- - Friday, October 28, 2011

UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIPS: 47 REMARKABLE STORIES FROM THE ANIMAL KINGDOM
By Jennifer S. Holland
Workman Publishing, $13.95 160 pages

In the United States, the care of pets seems to be one of the few industries remaining recession-proof. About $40 billion a year is spent on pets’ welfare alone. Pet care is booming in emerging markets as well - an $11 billion business, according to the Economist. Chile has more dogs per person than any other Latin American country. Any owner can tell you the myriad ways that dogs and cats enrich our lives.

But less commonly known than the pet-human connection is the way different species bond with one another. Cases of friendship between cross-species have been reported in the wild as well as in captivity. Friendship? Here we are entering controversial ground. “Anthropomorphic anecdotes have no place in science,” biologists assert. But behaviorists, such as Jane Goodall, would argue that asserting there is no friendship is another extreme. Animals experience joy and sorrow, writes evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff of the University of Colorado. It may not be the same joy or sorrow humans experience, “but the differences are shades of gray, not black versus white.”

In this remarkable volume, National Geographic senior writer Jennifer S. Holland gives 47 astounding examples of unexpected animal pairings reported around the world. Although dogs feature prominently in “Unlikely Friendships,” the author purposely sought out a mix of species.

One could argue that these unions are a matter of survival and nurturing - the papillon mothering a baby squirrel, the dachshund and the piglet, the mare and the fawn. There is an obvious benefit to staying warm or finding food. Some animals will take on an instinctively protective role of another. But in all the cases, no matter how short or extensive the union, Ms. Holland found that the animals were better off: “more confident, physically stronger, in higher spirits - after finding each other than they were before.”

Take, for instance, the story of Owen the hippo and Mzee the Galapagos tortoise, one of the most famous pairings ever recounted. As Ms. Holland writes, “Reptiles aren’t typically known for their warm, fuzzy natures. Nor are hippos.” The two followed each other, wallowed together in the pond, slept side by side. Owen could be seen licking Mzee’s face; Mzee rested his head on Owen’s belly. Together, they even fashioned their own language, communicating with deep rumblings - not typical of either animal.

Or how to explain the bond of Sharky the pit bull, Max the cat and a group of baby chicks? Their owner posts examples of their weird friendship and videotapes them cuddling in the sun. Ms. Holland recounts: “Some favorite scenes caught on tape could be described this way: Chicks line up atop dog. Chick slides down seated dog’s back. Chicks ride cat. Dog and chicks play in the pool. Cat slaps dog playfully while riding by on an automatic vacuum cleaner.”

Then there is the golden retriever and the koi, regularly meeting at the backyard pond to touch noses and nibble paws. The leopard and the cow, the iguana and the house cats, the snake and the hamster, the gorilla and the kitten, the owl and the spaniel, the dove and the rhesus monkey, the lion, the tiger and the bear.

If these instances sound like something out of Oz, the Bible, Aesop’s fables, or even Gerald Durrell’s amazing zoo in the United Kingdom, perhaps it is because we are only now beginning to accept that animals do indeed have emotions.

“The task of collecting these stories opened my eyes to just how often animals can surprise us with their depth of caring,” Ms. Holland writes, though she says that in her home, “the dogs have yet to befriend any of the geckos, and the snakes have kept completely to themselves.”

This slim, paperback volume is handsomely printed and filled with astounding photos. The text is easy and well-written, though I wished for more meat to the introduction. To her credit, Ms. Holland never stoops to cuteness. Her text continuously raises skeptical questions. Each time the author supports her thesis with solid examples of science and behavior.

It is no surprise that the animal kingdom should demonstrate some core values eluding humans - i.e., cooperation, empathy and a willing acceptance toward all living creatures, no matter how different.

Since Ms. Holland’s book shot to best-seller status this summer, it is already in its eighth printing. As we gear up for another battle royal on Capitol Hill, perhaps some philanthropist should do the country a favor and send a copy of “Unlikely Friendships” to every single member of Congress - and, for good measure, to every politician running for office.

• Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is a biographer and writer living in Washington, D.C.