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Unlikely friends: Why we love odd animal pairs

A baby hippo named Owen walks with its "mother," a giant male Aldabran tortoise named Mzee, at the Mombasa Haller Park. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami reached the Kenyan shore and separated Owen from his mother, the two have stuck together, and now even have their own Web site and line of books.
A baby hippo named Owen walks with its "mother," a giant male Aldabran tortoise named Mzee, at the Mombasa Haller Park. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami reached the Kenyan shore and separated Owen from his mother, the two have stuck together, and now even have their own Web site and line of books.AP file
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A video of best buddies Suriya (orangutan) and Roscoe (pooch) is a YouTube sensation. An old tortoise and a young hippo have their own Web site and line of books detailing their friendship. You see stories of unlikely animal friends on the news: horses nuzzling cats, dogs caring for kittens and a pig nursing tiger cubs — and in May, Oprah even featured a dog and elephant who are best friends on her show.

These unusual relationships are celebrated and admired. But are they genuine — or do we just want them to be?

They’re often actually the real deal, says John Wright, Ph.D., a certified applied animal behaviorist and professor of psychology at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. Given the right set of circumstances, and the right animals, they can form close and lasting relationships.

Heather MacLeod has seen it firsthand. She credits her white German shepherd, Faith, with helping save the life of her cat. Nearly nine years ago, MacLeod was driving home from work when a kitten tottered in front of her car. She swerved to avoid her, stopped the car, rescued the kitten and drove immediately to her veterinarian, who said she was so malnourished she probably wouldn’t survive the night. But MacLeod named her Hope and took her home, where the dog and cat became so close that Hope even nursed from Faith, who had never been bred but nonetheless produced milk for the little kitten. MacLeod, who lives in New Brunswick, Canada, says the two are still the best of friends.

Young mammals are often open to different kinds of experiences that tickle all of their senses. The most important of those experiences is a thermotactile sensation, a combination of warmth and softness.

“If you get a kitten and a mouse together at an early enough age, and they’re sleepy and well-fed and they’re both a little chilly, and they cuddle up to one another, you can certainly create a bond very early on that will carry on into adulthood, as long as the needs are met for both individuals,” Wright says.

Allowing two young animals to be comfortable with each other in this way creates the condition for a bond to occur, but it might not take place if their biological needs aren’t met. That doesn’t mean the kitten would try to eat the mouse — kittens must be taught by their mother to consider mice as food — but an irritable kitten might strike out against the mouse.

Wright says that even unlikely animal friendships can endure if both animals belong to a social species. But some animals, such as raccoons, become more solitary as they mature. That can put stress on the relationship and bring a natural end to the bond.

Friends of a different feather
Wright said he himself had a chicken that forged a relationship with his late chocolate Labrador retriever, Charlie Brown.

“We know they were bonded because they cuddled up next to one another and that’s where they rested. They hung out and did just about anything together,” he says. “They were true friends.”

When Susan Fox of McKinleyville, Calif., brought home a 9-week-old collie puppy, Niki, she said her three cats raised him to treat them with respect and taught him to speak cat as a second language.

“They taught him when he was a puppy to do nose-to-nose kitty greetings,” Fox says. In return, the cats have learned to tolerate having their rear-ends sniffed.

“He comes running if any of the cats make a noise that sounds like distress and that one gets sniffed from one end to the other,” Fox says.

These days, Fox has a new cat, Alexander, who hangs out with Niki, now 6 years old. Alex snuggles under Niki’s chin and Niki pokes at him with his long collie nose.

The only collateral damage so far is that Niki wants to get close to any cat he sees and occasionally gets swatted by those who don’t appreciate it, Fox says. She has taught him to approach them slowly and carefully, and occasionally he is rewarded with a nose touch.

It’s not unusual for animals to be nurturing toward the young of any species. The instinct to care for another animal can be hormonal or simply related to the age of the pair.

“If they’re both young, their behavior is what we call ‘plastic,’” Wright says. “It’s very malleable and they’re open to just about any experience and opportunity.”

In other words, if it feels good, they’ll want to do it more. It can also simply be a matter of what the animal is accustomed to.

“Cats raised with rats and not cats will be more friendly with rats than other cats. It’s the same with cats raised with dogs and dogs raised with cats,” says veterinary behaviorist Terry Curtis at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “I would imagine it’s a ‘what you’re familiar with’ thing.”

