April 25, 2014
Monday, December 2, 2013

Like friendly cats and dogs

Can animals really make friends with other species?

Animals can forge bonds (1) across species boundaries (2) if the need for social contact pre-empts (3) their normal biological imperatives. A cat raised with dogs doesn't know it's a cat, the logic goes.

In the PBS film “Animal Odd Couples,” a cheetah and a dog are shown as friends. A narrator explains that the two grew up together at Busch Gardens and are a regular attraction at the theme park.

Tim Smith, curator of behavioral husbandry (4) at Busch Gardens, tells me the cheetah and the dog, both born in 2011, were just infants when they befriended one another. The male cheetah, named Kasi, was the only cub to survive a rather surprising birth from what had been considered a post-reproductive mother. He was paired with the female Labrador retriever mix Mtani when no cheetahs were available.

It's not clear that this will end well. As Lauren Brent, a post-doc primatologist and evolutionary biologist at Duke University, points out, “These animals are juveniles. I worry that their relationship will change once they became adults, with negative consequences for the dog.”

Strong attachments often arise in captive animals. In most cases, cross-species friendships are forged most strongly when animals are young. But in captivity even an older captured animal might seek out a friend, including a member of another species.

Marc Bekoff, who has written several books on animal emotions, believes wholeheartedly (5) in such bonds. He told me, “I think the choices animals make in cross-species relationships are the same as they'd make in same-species relationships.” Even predators and prey (including his dog and a bunny) can form relationships — which as he points out requires “incredible trust” from the prey animal.

Anthropologist Barbara King from the College of William & Mary says she and other scientists have documented a number of animals, ranging from dogs to hippos to apes, that make bonds with animals of another species. If one dies, the survivor grieves (6). In some cases, the biggest risk in cross-species friendships isn't getting eaten. It's emotional loss.

Adapted from an article by Laurie Wiegler in Slate

To forge (1)

A very interesting verb, this one... Here, it means to make something successful and lasting, and is an extension of the forging process of metals (when it is shaped with heat and hammer hits) – you forge a bond (relationship, link) like you forge a metal. But “forge” also means to make an illegal copy of something such as a painting, a cheque or a bank note (a forgery)!

Boundary (2)

A boundary is a dividing line (real or imaginary) between two things. But be careful! The line that separates two countries is not a boundary but a frontier (mostly UK) or border (mostly US).

Preempt (3)

To preempt means to prevent something from happening by doing something to stop it. A notorious use of the word is in the phrase “preemptive strike”, which describes a surprise military attack that a country does to prevent another country (which has made a threat or is perceived as a threat) to strike first.

Husbandry (4)

Nothing to do with husbands and wives (unless you think plants and animals get married...). Husbandry is the care and cultivation of plants and animals associated with growing crops, running a livestock farm, etc.

Wholeheartedly (5)

Remember our comments on portmanteaus a couple of months ago? Well, here's another! When you do something wholeheartedly, you do it with absolute commitment and no reservations – with your whole (complete) heart.

To grieve (6)

When you grieve over someone, you feel bad for their death. This is a verb derived from the noun grief, meaning sorrow.

Sounds crazy!

In late-night FM radio you can still hear the song Hole Hearted, by the group Extreme (famous for More Than Words, another song with a title worthy of this page!). The song is an interesting pun (play on words) with our new friend “wholehearted,” and takes us back to the subject of homophones (words which have different spellings and meanings, but are pronounced the same).

Sounds like trouble! English has yet another card up its sleeve: homographs! Homographs are the opposite of homophones – words that have the same spelling, but are pronounced in different ways and have different meanings.

Examples? A classic is “bass,” a musical instrumen if it rhymes with “pass” and a fish if it rhymes with “face”. Another good example is “lead”: to be the leader if it rhymes with “speed”; a metal if it rhymes with “dead”. Sometimes the trick is in the stressed syllable: “ENtrance” is the place where you enter, and “enTRANCE” is to be in a trance; “to proDUCE” is to make something, but “PROduce” are fresh fruits and vegetables. Want more? Look these up: wind, subject, object, minute, desert, does, contract, attribute.

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