Sunday, October 23, 2011

Maybe they really care

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals

The cynic says, "Yes, the lion may lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won't get much sleep." Yet there is a story in which a young lioness cared for a young oryx for a week or two. As told in Unlikely Friendships: 47 Remarkable Stories From the Animal Kingdom by Jennifer S. Holland, the lioness adopted the orphaned oryx and cared for it the way a pre-teen girl might care for any orphaned animal baby. The confused oryx accepted the mothering and even tried to suckle, though the cat had no milk.

In this case, the pairing could not go on for long. The lioness was not hunting, so neither animal was getting any nourishment. In fact, when watching people threw meat to her, she would ignore it. When another lion came along and ate the oryx, the lioness snapped out of it and accepted meat, then went back to hunting.

Everyone who has a houseful of pets of multiple species knows that dogs and cats can learn to get along. From time to time, quite unusual pairings and caring examples occur. In one of the stories in the book, when a dog became blinded by cataracts, the family cat began leading her around and watching out for her. The cat was quite solicitous, and very specific, ignoring the other dog in the house.

Most of the stories are about young animals, usually very young orphaned ones. Animals and birds have strong social needs, particularly when young, and will fulfill them in unusual was if the usual is not possible. Thus a lion cub and two caracal cubs (another kind of wild cat) played together as siblings until they grew up, a cage full of baby orangutans and tiger cubs happily played together during their infancies, and a just-hatched kookaburra and duckling kept each other company while they were little.

Many stories are about fostering, which stretches the bounds of friendship; I don't think my wife and son think of one another as friends, though they love one another. A number of fostering stories are of deliberate pairings on the part of zookeepers or game wardens or rescue workers, confronted with an orphan that needs care but having no mother of the same species who is willing or able to care for it. Thus the opening story of the book pairs a mature sheep (a male in this case) with an orphaned baby elephant. The sheep was a usually willing participant, while the elephant, being very needy, took all the comfort he could from their cohabitation. This pairing was undertaken after the staff had successfully paired sheep with a number of bereft baby rhinos.

More genuine friendships between adult animals of diverse species are less common, and the more awe-inspiring. In the book's second story, a black cat went into the enclosure where an Asiatic black bear was kept at the Berlin Zoo and befriended the bear. The cat comes and goes, but the two have spent plenty of time together for more than ten years already, and are visibly comforted by being together.

I don't know the story of this raccoon and skunk. It may be an accidental meeting in which both behaved well, or a longer-term pairing. Both are carnivores, and being of similar size, would find it wisest to treat each other well. Other longer-term pairings, such as a cat and a cockatoo or a donkey and a farm dog, occur in domestic settings.

Two quite unusual events, both short-term, involved SCUBA divers, one who was visited by a young manta and another who was probably the object of fostering when a half-ton leopard seal began "helping" him the way she would a seal calf. Both divers were enthralled by the attention of such different animals.

The stories are enjoyable reading, but it is the photos that make the book. Animals are clearly not the robotic eat-defecate-mate-sleep-repeat machines that some psychologists might insist. They have great social needs, and when circumstances get unusual, their social expressions can get unusual also. And it is not just mammals and birds; in one case a house cat and a large iguana paired up and seem to be getting along famously. Even lizards need love, it seems.

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