Friday, June 27, 2014

If it looks like love...

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, friendship

Animals that grow up together seem to regard one another as siblings. At any age, when unusual circumstances bring diverse animals together, ordinary enmities and predator-prey relationships are set aside. This pair of photos came from the NBC slide show "Unlikely Friends". I wonder how the retriever would react if his cheetah friend were to prey on a dachshund?

About four years ago I reviewed Unlikely Friendships by Jennifer S. Holland. Knowing a good thing when she sees it, and amid clamoring from fans for "More!", she has released Unlikely Loves: 43 Heartwarming True Stories From the Animal Kingdom. The cover image shows another retriever with a leopard, clearly showing affection.

Perusing images on the Web, I noted even solitary species such as orangutans and tigers in apparently affectionate relationships with quite disparate species. Of course, in infancy every mammal is social, with its mother and littermates. Thus a photo of a Labrador retriever nursing tiger cubs is not so surprising (I saw one just moments ago). I am not sure the momma dog and the grown tigers can be quite so close a couple years later.

Even as adults, few mammals are entirely solitary. The possibility of forming emotional bonds exists in all. I noticed that most of the stories in both books begin with at least one of the animals being orphaned or otherwise traumatized. Frequently, particularly in Unlikely Loves, the other animal cares for it in a motherly way, providing the persistent physical affection any traumatized animal needs to recover fully. Such caring impulses are hard-wired in mammals and birds.

Side note: otherwise sensible, intelligent young women who "fall for" criminal, druggie, abusive low-life guys have fallen prey to these impulses, often to the point of obsession. They are also the root of "white knight syndrome" among men.

I found it interesting that one of the animals Ms Holland describes is a turtle. What started out as a tortoise seeking warmth among a litter of ten Great Dane puppies led to her developing a special affection for one of them. The tortoise gets unhappy when separated from her favorite horse-sized dog for too long. We don't think of reptiles as having any capacity for affection, but owners of pet turtles and iguanas and boas know differently.

I'll repeat what I wrote earlier. We ought not fear anthropomorphism. Anthropologists are too fussy about this. Not only does emotional understanding help us interpret animal behavior, animal behavior informs our understanding of ourselves. It is not that they are like us: WE are like THEM. We can love because all our animal ancestors loved.

The book is truly heartwarming. Like in a Disney movie, the lives of many animals begins with unspeakable tragedy but can turn out very well. We all need a little love.

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