When tragedy strikes
A sense of familiarity may be what sparked the friendship between Owen and Mzee, the young hippo and old tortoise who bonded after Owen, the hippo, was orphaned by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and relocated to Haller Park, a wildlife sanctuary in Mombasa, Kenya. The pair’s similarity in size, shape and color may have contributed to their ability to connect, says wildlife biologist Bill Given, a research associate at the Denver Zoo, but the social nature of the hippo would also have been an important factor.

“Hippos live in social groups called ‘pods.’ It’s abnormal for a young hippo to be all on its own,” he says. “That animal has a natural instinct to try and bond with another animal, and if that’s what it’s placed with, then its only choice is to try and be friends with that tortoise.”

Some friendships are more one-sided than others. Barnie the cat loves his golden retriever friend Sophie. Sophie tolerates Barnie and her other cats, says their owner Janet Crosby, DVM, of Spokane, Wash., but doesn’t seek them out.

“Sophie is very active and likes to chase the cats, but I think they just view her as a nice, big, furry thing to cuddle up to,” Crosby says.

Crosby believes animal friendships develop in household situations because the boundaries are different than they might be if the animals encountered each other in another kind of environment.

“Barnie’s an indoor-only cat and Sophie is a largely indoor dog. They’re well fed, so the predator-prey relationship is not there, and they can develop friendships that outdoor-only or feral animals wouldn’t,” she says.

But animals can also pair up in unlikely circumstances. A bobcat kitten and a fawn huddled together after they were rescued from the Jesusita fire in Santa Barbara, Calif., last month. The trauma of their experience combined with the adaptability of the very young probably contributed to their instant bond.

For Suriya, a young orangutan, and Roscoe, a bluetick coonhound, it was friendship at first embrace, when Suriya jumped off the elephant he was riding at The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species, or TIGERS, to hug the lost and hungry hound dog.

“I think that the hound was desperate and overcame his fear of the big, hairy, redhead kid, and once Suriya started hanging onto him and rolling around with him, the hound thought everything was good,” says founder and director of TIGERS Bhagavan Antle, who quickly realized that he had just acquired a dog. Suriya and Roscoe have been friends for almost two years now, and Antle believes they get benefits from their interactions that they don’t get from other relationships.

“The dog loves to be touched and held and hugged, and Suriya, I think, has somebody who is subservient most of the time and he can feed and run with and chase and act very different with than with his orangutan friends,” he says. “I think Suriya enjoys that contact and comfort that he gets from having a dog friend, just like we do.”

Safety concerns
Is there ever a concern that the two might hurt each other? Dogs and orangutans can play rough, but Antle says that physically the two are pretty equally matched and don’t hesitate to express when they’ve had enough. Supervision and safety precautions are also important.

“Although Roscoe’s a very passive, relaxed guy, he has the capacity to tell Suriya to stop because he has a great set of big white pearly teeth,” Antle says. “If Suriya’s holding onto Roscoe’s foot for too long or he’s pulling on him too much, Roscoe flashes those teeth at him and growls, and Suriya turns loose. We don’t let Suriya have the leash, and we don’t let him have a way to contain Roscoe unless we’re there. And Suriya has a big lofting area that he can go into.”

For some, animal friendships seem to represent that anything is possible — even, perhaps, world peace.

On a YouTube video of Suryia and Roscoe, one commenter wrote: “These two animals have more sense and love between them than most of the human race — they should be an example for us upright animals to follow. If they can get along and they are so different, why can't the human race follow their example?”

Our enthusiasm for animal friendships says something about us, Given says. “We’re a very social species ourselves. There’s not a lot of people living by themselves. We seek out friendships and approval of others, and I think when we see those things in other animals, they tie into our human emotions," he explains. "We see the way that we want to live, and we want to grab onto that familiarity.”

Wright says we are moved by tales of interspecies affection because we know just how wonderful a good friendship is. It’s easy to put ourselves in their place and imagine how they feel about each other. But sometimes, he cautions, we read more into those relationships than is actually there.

“It’s pretty clear that if they seek the other individual out and you can predict that they’re going to be together at certain times of the day, those are real bonding experiences for both individuals,” Wright says. “It doesn’t mean that they’re in love, which would be our tendency to anthropomorphize a little bit more than we should, so I think somewhere in the middle is where we ought to be: realizing that these can be real bonding relationships between two different species, but it may not be exactly the same kind of relationship that we have with other loving people in our family.”