The other day I was reading the newest issue of Time magazine (Feb.20, 2012) where I came across an article entitled “Friends With Benefits” written by Carl Zimmer, which is a great article about the friendships that are forged between wild animals such as chimpanzees, horses and dolphins. The article even discusses the seemingly unlikely friendship between a 130-year old tortoise named Mzee and a 1-year old hippo named Owen.
We live in an age of so much electronic communication – cell phones, texting, emails and online social networks which helps us to be connected to our friends and the greater world right from our smart phones. I would be lost in a way without that type of connectivity but as I sat at my computer the other night with my email, Facebook and Twitter open, I felt lonely. Yes, I was surrounded by all my “friends” but I had no one to really connect with eye-to-eye, there was no one really “present”. I guess that is why this article interested me so much because the older I get the more important face-to-face friendships have become to me. The article discusses specifically relationships between non-related animals and just like with humans, stress levels are shown to be lower when the animal shares a connection with another.
Groups of female dolphins form “playpens” in which their young play together and mommy gets some much needed time with her girls. However, those relationships are more fluid and the article explains that once the female dolphins are no longer fertile they maintain 1 or 2 close friendships which are enduring bonds. Male dolphins do it a little different. They tend to bond with other male dolphins at a young age and continue to have a strong bond of friendship for the rest of their lives. One part of the article that made me chuckle and have visions of Barney and Ted from How I met Your Mother, talks about male dolphins acting as wing men for each other when it comes to mating – one dolphin fights off the other males while the other has a better chance of “getting the girl”.
John Mitani, a primatologist from the University of Michigan, spent 17 years studying chimpanzees in the Kibale National Forest of Uganda and was quite taken with two males Hare and Ellington. These chimps hunted together, shared meat from the hunt, yakked back and forth at each other and would have each others back if a fight ensued with other chimps. Mitani explains that this friendship lasted until Ellington’s death which made Hare “drop out” of the rest of chimp society and essentially was in mourning. This particular part of the article really made me stop to think on many levels. It brought a lump to my throat, partly because a good friend of mine lost someone very dear to her and is in mourning herself but also because it is extraordinary that non-human animals are able to feel sadness, happiness, have full ranges of emotion. I find it extraordinary not because I have never entertained the idea that animals are not capable of having feelings and emotions, but because reading this article based on scientific studies and findings strengthen what I have always surmised – that human or not, we all share these commonalities. My other thought was how similar it sounded to the ritual human males engage in by going on hunting trips, sharing a 6-pack of beer in a duck blind or fishing in a boat, having your friends back when other guys pick a fight.
I have two adorable male cats which I rescued at different times, so they didn’t have any prior link to each other except now living under the same roof. I was surprised given the picky and sometimes prickly personality of my older cat Picasso, that after a few days of face offs and aggressive tail displays (mostly on the part of the punk of a 10-week old kitten that I should have named Diablo instead of Diego) they became friends. Picasso took Diego “under his wing” essentially and taught him the house rules and gave him lessons in how to best groom oneself, Sunday being the most appropriate day for such bathing practices. They wrestle, snuggle and chat at each other. They are friends and while they are not wild animals like those discussed in the article, it is still pretty special to see two animals interact and behave in many of the same ways human animals do in a friendship.
This article is not only interesting in a scientific way but it also warms your heart and makes you very glad to have friends. If you like this subject matter and want to read a somewhat irreverent depiction of animals friends, get a copy of Squirrel seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary by David Sedaris from your local library. It will give you a good chuckle and who among us doesn’t need a chuckle?