Animal Odd Couples

One of the more enduring internet crazes are video clips of cute animals, and a particular trend is for friendships between animals of different species. This programme seems to have been inspired by these videos, though at least it wasn’t one of those list shows you get on BBC Three or E4 which just shows a countdown of the clips. It was presented by wildlife biologist Liz Bonnin, and actually went to some effort to interview and investigate the stories behind them, and also try and offer some scientific theory on why these animal friendships happen.

We saw many animal friendships, including a jaguar and a Jack Russell, a baby chimpanzee and a puma cub, Hugo the bulldog and Igor the lion cub, and a capybara named Cheesecake, who was a sort of nanny to orphaned puppy dogs.

One of the most interesting ones was found in a wildlife sanctuary in Atlanta, in the USA. They were a trio including Baloo, an American black bear and Shere Khan, a Bengal tiger. The Jungle Book set isn’t quite complete though, as the third member of the trio isn’t a panther named Bagheera, but a lion named Leo. Emails with this story often quote the famous “Lions and tigers and bears” line from The Wizard Of Oz. In the wild, when tigers and bears meet they fight, and while it’s highly unlikely lions will encounter tigers or bears without human interference, when they do they also tend to fight. But these three have a very close bond. They are very affectionate towards each other.What happened to them was that when they were cubs they were kept illegally in a dark basement, but were rescued and bought to the animal sanctuary. The cubs were only a few months old, and didn’t want to be separated, and now they’re grown up and still close. Animal behaviour expert Clive Wynn suggested that the three animals may have bonded because of the bad situation at the start of their lives, and it’s instinctive to find a companion as a way of relieving stress. The three of them playfight and bicker, it seems sibling-like, so they are almost like brothers even though they are all different creatures.

If we’ve had pets, we will probably have seen that animals can have what seems to be a sibling-like relationship with a different species. Another animal behaviour expert, Professor Hal Herzog, suggested that animals in the wild are too busy fighting for survival to make those kind of bonds, which is why it is more common with animals in captivity. But while rare, it still happens occasionally.

One example is an occasion where wild polar bears were seen hugging and playing with huskies. Dr. Lynda Sharpe, who again was an animal behaviour expert, said in the programme that play signals animals have, such as rolling on their back, gives the signal that they are making themselves vulnerable, and therefore not about to attack, the reverse of aggression. Further to this play fighting stimulates “fight or flight” excitement and adrenaline, but in a safe environment, so that they are used to stress when it comes in a dangerous situation. She also speculated that the reason animals may bond with an animal of different species is that there is a “thrill of the unknown” added to it.

In some African wildlife reserves they have been making use of cross-species animal friendships as a way of helping to save rhino calves. There are sadly many rhinos killed for their horns despite the horn having no medical benefit to humans whatsoever. This leads to orphaned rhino calves, who are completely dependent on their mothers for up to two years. Not only that, but the loneliness itself can actually kill them. It produces doses of the stress hormone cortisol which for whatever reason is overwhelming to rhinos. Pairing these orphaned rhino calves with another animal has proved to be beneficial, as humans aren’t able to be with them constantly. They tend to use a sheep or a foal to be the rhino’s companion so they will learn to graze. Apparently when paired with a dog, a rhino calf will eat dog food like the dog does and not want to eat grass!

One of the most heartwarming stories in this programme was between Pippin, a wild black tailed deer, and Kate, a Great Dane. Pippin was found as a fawn by Kate’s owner Isobel Springett. She at first left her in case her mother came back, but after three days of Pippin being left on her own, she decided to take her back home to care for her until she was healthy enough to return to the wild. Kate never had puppies of her own, so was maternal towards Pippin. Pippin eventually went back to the wild, but she returned every day. Kate and Pippin’s relationship evolved over time. At first it was a bit like a mother and child one, then after six months it became more playful. According to Isobel, they compromised on the play too. Kate was less aggressive than a dog playing usually is, while Pippin was rougher than a deer playing usually is. Now, five years on, Pippin spends most of her time with a wild herd and has fawns of her own. She comes to visit Kate from time to time, but it’s now just to hang around together.

