Nature | Animal Childhood
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Watch Wednesday, May 13, 2015 at 8pm on WMHT TV.

In every animal’s life, there comes a time when it must make its own way in the world. For many, this happens just moments after birth when they have to rely entirely on their instincts to survive. But for some youngsters, there is time to grow up under their parents’ tutelage and care.  They are nurtured and taught the necessary skills to help them survive in the wild when they leave home.

Animal Childhood features segments on a variety of animal babies from black bears in Minnesota to ibex in Israel. Each depicts the various challenges of growing up in different stages of the young animals’ early lives.

For any animal, juvenile years are often the most difficult as they learn the basics about how to find food, avoid predators and get along with others in their group. The film shows how experience can make all the difference as parents go about caring for their young and teaching them crucial survival skills. Newborn ibex kids spend their first few days atop cliffs in a rocky wilderness – a place where they are relatively safe. But when their mother needs to find food, she leads the kids down the unbelievably steep rock faces, showing them the best routes to reach the water and vegetation below. Ibex possess unusual cleft feet that spread wide, exposing rubbery pads that grip the rock as they make their ascents and descents. Those special pads enable an isolated young ibex to evade a fox in hot pursuit by locating and standing on a spot so steep that the fox is unable to follow. An experienced mother’s valuable lesson on mastering the terrain is put to lifesaving use by a quick learner.

But the program also shows how inexperienced parents can sometimes put their young in harm’s way. A herd of elephants crossing a fast flowing river in Kenya are led by a matriarch who knows that young calves must be guided slightly upstream and against the current to reach the other side safely. But in a harrowing sequence, newer mothers lead their young straight across the river and they all lose control in the strong current. As the terrified babies are carried off downstream, their mothers can only watch in despair, until a stroke of luck brings the calves close enough to the river’s bank to struggle out.

Similarly, warm weather emboldens a black bear mother to lead her three-month-old twin cubs out of hibernation a month early to look for food, but they get caught in a spring snow storm miles from the den. This first-time mom allows the cubs to climb a tree for protection even though they are too young and have only a single layer of fur to protect them from the elements. She only calls them down when she realizes they are freezing. But even then, instead of stopping to let her body heat warm them, she sets off through snow so deep the cubs find it hard to follow.  She clearly has almost as much to learn as her cubs. Yet she does manage to find a sheltered spot and to keep them warm enough to survive the night.

The film also follows young toque macaques learning the correct gestures and facial expressions needed to fit in to their complex social structure, adolescent tigers practicing their timing and stealth techniques to capture prey, young orangutans learning the ropes, baby ducks and mole rats setting out into the world, and skimmers learning to fly and catch fish before the annual rains in the Congo flood their training ground. Getting through the early stages of childhood can certainly be daunting, but the reward is the chance to discover the world for the very first time.