John B. Calhoun’s Mouse Utopia Experiment and Reflections on the Welfare State


Lawrence W. Reed -

Image Credit: Public Domain (via Smithsonian Magazine)

One of the more famous ethologists in recent decades was John B. Calhoun, best known for his mouse experiments in the 1960s. To what extent do the mouse utopia lessons apply to humans?

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.


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