Making friends across species lines is part of what makes life on earth so fascinating. The majority of households in the United States have pets in them, and many people consider animal companions to be friends or even family. It turns out that we’re not the only ones to do this. Jennifer Holland, a writer for National Geographic (and occasional visitor to my yoga class when she’s in town visiting family), gives 47 examples of finned, furred, and feathered friends mixing it up in her book, Unlikely Friendships. You can also see videos of social critters on National Geographic’s Unlikely Animal Friends.
Having a friend, whether for a short time or a long time, can make all the difference in the world. Sometimes our friends are a lot like us and sometimes they’re very different from us. You never know who will reach out to you, bring you some warmth, and make your day. Some of the stories in this book are about brief encounters, such as a manta ray who insisted on being pet like a cat by a diver off the coast of Florida. Some are lifelong bonds.
Holland acknowledges the view of some people that “anthropomorphic anecdotes have no place in science,” and she is careful not to impose her own interpretations of what the animals are feeling and experiencing. But clearly the animals she describes are acting on more than instinct. She quotes from her interview with Jane Goodall, “You cannot share your life in any meaningful way with an animal and not realize they have different personalities. Are their capabilities and emotions similar to ours? Absolutely.”
Many stories feature that miracle of adaptation, the dog. When a family in Ohio took in a nearly blind deer named Dillie, it was the family poodle that licked her, slept with her, and brought her toys. Dillie is afraid of any other dog, but loves to be with Lady the poodle. A dachshund welcomed a piglet to her litter of puppies when he was unable to compete with the other, bigger piglets for his mother’s milk. The pig survived and now acts more canine than porcine.
Other pairs in the book are such unexpected combinations as a snake and a hamster, a rat and a cat, monkeys and capybaras, and a leopard and a cow. Holland’s retelling of the famous case of Koko the gorilla and her tiny kitten, Ball, is as moving as ever. We not only learn about animals from these stories, we learn from them as well, perhaps to overlook that bit of DNA that separates us, one species from another, and simply see a being with a capacity different from our own but no lesser.
After facing racially charged abuse, Rodney King asked, “Why can’t we all just get along?” Part of the appeal of these stories is the hope they provide that, no matter our differences, we can.
UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIPS: 47 Remarkable Stories from the Animal Kingdom by Jennifer S. Holland, Workman Publishing, 2011.