Interspecies Bonding: Beyond the Food Web
As children, we were taught about the concept of the food web, which provides a map of "who eats who" in the animal kingdom. And we were taught about symbiotic relationships between different species, in which one or both members of the pair benefit from the alliance. But increasingly, we are presented with accounts of interspecific animal behaviors and relationships that do not fit neatly into these contexts—stories clearly demonstrating that the roles of animals in their environment are not as rigid as once thought. These examples prove that animals are not merely simple, instinctive beings, elucidating the softer, more vulnerable and malleable side to their nature. They particularly serve to remind us of the complex emotions of animals, as well as the fact that they share many basic needs with the human animal.
Interspecies bonds typically involve social animals, so it is not surprising that dogs are one of the commonly documented species to interact with other types of animals. "Dogs have been genetically modified by [human beings] to be extremely sociable and extremely accepting," says Dr. Stanley Coren, an expert in dog psychology.
Dogs have been known to bond with cats, ferrets, calves, fawns, piglets, goats, and even lions. Recently at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, a mastiff puppy was successfully introduced as a playmate to a lion cub whose twin had died. Zookeeper Suzanne Merner explains, "It's very unusual for a herd or social animal like a lion to be a solo animal and to be mentally happy. They come from a group dynamic, and they crave that type of socialization."
Better known by most people is the dog-human bond. Truly deserving of their title as "man's best friend," dogs have been known to risk their own lives to save those of their companions. In 2007, a pit bull terrier named Chief jumped in between a cobra and his 87-year-old companion and her granddaughter, saving them from the snake's strike. Sadly, as a result of his heroic action, Chief received a fatal bite on the ear. Similarly, a doberman named Khan grabbed his 17-month-old toddler companion by the back of the neck and threw her over 3 feet to safety—out of the reach of a king brown snake who had ventured into the family's yard. Like Chief, Khan was also bitten, but fortunately, he recovered fully from the bite.
Dolphins are also extremely social animals who have been documented displaying extraordinarily selfless behaviors. Earlier this year, a mother pygmy whale and her calf stranded off the coast of New Zealand. Despite rescue efforts, these disoriented animals stranded an additional four times. Were it not for a highly social wild bottlenose dolphin named Moko, rescuers would most likely have euthanized the whales. To everyone's surprise, Moko led the whales 200 yards out to the open sea, where they swam off.
There have also been many reports of dolphins coming to the aid of humans in need. Pods of dolphins have rescued humans from shark attacks by forming protective rings around them, enabling them to escape to shore. These amazing examples offer further proof that dolphins are highly intelligent and compassionate beings.
Instances of cross-species bonds involving young animals are also common. These occurrences can be attributed to maternal instinct and young animals' readiness to bond with others. "Part of the reason for this is that very young mammals have pheromones that give them a characteristic 'baby smell,'" says Dr. Coren. The relationship between Suzie, a British bulldog, and her adopted squirrels is one example. Suzie became the adoptive mother of three orphaned squirrels and eventually even nursed them.
Game wardens at Samburu National Park in Kenya reported a lioness who adopted six baby oryx in the span of a year. The lioness has been said to be protective of the same calves who would normally represent a meal to a lion. Wildlife conservationist Daphne Sheldrick noted that cases such as these are rare, but they do exist. "It does happen, but it's quite unusual," she says. "Lions, like all the other species, including human beings, have this kind of feeling for babies."
Filmmakers following a young female leopard named Legadema in Botswana documented an amazing encounter between the leopard and a day-old baboon. Baboons are common prey for leopards, but Legadema started caring for the infant after killing his mother. Remarkably, the leopard did not kill the youngster as well. Instead, she carried the baby into the treetops, continually retrieving the primate even when he fell out of the tree. Unfortunately, the baboon died, not able to survive without his natural mother. Although tragic, this incident highlights how inexperience can play a role in interspecies interactions.
In Massachusetts, a heartwarming bond formed between a kitten and a crow. Ann and Wally Collito observed and videotaped the pair over an 8-month period. The couple first encountered the 3- or 4-month-old abandoned kitten, who they eventually named Cassie, when he was tossed over their fence and landed in their yard. Soon after, they noticed a crow, later named Moses, following the kitten—feeding him worms, leading him to water, protecting him from traffic, and playing with him frequently. The crow was acting as Cassie's caretaker.
Other intriguing relationships include a pair of lovebirds who began raising a rat who entered their cage, a duck who bonded with a chicken and helped raise her chicks, and a mother cat who nursed a rottweiler puppy with the rest of her kittens after the puppy was rejected by his mother.
