Animals In Love

Yes, I know this programme was broadcast over a month ago. Unfortunately I missed it when it was first on, but caught up on it.

Much like Animal Odd Couples, this BBC documentary was presented by wildlife biologist Liz Bonnin. It posed the question of whether animals experience love. There have been plenty of films, often animated, that personify animals, but does that hold true in reality?

Over the past 20 years scientists have discovered that animals display a much more complex range of emotions than previously thought. One of the scientists interviewed for this programme, Professor Kurt Kotrschal, stated that while its certainly possible for people to project human emotions onto animals, it’s also possible for humans to reject the view that animals have similar emotions, as people also want to emphasise human superiority. While other animals certainly aren’t as advanced or as intelligent as us, many of the hormones and chemicals which govern their behavior are similar to ours.

For example, many animals have a hormone we humans have called oxytocin, which is sometimes known as “the love hormone” or “the bonding hormone”. Production of this helps form bonds. It has also recently been discovered that laughter is not unique to humans. It has been observed in bonobos. Bonobos, like chimpanzees, are a species that are the closest relatives to humans, as we have 98.6%  of the same genetic information in common.

Dr. Isabel Behnke, who has studied bonobos in the wild, noted that they are very different in their behavior compared to other primates. It is more of a peaceful society. They are less aggressive, they share more, they are playful into adulthood. The females appear to call the shots, and the relationships are open, meaning that competitiveness to mate isn’t as much of an issue as it is in most species. The lynchpin of their entire society is strong relationships within the group.

Dr. Behnke also stated that laughter in bonobos serves the same purpose it does in humans. Laughter is a way of bonding. It communicates that you want to continue interacting with someone. In human conversations, ones which involve laughter tend to last longer.

With some animals that group together, it is only the dominant couple who breed, with the rest of the group sharing the task of looking after their young. Examples shown in this programme were African wild dogs, cotton-top tamarins, and meerkats.

A meerkat couple named Tigi (the male) and McDreamy (the female) were compared to Romeo and Juliet because before they got together they would have been part of rival clans of meerkats. Many young male meerkats do what is called “roving”, where they go into the territory of other meerkat clans to find females to mate with. This is quite dangerous, as if they are spotted the males of that clan will pile on the roving males and attack them, sometimes killing them by literally tearing them limb from limb. The safest option is for the roving males to go in groups, so some can distract the rival males while others go to find the females. It’s dangerous for these females too though, as if they become pregnant the dominant female will kick them out of the clan, as only the dominant female is supposed to reproduce. It is tough for the evicted females, as they have to then raise their young all by themselves.

But sometimes a group of evicted females will run into a group of roving males and form a new clan, which is what happened with Tigi and McDreamy. McDreamy and her evicted sisters grouped with Tigi and his roving brothers, and they are the dominant pair of that clan, which has so far been successful.

There were other animal couples in the programme. A very tragic story was of Sam the siamang gibbon, who had a partner named Sage who he was with for eight years, and they had a baby named Onion, and were a happy family. But both the mother and the baby died in separate incidents within a couple of years of each other causing Sam to become depressed and appear to grieve. This was one of the saddest parts of the documentary, and it was emotionally difficult for the keepers who had been looking after Sam. Fortunately things got better for him eventually, as he found a new partner.

A pair of greylag geese named Tarek and Judith stayed together for a years. Then one day, Judith got lost in a storm, leaving Tarek lonely and unhappy for a while. He found a new mate, but then Judith returned, and he went straight back to her, and they now have goslings. Although its often been said in the past that animals only get together to reproduce, this suggests otherwise, as if Tarek had just been looking for any female he would most likely have stayed with the one he found after Judith. But when she returned he went back to her, as he had formed a bond with her in particular. Added to this is the fact that greylag geese tend to stay together for life, and some of them never reproduce.

One animal couple had previously had made the headlines before this programme, back in 2005. They were a Humboldt penguin couple named Dotty and Z in Germany’s Bremerhaven zoo. They were very close, but never reproduced, and it was discovered that they were both male. It was also discovered that 3 out of the 10 penguin couples in the zoo were same-sex male couples. As Humboldts are an endangered species, the zoo bought in six females so that the penguins in same-sex couples had the option of mating with a female, but the three same-sex couples stayed together. Dotty and Z also showed parenting instincts, as they built a nest every year. In 2009, the zoo gave them an egg which had been rejected by one of the heterosexual penguin couples, and Dotty and Z shared the responsibility of hatching the egg and looking after the chick, just like a male/female penguin couple would. Dotty and Z are still together ten years after first pairing up.

Gay animal couples happen in the wild too, in fact to date 450 different species have been observed to show homosexual pairings, an example given in this programme was of Laysan albatross in Hawaii, with a third of the pairings were same-sex female couples, including one which had been together for 19 years.

All of the above examples suggest animals are certainly capable for forming very close bonds with one another and of deep feelings.

