August 6, 2013
Friendzoned: Interspecies Friendships Are Legit, According To Science
Recently, I found myself in a heated debate with my uncle over whether or not it’s possible for non-human animals to form friendships with other species. I took the side of “Well, isn’t it obvious, of course it’s possible,” and he took the opposite road. Feeling frustrated with my lack of facts, I decided to do a bit of research and pause the debate until further notice.
Since the first step of the scientific method is to formulate a question, when it came to interspecies friendships I had a whole host of them: “What is the purpose of friendship? Why did we, and other species, evolve to exhibit this behavior? What purpose does it serve, especially to create such bonds with other species?” Initially, I postulated that perhaps cross-species friendships are formed to improve safety. But, anyone who has befriended a cat, or in the case of Jack the goat finding friendship with Charlie the blind horse, clearly, being safer is not the main cause. “Jack gets nothing out of this relationship. Charlie can neither protect him (Jack) or provide for him, so what Jack is doing is protecting his friend. End of story” says Annette Tucker, owner of Wildheart Ranch, who observed Jack and Charlie interact for several years at her rescue ranch.
While science has been busy focusing on intraspecific relationships, usually of the romantic variety, in humans, a growing group of researchers is showing that we aren’t the only ones capable of forming emotional connections and friendships with other species. Researchers are starting to tell us that there is a science to friendship, and when cross-species friendships are formed, it’s not simply “instincts gone awry,” as my uncle would have you believe.
According to Bella DePaulo of Psychology Today, friendships simply just make us feel good. In one study, researchers asked people to stand at the bottom of a large hill. One group stood alone, while the other group stood with a friend. Participants were then asked to describe the hill and how they felt about climbing it. Those who stood alone, described the impending climb as daunting, while those who stood with friends felt alright about the hike. Clearly, positive friendships make us happier, and if we’re happier, we cope better with our environment and typically live healthier lives. So, if intraspecific friendships make us feel great, it stands to reason that interspecific friendships with other social animals would benefit health in all realms.
Tim Smith, Assistant Curator at Busch Gardens elaborates on the friendship between the unlikely duo of Kasi the cheetah and Mtani the retriever. “We made the decision to put them together at one month of age, but they made the decision to make the relationship work” Smith says. Here, there is no need to form a relationship due to safety or hunting concerns, and the mere existence of their bond seems to be purely for companionship. “I do believe that they have grown to depend on one another. When Mtani is gone, Kasi is looking for her. He would have a hard time adjusting to this environment without her.”
But there aren’t only a handful of accounts of animals befriending non-related species; using this as a basis for my argument would be unscientific. “I love stories about animal behavior, and I always like to say the plural of anecdote is data. When I hear 100 stories about improbable relationships between animals, as a scientist I really want to know more about them” says Dr. Marc Bekoff, former Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado. “Across mammals for example, we share these structures in the limbic system and amygdala, an old part of the brain If you really believe Darwin’s Evolutionary Continuity it says that the differences between species are shades of grey, not black and white. Good biology says that if we have something, they, other animals, have it too. So we’re not inserting something human into animals that they don’t have.” Of course, Dr. Bekoff reminds us that he isn’t basing his thoughts purely off of his own observations; the sheer amount of similar stories shared by other credible sources adds to the support of the original idea.
The mere mention of a cross-species friendship is mind boggling to some; mention a cat befriending (and not eating) a bird, and many think it’s ridiculous. Or even a coyote becoming besties with a lion, and it just sounds absurd to them. So, the next time a dear friend, or family member, scoffs at the idea of interspecies friendships, or attempts to break it down as something purely for the purposes of survival, back up your pro-friend claims with these facts and remind them of the most common cross-species friendship of all; humans and dogs. Not such an odd concept when you look at it that way.
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