Cross-species friendships offer teachable moments

Years ago, I used to visit a hobby farm owned by a girlfriend’s father. The mad animal antics at the place were like something out of a James Herriot novel as reworked by Kurt Vonnegut. Strange bonds and alliances had formed among completely different critters.

I remember seeing a goose waddle around the property, plaintively honking for a duck, its best friend. The duck was off at the vet, I learned, and the goose was stricken by its absence. The platonic pals did everything together, and for several days the goose was inconsolable.

An association between a duck and a goose doesn’t seem a stretch, since they’re both species of waterfowl. By now anyone with an Internet connection knows all sorts of weird bonds can form among domestic and wild animals. Scientists are now even prepared to describe such connections as “friendships.”

Last week’s episode of the PBS series Nature, “Animal Odd Couples,” showed how a Great Dane, Kate, adopted an abandoned fawn. Kate’s owner, photographer Isobel Springett, named the fawn Pip and the two animals often played together in a weird gambol that looked half-dog and half-deer. Even though Pip eventually grew up and joined a herd, she regularly returned to the property for playtime with Kate, awkwardly prancing about like Elaine from Seinfeld.

The creatures profiled in “Animal Odd Couples” cavort, cuddle, and sleep together in an apparent “screw you” to Chuck Darwin. Another pair is Mtani the retriever and Kasi the cheetah, a pair that met in 2010 at Busch Gardens theme park in Tampa, Florida. But surely the most surprising association is between Jack, a 16-year-old goat, and a blind 40-year-old horse named Charlie.

“Jack essentially became Charlie’s eyes, and would lead him around the ranch property where they both lived,” according to the Nature website. Apparently every day Jack walked Charlie to the horse’s favourite patch. Charlie eventually died and Jack abandoned the walks that seemed to give him purpose, dying soon after his friend.

What was going through Jack’s avocado-sized brain remains unknown. The conventional scientific wisdom has long been that only human beings need “purpose.” Animals, in contrast, are black boxes: stimulus in, response out, and little in between.

The simplistic models of behaviourists of the early 20th century were built on the Cartesian notion of animals-as-automatons, which in turn drew from the Judeo-Christian myth that humans are the crown of creation and the creatures we feed off are dumb as a pile of rocks. Today, behaviourism is deader than a Texan gun registration bill, and the notion that animals are unfeeling gene-machines is now on the wane as well. Verified tales of cross-species bonding aren’t as readily dismissed as outliers. As one researcher remarked on the Nature doc, “the plural of anecdote is data.”

Hardcore rationalists warn against projecting human qualities onto nonhuman creatures. True enough, but these folks often don’t get how subjective states can be shared by two or more beings of different species. “Intersubjectivity” is not limited to people and their pets. Every time you see another YouTube clip of a crow caretaking a kitten, a deer cuddling with a koala, or a dog merrily wrestling with an orangutan, you’re witnessing one of nature’s deeper routines, in which the separation of form is breached, if only briefly, by touch.

Human involvement obviously amplifies the opportunities for such animal connections. In the wild, living creatures spend much of their time involved with the “four f’s”: Fight, Flight, Feeding… and Mating — but when they’re not busy with survival, they obviously have little better to do than kibitz with whatever presents itself, as long as it appears safe. The same applies to humans, every time one of us bends down to pat a strange dog.

Read up on the latest reports on avian minds, and you’ll start questioning the “bird brain” tag. Check out the cognitive studies of cuttlefish and other cephalopods, and you might feel differently about seafood. Learn of the emotional lives of elephants and you’ll definitely be less fond of circuses. Hear fantastic claims about cetaceans communicating with people through human-sounding vocalizations, and you might even have doubts about public aquariums.

The Vancouver Courier, Nov. 16

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