Nature | Animal Odd Couples
Email share

Watch Wednesday, January 6 at 8pm & Sunday, January 10, 2016 at 10am on WMHT TV.

Love apparently knows no boundaries in the animal kingdom.  A lion befriends a coyote.  A goat guides a blind horse.  A goose romances a tortoise, and so on.  The growing anecdotal evidence of unlikely animal pairings has sparked scientific interest in data about interspecies bonds and animal altruism.  Do animals express compassion beyond their own kind?  What’s the motivation behind these unconventional friendships?

Nature offers some interesting insights on why animals develop relationships outside their species in Animal Odd Couples.

A pilot program in Florida’s Busch Gardens paired Kasi, an orphaned cheetah cub, with Mtani, a Labrador retriever puppy, to see if they could form a supportive relationship.  Their initial comfort with one another was shaped by shared means of communicating, their use of similar signals and sounds.  In the end, they created their own language – not dog language or cheetah language, but Kasi-Mtani language – and seem more than happy to be the inseparable companions they have become.  At Arizona’s Keepers of the Wild sanctuary, Anthony, the lion, and Riley, the coyote, were brought together when they were both just over a month old, and despite the increasing difference in their size, and the fact that they would never be companions in the wild, these improbable friends have formed a close and gentle bond.  Coyotes and lions are both social animals, and these two have learned to enjoy each other’s company greatly.

At Oklahoma’s Wild Heart Ranch, we see not just mutual friendship, but evidence of selfless caring and compassion.  When Charlie, an old horse at the sanctuary, lost his eyesight, his old pal, Jack, the goat, took up the task of being Charlie’s eyes, guiding him and protecting him from harm on a daily basis right up to the moment old Charlie died.  Jack got nothing in return except the knowledge that he was taking good care of his friend.

Marc Bekoff, Professor Emeritus of University of Colorado, is an animal behavior expert well-versed in such stories of enduring animal relationships.  “I think a lot of people find these cross-species relationships surprising because they don’t appreciate the richness of the emotional lives of non-human animals, that non-human animals experience the same emotions we do.”

Temple Grandin, Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University and noted animal behavior expert, asserts a similar view, “When it comes to some of the emotional things and cognition in animals, I think scientists are going to prove that little old ladies in tennis shoes who say that little Fifi really can think are right.”

One young scientist, Primatologist Lauren Brent, is focusing first on the complexity of the bonds animals form within their own species.  She has spent more than six years studying the interactions of non-related rhesus macaques at a primate field research site located on the island of Cayo Santiago in the Caribbean, hoping to learn from her observations of the monkeys something about the origins of “friendship.”  Her hope is that her information will provide clues as to how and why friendship evolved not just among her monkey study groups, but also among humans.  Her research findings point to conclusions that resonate with Bekoff’s and Grandin’s:  “When it comes to forming these complicated relationships with others, I think we have to admit that we’re not the only ones that do that, and that other animals have friends, too.”

Cross-species relationships are not limited to those forged and nurtured between domesticated animals or fostered by humans.  Animals in the wild also cross boundaries we imagine are too strong to overcome.  Photographer Isobel Springett’s dog, Kate, became a surrogate mother to Pippin, an abandoned wild fawn, stepping in as if it was simply the natural thing to do.  Kate provided guidance, care, and a sense of security and trust as the deer grew and their bond matured into something very special.  These days Pippin sometimes leaves the herd of deer that has become her family and comes back to visit Kate, occasionally bringing her own fawns along, as well.  Their extraordinary relationship looks very much like a loving relationship between species, which seems to defy past assumptions about the limits of animal emotions and speaks directly to the universality of devotion.