of what wonderful companions these animals can make. You do not need to buy any of these animals in the United States and should never do so without compelling reasons.
In New Zealand, however, such rescue groups do not yet exist. Perhaps it is simply too small a country. For example, in New Zealand there are no farm sanctuaries where rescued animals can live out their lives free of the prospect of being killed for food, whereas such places are becoming more common in the United States, in Canada, and in Great Britain (I list many of them at the end of my book The Pig Who Sang to the Moon). Nor was there a group that could help me rescue a rat or a rabbit from a laboratory and its perhaps cruel, pointless, or unethical experiments.
But in New Zealand we do have the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), and from them you can adopt dogs and cats and sometimes other animals. So one sunny, cloudless Saturday in January, our whole family—my wife, Leila, and our sons, Ilan, seven, and Manu, two—drove to their adoption center near the airport in Auckland. I told the director, Bob Kerridge, what I was looking for and why. They could find me a dog and a cat, he told me. As for the rats, we were lucky, because just that day two had come in.
“Here, have a look,” the woman behind the counter told us, and pulled out two seven-week-old hooded domestic rats.* They were mostly white but had what looked like a dark brown hood over their faces—a naturally occurring fur color that humans select for because it is considered attractive. “They are in dire need of a home. Rats are still not that popular here, and unless we find them a home soon, they will have to be euthanized.”
Ilan was enchanted with them and needless to say appalled at the fate that might well await them. “They are so cute! Look at their little fingernails,” he said. Sure enough, their tiny paws had delicate, shiny fingernails. Children immediately notice how much like us even a rat is, whereas adults focus on the “yuck” factor. (See page 14 for a photo of Rebecca with Kia on her shoulder and Moana in her arms.) Leila, for example, noticed their long, snakelike tails. One of the rats hopped onto Ilan’s shoulder, and he has not wished to be separated from her since. We decided to name them Kia and Ora (kiore is the Maori word for “rat,” and Kia ora is the Maori greeting). I was a bit worried at the prospect of having an endless number of rat pups if they were male and female (who, after all, would take them?) but was assured they were two sisters.
“As for a puppy, come out the back, and we will bring you several eight-week-old puppies that are now here and you can see if you like one.”
We had actually brought with us a dog psychologist, a Dutchman by the name of Flip, who had volunteered to do a “personality test” on the puppies to see which one would fit in best with our household. I was not keen on the idea, because I have a distrust of tests in general and especially psychological tests. In my psychoanalytic training, I had to learn a bit about diagnostic tests for people, and I always abominated them. How could you find out about the inner life of a person by giving a test? It seemed absurd, and the more I learned, the less I liked them.
Still, I had to admit that all three puppies brought to us seemed perfect, and I would have had a difficult time choosing. So I let Flip do his test. He selected one of the three puppies, a mixture of blue heeler and German shorthaired pointer, because he said she was remarkably docile and submissive. For my “experiment,” I did not want a difficult, aggressive dog eager to prove her place at the top of the hierarchy. This dog did not fight for food, and she came when called. She was curious and alert and friendly. He put her on her back and held her down gently but firmly to see how much she would struggle. Ideally, she would protest briefly, then submit. She passed the test. I did not think too deeply about the theories behind the test; they are widely used and probably have some validity, though I remain skeptical. Still, I had no better way of selecting one of the three and asked for a week to think it over. There were two other puppies, both golden retrievers, for which I have always had affection, and although they did not “test” as well, they were adorable, and making such a momentous decision seemed almost impossible. I would have liked to get a kitten at the SPCA, too, and begin my project with all the animals at once, but no kittens were available.
When we got home, I made my first mistake: I introduced the rats to Megala, my three-year-old Bengal cat, who immediately scared them into a small box we had placed in their (temporary) cage in our living room as a little hideaway. (You can see their initial encounter in the photo on page 17.) It was a few hours before they would come out again. How naive of me to think that just because I believed the rats were safe, they should trust me. Trust me? Why should they trust me when they didn’t know me? In any event, what did I really know about Megala’s tolerance for a pet rat? Impatience is one of my worst traits: I wanted the project to be in full bloom before it had even started—and in any event, introducing the rats to my three-year-old cat was not even part of the project.
I also needed to find a chicken, and here the SPCA could be of no help. People rarely brought in chickens for rehoming. I called around and spoke to a few hatcheries. Could I come when a chick was being hatched and take the chick home that day? Sure, I was told. Fortunately, I found an expert at the university who warned me of the dangers in this: Chicks need their mother for at least seven weeks, just like kittens and puppies. They need to be kept warm at night; they need to learn what and how to eat, what to be afraid of and what not to be afraid of; they need to hear reassuring clucks that no human can imitate with complete success. In short, they had to learn to be chickens, and the best way to be taught that was by their mother, not me. It made perfect sense.
A few days later, I was given a tip about a man, George Hogan, who lives on the outskirts of Auckland with hundreds of birds in his backyard, including parrots, doves, and chickens of all breeds. Our whole family drove out to see him and his birds.
