Animal Emotions

Do animals think and feel?

Friends With Benefits

Nonhumans show us why we all need others we can count on

Over the years there have been debates about whether or not nonhuman animals (aka animals) form friendships. I've always been incredulous that anyone could seriously ask this question and even think that the answer was either "maybe" or "no". Anyone who has systematically studied or casually watched animals knows they form close close and enduring bonds the results of which include support in getting and defending food and other resources, providing aid in fights, defending territory, raising kids, and offering compassionate psychological support when an individual is feeling down or being picked on. Common sense along with good old Darwinian theory shows that if we have something "they" (other animals) have it too, so if we form friendships so do they. We all need others we can count on (a recent and heartwarming example of one horse rescuing another can be seen here). 

A recent update on what we know about friendships in animals can be found here. (A pdf file of an excellent academic review on the evolutionary origins of friendship by Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney can be purchased here. They also note that "Applying the term 'friendship' to animals is not anthropomorphic."; see also).

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Some snippets from Susan Gaidos' essay in Science News include: 

Many of the behaviors that hint at animal friendships have been observed in the field. Studies of monkeys, horses and chimpanzees reveal that individuals are selective about whom they spend time with or feed near. Some male chimpanzees are more likely to hang out together, groom each other, share meat and accompany one another on hunts or border patrols. Female baboons will groom some peers more than others, and are more likely to come to the aid of someone who recently groomed them.

Male chimpanzee pairs that engaged in friendly behavior more often than expected by chance were more likely to be distantly related than closely related. The findings suggest chimps are motivated to cooperate with nonrelatives, not just close kin. 

Studies of dolphins, horses, lions and chimpanzees show that even unrelated animals often form stable bonds lasting for years. And evidence indicates that one animal may do something costly to help a nonrelative, while receiving a benefit later.

Friendship is especially beneficial for animals without relatives to help them out.

It feels good to have friends

It just may also be that it feels good to hang out with buddies and that these close friendships have positive effects on one's health and well-being.

All together, findings from recent studies suggest that the desire to have a trusted companion is a deep need in mammals, humans included, [Catherine] Crockford [of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland] says. Knowing this about mammals is sort of a reminder to us, that we can eat as much good food as we want or have as much money as we want, but if we don’t have at least one or two close relationships that we can depend on, life is going to be more difficult for us.”

(For more, see Science News.)

The more we study other animals the more we learn about their fascinating lives and about ourselves. We are animals and we should be proud of our heritage. Calling someone "an animal" is a compliment. Forming and maintaining close friendships can be an integral part of "rewilding our hearts."

[The teaser image can be found here.]

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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