Some of the stories were very unusual. One was from a farm in Ireland, where the couple who owned the farm bought some fertilised duck eggs. The eggs hatched and the ducks went missing. They eventually found the farm cat Della, with, a duckling in her mouth and assumed she was going to eat it. But it became clear the ducklings were following her and she was affectionate towards them. It turned out that Della had just given birth to a litter of kittens, which was lucky for the ducklings as it meant Della’s hormones would have been encouraging her to be maternal. We saw the truly weird sight of ducklings among kittens suckling from a cat! An explanation suggested in the programme was that while ducklings aren’t mammals, and therefore don’t suckle, they are born with an instinct to find food and water, so perhaps they saw the milk as good a food source as any. Ducklings grow faster than kittens, so Della found it hard to control them and was trying to put them back in her basket as they kept wandering off. A few weeks later the kittens are still kittens, and the ducklings are now fully grown ducks, but still have an attachment to Della.

A similar, but much more tragic, story was that of a solitary lioness who found a newborn oryx, and instead of killing and eating it, she looked after it. The oryx was eventually killed by a male lion, and witnesses said the lioness behaved just like lionesses who lose their cubs. She went on to adopt five more oryx calves, but she was unable to feed them, as oryxes are herbivores. The reasons for this behaviour are unclear, but it was speculated she may have been traumatised from being separated from her pride.

As well as maternal instinct, and circumstance bringing animals together, there have been instances of primates doing stuff which looks a bit like pet keeping. A famous instance was in Brazil in the wild among a group of capuchin monkeys. A female adopted a tiny baby marmoset (which have been known to be eaten by capuchins), and the marmoset became part of the group, but she was treated as something to be petted and looked after . For example, the dominant male allowed her to feed from his food, which he would never allow another capuchin to do. It’s possibly because he knew she wasn’t a threat.

Another example of possible pet keeping was in a wildlife safari park in America. A group of orangutans found a stray hound dog, who was later named Roscoe, and liked him, putting out water for him and feeding him monkey biscuits. Roscoe seems to have a particularly strong bond  to one of the orangutans, Hanuman, who he likes swimming with.We’ve probably all seen fictional interspecies romance in cartoons, going at least as far back as Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar from the Mickey Mouse Disney shorts from the 1930s  (and Clarabelle temporarily had another interspecies romance with Goofy is 1960s Disney comics), or with puppets, like Kermit the Frog and Miss. Piggy from The Muppets. But that doesn’t happen in real life does it? Well… apparently it’s not unknown! It was by far the most bizarre story in this programme, but in South Africa a male kudo antelope became infatuated with a female giraffe in a neighbouring wildlife reserve, and jumped over a very high fence to get to her. The giraffe seemed to enjoy his attention too, and followed him as he walked away. The two were cheekily named Charles and Camilla by park rangers.

The second episode of this programmed was focused more on unusual pets. There are many internet videos uploaded by people filming their pets, but it’s mostly cats and dogs. Mark Dumas from Canada had more viewers than most for his video, as his was with a 60 stone polar bear. Mark trains animals for the film industry, and needed a polar bear cub. He got one, Agee, who was being hand reared at a zoo since she was 8 weeks old because her mother had become too old to care for cubs properly. Mark didn’t expect to become attached to her, but he did and she is now 18 years old and lives in an enclosure in his large back garden. Agee is apparently very possessive of Mark and gets jealous if someone other than Mark’s wife Dawn talks to him. Agee makes what Dawn likens to a purring noise a cat makes, and it sounds like a tractor engine. There are of course ethical concerns keeping a wild animal as a pet, but in this case Agee is an animal born in captivity and raised by humans. Returning a rescued animal back to the wild is one thing, but animals born in captivity have a poor survival rate if they are left to fend for themselves in the wild, and Agee clearly has a strong attachment to Mark.