“Why,” I asked him, “do you have so many chickens?”
“I don’t know,” he answered, “but I have always loved birds and can never remember a time when I did not have many.”
I told him about my project, and he found the idea appealing. He showed me his favorite chickens: Polish frizzles. There are all kinds of “frizzles,” a word that refers to the kind of feathers the chicken has. They stick up and make the chickens look as though they have just come back from a fancy hairdressing salon. He offered me a pair of seven-week-old siblings. “Never get a single chicken—it will pine away from loneliness. Chickens are sociable—they need company.” (This was a vast understatement, I was later to learn.)
“Are they both hens, or is one a rooster?” I asked.
He corrected me. “The proper term for a young male is a cockerel. When they are older, they are called a rooster or a cock. The young female is called a pullet and becomes a hen only later.” Chicken, it turns out, is the generic name. “Chickens are very hard to sex,” he admitted. “I’m not sure what you have here.” He thought I might have one of each, but he could not really say, except to tell me this: “Your neighbors will know soon enough, if one starts crowing at four a.m. My neighbors don’t mind,” he told me. “Yours might not, either.” (Oh, so wrong.) I was not exactly worried about having a male and a female and therefore baby chicks. I thought our whole family would find the idea of watching eggs hatch enchanting.
I liked the idea of having a crowing rooster. Nobody seems to know why roosters crow when they do, and I was eager to find out.
We put the two young chickens in a cat-carrying box (useful for rabbits and rats, too, as we discovered) and began the half-hour drive back to our beach house. Both Manu and Ilan were wildly excited. Suddenly it struck me that I was now in charge of the lives—let me repeat that, the lives—of two completely unknown beings. What if I failed them? There seemed so much I needed to know about them, so much to learn, and I was so ignorant. I felt like a first-time father coming home from the hospital with a baby and a completely blank mind. There was no Dr. Spock for chickens, only poultry manuals, and how could I possibly trust them, each one of which had a chapter on butchering?
As soon as I got home I put the chickens, whom we decided to call Moa (the Maori word for a large extinct flightless bird that looked like a large ostrich) and Moana (the Maori word for “ocean,” but it also sounds like the feminine of Moa) in a large aviary I had had built for them out of wood and mesh. A dozen wild birds could have lived there comfortably, but it was even better for two small chickens. I don’t call it a cage because it is so large and is in the enclosure—a large courtyard with chicken wire over the top and no way for any predator to get inside—behind our house. (See the photo on page 20 of me, Hohepa, and Mika in the enclosure.)
Once they were in the aviary, they were quiet for an hour. Then they started calling. I went out and spoke with them and whistled, imitating bird sounds, and that seemed to calm them. So I left. Then they started calling again. I went back. They stopped. It was now nine p.m., and I discerned the pattern. They called, I came. I was right to be apprehensive. This was, after all, not just like an adoption, it was an adoption. On my last trip, two of my older cats, Megala and Moko, slipped into the courtyard where the aviary was. The chickens seemed unfazed. Had they ever seen a cat? I decided to ask their previous owner. (I can’t bring myself to call him a companion, because he eats chicken, though never his own, he explained to me. Yes, they had seen cats, he told me.) The cats were mesmerized. The chickens were so close, yet so unattainable inside their comfortable but transparent cage. As the chickens grew, would these two grown cats come to accept them as family? Stay tuned.
I was eager to see if one of them, or both, would crow. A rooster doesn’t normally crow until he is about five months old. At first there is an odd little noise that comes out, then finally a proper crow. They can do this, though, only if they have heard other roosters crow. Mine had, though by the time he would have the vocal capacity to crow, his memory of having heard older roosters crow would be months behind him. Would that matter? Would he make an odd and eccentric crow of his own?
Of course, I wasn’t even certain whether one or both of the chickens was male. It is strange to think that the sexing of chickens is a difficult art, but it is. Here in New Zealand, a tester sets up at a table and checks each chick (by looking up his or her rear end—it is called “cloacal testing” and was invented by two Japanese scientists in 1934; until then, you simply had to wait until behavior showed you the difference), which either passes or fails the test. (In the United States, color sexing is used; chickens are bred so that males are predominantly white and females brown.) Since the point of these chickens’ existence is to lay eggs, the tragedy (there is no more appropriate word) is that if the chicken is a male, he is immediately killed, either by suffocation or, even more horribly, by being thrown alive into a shredder.
Next I needed to find a cat. Our household already had five adult cats, all of whom hunted birds, mice, rats, lizards, and praying mantises. I have never been comfortable with this, even though I felt the cats did not have much of a choice—they evolved to be hunters, and it was not their fault that they had been introduced into New Zealand. My neighbors, many of whom are especially fond of New Zealand native birds, have been even less comfortable with their hunting than I was. I was aware, however, of a certain hypocrisy in my neighbors, who loved birds but ate one particular bird, the chicken, without giving it a thought. After all, the average human meat eater will consume about three thousand chickens in the course of his or her life; the average cat kills a much smaller number of birds over his or her life.