Artificial living situations may also clarify why certain animals form cross-species attachments. Captive situations may create interesting, albeit non-voluntary, animal pairings. In one instance, a rat snake, Aochan, formed a bond with a hamster, Gohan, who had been placed in his enclosure as a meal. Before being given the hamster, Aochan had only been fed frozen mice and therefore may not have recognized Gohan as a food item.
No matter what these animals were feeling, they have certainly become friends despite the circumstances, even though they may have adjusted to the situation merely because they have no means of escape. "I've never seen anything like it," says a zookeeper at the Tokyo facility where these animals are housed. "Gohan sometimes even climbs onto Aochan to take a nap on his back."
In 2000, a special connection formed at the Berlin Zoo. That year, zoo attendants noticed a black domestic cat had wandered into the enclosure with a female Asiatic black bear named Maeuschen. The origins of the cat, who they later named Muschi, remain unknown. The attendants, thinking the company would be good for the bear, allowed Muschi to stay until 2004, when they removed the cat and moved Maeuschen to a cage while they renovated her enclosure. Muschi, clearly distraught, roamed around the zoo, meowing and looking for her friend. Once she found Maeuschen, she sat in front of her cage for months.
Realizing that the pair was inseparable, the zoo attendants decided to let Muschi in the cage with Maeushen. A zoo staff member says, "They greeted each other and had a cuddle, and now they're happy. They sunbathed together and shared meals of raw meat, dead mice, fruit and bread." As an omnivore, Maeuschen should have recognized Muschi as prey; however, her loneliness in captivity clearly caused her to see Muschi as a companion and not as a meal.
A wild male polar bear plays with a member of a pack of husky dogs, despite his dominance—and in fact, returned every night to play with the dogs. Though this pairing seems strange, it is a wonderful example of animals' need for "pleasure."
A wildlife photographer captured images of wild polar bears interacting with tethered Eskimo sled dogs in Canada. The animals are seen tumbling around in the snow on their backs and obviously at ease. The bears reportedly returned day after day to interact with the dogs. According to Stuart Brown (featured in video), the founder of the National Institute of Play, the images show the bears and dogs engaging in a form of play behavior and others have witnessed the same between wolves and grizzlies as well.
Another unexplainable encounter can be seen in the touching and heart wrenching National Geographic clip that shows an impala attempting to cross the river and being attacked by a crocodile. A nearby hippo charges the crocodile, freeing the impala. The hippo then nudges the impala up out of the water and proceeds to gently take the animal's entire head in his mouth in what seems to be an effort to revive the injured impala. Despite the hippo's repeated efforts, the impala's injuries were too severe, and the animal did not survive. There is no way of knowing why the hippo felt compelled to help the young impala, or how often hippos exhibit this type of altruistic behavior in the wild.
The motives of a cat who befriends a chicken on an adorable, popular Internet video are also unclear. Narrated in Japanese, the clip shows a rambunctious kitten playing with a tolerant chicken. The cat climbs in and out of the high fenced chicken coop to sleep with the chicken. Amazingly, the cat continues to share the chicken's enclosure, even while growing older. Although the bond between this unlikely pair may have formed due to the kitten's young age, it does not appear to have faltered with time.
We are all aware of the sacrifices guide dogs make for their vision-impaired human companions, but a cat named Libby in Pennsylvania made a similar sacrifice for Cashew, her yellow lab companion. The dog, both deaf and blind, relies on Libby for protection from obstacles and to lead her to her food. Terry Burns, the animals' guardian, describes Libby's actions: "Every night she sleeps next to her. The only time they're apart is when we take Cashew out for a walk."
Another such example involves Mancat and Mary. Mancat, a feline, was raised with a group of dogs—one of whom was Mary, an elderly, blind pug. Mancat would walk beside Mary, guiding her around furniture, leading her outdoors, standing guard when Mary was eating to protect her food from the other dogs, and even guide her up the steps leading to the bed, where they both slept together. It takes a considerable amount of perceptiveness and compassion for these cats to comprehend that these dogs could not see and to help them navigate through their world.
In the end, the interspecies relationship with which we are most familiar is the one that occurs between humans and animals. Most humans believe in forming bonds with a number of other species, including horses, farm animals, family pets, service animals, and even occasionally wild animals. These examples show that all animals can obtain this same type of enjoyment from one another, regardless of their species.