A couple in South Africa, Tonie and Shirley Joubert, found themselves becoming adoptive parents to a hippopotamus.  A newborn female hippo which was still attached to the umbilical cord ended up outside their house as she had been washed away from her mother by a flood. Tonie was an ex-game ranger and knew the formula to make milk for her. Now 13 years later Shirley still feeds the hippo, who they named Jessica, with a bottle containing 20 litres of rooibos tea a day. Jessica comes and goes from the wild to this home as she pleases. Tonie stated that as she’s a wild animal rather than a domesticated pet, it’s best to let her do what she wants. Hippos are more dangerous than you might think. Surprisingly, they kill more people than any other mammal in Africa. But Jessica is friendly to this family. She comes into the kitchen where they feed her green beans and sleeps on the porch with the family dog on top.

The most likely explanation is that Jessica imprinted on the Jouberts, that is when a newborn bonds with whoever they see caring for them during the first few hours of their life. Visual imprinting was first studied by scientists with geese, and the programme had an example of a goose which bonded with a human when the goose was an adult.

It happened in Los Angeles to Dominic Erhler, who walked by Echo Park lake every morning, and eventually park employees told him a goose they had named Maria was following him every day. In 2011, Maria had to be moved to a zoo when the lake was drained, and there it was discovered that Maria was actually a male goose, so he was renamed Mario. Much like Agee the polar bear with Mark, Mario shows a very close bond to Dominic, and is also possessive when other people get close to him. The programme speculated that Mario was probably an abandoned domestic goose who had imprinted on a human who might have looked like Dominic, so to him, Dominic was his parent.

There was also a retired cowboy named RC Bridges who had sold all of his buffalo herd apart from a calf which he eventually named Wildthing. Wild buffalo are very defensive of territory, with the males fighting for position to be the dominant male, and this apparently starts early, as when he was a calf Wildthing kept attacking RC, who decided the best thing to do was to ignore him until he gave up. RC believes that Wildthing sees him as the dominant male, and probably thinks he’s extremely physically strong. For example, Wildthing rams his gate all hours, but sees RC simply being able to open it. Also RC can grab him by the horn to control him; Wildthing is easily strong enough to beat him, but perhaps he doesn’t know that. In any case, he seems to have a lot of affection and respect for him. We’ve heard the expression a bull in a china shop, but here we saw a buffalo going into someone’s house with the ornaments still on the table, and he treads carefully around the house! This wasn’t trained either, apparently he knew he had to behave himself in the house.

So it is clearly possible to bond with a wild animal, but it has to be remembered that they are still wild animals. In a South African wildlife park we saw park employee Or Lazmi among three lions tenderly stroking and petting them. But she was able to do this because she had known them since they were cubs, and so they saw her as a constant dominant figure in their lives, to them she’s always seemed stronger. But once, she was feeling weak on a hot day, and one of the lions must have picked up on that as he tried to grab her. She came off with just a scratch, but it’s a reminder of how dangerous they can be. She also has to look into their eyes to see if it’s safe for other people to go near them. Similarly, in another South African wildlife reserve, the owner Kevin Richardson has integrated himself with a clan of hyenas. They roll over like a dog and playfight with him, but he wanted to make it clear it was only because he’d known these particular hyena through 14 years, it was not something he could do with any clan of hyenas.

For me, the first of the two programmes was more interesting, as it was more about “animal odd couples” than the “odd pets” angle of the second programme, but both showed some fascinating examples of how animals behave, particularly when under unusual circumstances. But why are videos with animals being friends with different animals so popular? Well, on one level, it’s simple. We like cute animals, it’s one reason why we keep pets, and there’s something very sweet, moving and heartwarming about different creatures becoming friends. Many kids and family movies are based on the idea. One of the animal behaviour experts in this programme, Professor Hal Herzog, put forward the view that we like it because we can see the basics of human nature reflected in them.

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