Most of the programme focused on romantic love, but one example was of a different kind of bond, a more parental one. That was in South Africa between Frankie, an elephant matriarch and ET, an orphaned elephant. These elephants have had very eventful and hard lives. Frankie’s herd had been targeted by human hunters, who shot at them killing some of the herd. These traumatic events had a terrible effect on the herd, making them incredibly stressed and causing them to view any human they encountered as a threat. They became aggressive towards humans. The elephants were eventually rescued and moved to the Thula Thula reserve. David Bozes, who worked with the elephants, recalled how it was a long process to get them to trust humans again, with Frankie in particular being difficult to bring round, but they ultimately succeeded.

Some time later, a ten year old female elephant named ET was bought to the reserve after she lost her entire family. Frankie’s herd approached her, and Frankie took her in, behaving very motherly towards her.

The herd also bonded with Lawrence Anthony, a conservationist in charge of their rehabilitation. He spent a lot of time with them, a few hours each day, and sometimes the herd would travel to his house of their own accord on days he didn’t turn up. Lawrence Anthony sadly passed away in 2012, but what is most astonishing is that on the day he died the herd traveled to his house and have apparently gone there on the anniversary of his death every year since. We can’t know what the elephants are thinking of course, but it is a very remarkable story.

There was also Mari the orangutan, who lost both her arms as an infant. When she was about to be moved to a different reserve from the one she was staying in she was given a selection of photographs of male orangutans with which to choose a potential mate! She indicated her choice by pointing with a stick and kissing the photograph. Now it sounds very fanciful, and it seems unlikely that she understood what was going on, but whether she did or not, her photograph choice matched her real choice when they met in the flesh. That choice was a big, hairy male named Pongo. Apparently a younger, smaller male in the reserve named Christopher tried hard to get Mari’s attention by putting celery on his head and dancing around but it was clear that Mari preferred Pongo.

The programme also showed examples of how animals deal with courtship in the wild. Many male birds for example try to impress females with colourful plumage, gifts and dancing.  In flamingos, both males and females dance and have many moves, such as “wing saluting” and “head flagging”. It looks very funny to us, but it is an important part of their mating.

Male alligators in Florida compete for female attention by bellowing. They tend to do it as a group, and if one starts they all will. It’s a way of them showing off how big and strong they are, and the one with the lowest and most powerful bellow is the winner. Those with a particularly deep bellow can cause vibrations on the water. Strangely it has been observed several times that to the Florida alligators the note B flat on a tuba sounds like a male alligator bellow, as hearing that specific note sets off the alligators to bellow themselves. It is only that note as well, other notes are ignored. Alligators have a reputation for being ferocious, but their courtship looks rather gentle compared to many other animals, with the male and female swimming together and the male nuzzling the female’s jaw before mating.

In a lot of species, it’s the male who does the chasing and the female who does the choosing, but with capuchin monkeys it’s the other way round. The females compete for the alpha male. He usually doesn’t show much interest, perhaps knowing that he can sit back and have his pick. The females make a lot of effort to get his attention, with one group of capuchins shown to do this by the females throwing rocks at him!

Hyenas are a female dominated society, to the extent that a newborn female cub outranks all the males! This means that females compete with each other for dominance, while the males status is determined simply as a kind of “first come, first served” thing. The longer they have been in the pack, the higher their status, but even then its lower than all the females. When it comes to mating, the male hyenas have to be submissive but persistent, they have to know their place, but they also have to show they’re interested.

Dr. Neil Gale talked about longwing butterflies, where the male of the species leaves what Dr. Gale called an “anti-aphrodisiac” on the female, which is a scent which lasts for a couple of weeks and puts other males off mating with her, meaning he is the one that fertilizes her eggs. The female uses the scent for longer than that though, storing it in a gland and spraying it on males who give her unwanted attention.

Anyone who has owned pets or worked with animals will know that they are all different individuals and they express emotions, but this programme offered some evidence and insight into the science of it for us TV viewers outside the scientific community. Liz Bonnin was a good presenter, as she was on Animal Odd Couples. The two episodes of Animals In Love both had different vibes to them. Episode one was more moving and poignant, with focus on the psychology behind it, as well as on individual animals (ones that were given names). Episode two was sweeter, happier, a bit more lighthearted with more focus on general behavior of a species. It was probably best to end it on a positive note. The programme had a good response from viewers, indeed the reason I decided to catch-up on it was because it had been praised so much in letters pages in TV guides.

I found the inclusion of pop music a bit intrusive at first, but I got used to it, and it did actually have a pretty good soundtrack. It was mostly Motown songs, but generally in the jazz and/or R&B love songs genre. Some of the songs included were:

‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ – Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell

‘Baby Love’ – The Supremes

‘My Girl’ – The Temptations

‘My Guy’ – Mary Wells

‘Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love’ – Barry White

‘I’m Coming Out’ – Diana Ross

‘Same Love’ – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis featuring Mary Lambert

‘Say Something’ – A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera

‘Jump (For My Love)’ – The Pointer Sisters

‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ – Bjork

‘Just The Two Of Us’ – Grover Washington Jr. and Bill Withers

‘I Put A Spell On You’ – Nina Simone

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