Animal Emotions

Do animals think and feel?

A Dog and a Bunny: A Tale of Compassion and Friendship

Jethro, a compassionate dog, rescued a bunny and then a bird; odd couples indeed

Since the PBS documentary called "Animal Odd Couples" aired last November (and can now be seen online), I've received numerous emails about very interesting and unlikely friendships that form between members of different species. It's clear that nonhuman animals (animals) form deep and enduring relationships with members of their own species that can be called love. Also, and rather obviously, other animals develop and maintain very close relationships with us. And, as time goes on, we're learning more about relationships called "odd couples" or "unlikely friendships" because they involve members of different nonhuman species forming extremely close and improbable friendly relationships with one another. Here's a story that clearly shows the compassion animals show for members of other species. As we amass more and more of these tales, and while these cross-species friendships might be relatively rare, there is much we can learn about the emotional lives of other animals

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Jethro, my companion dog for nearly a decade, came into my life when I met him at the Boulder Humane Society. He was about nine months old and looked to be part Rottweiler, part German shepherd, with little bit of hound thrown into his gene pool. He was black and tan, somewhat barrel-chested, with dripping jowls and long floppy ears. Jethro was low-key, gentle, and well mannered. At the humane society he sought out friendships with other dogs, cats, ducks, geese, and goats and he never chased animals around my mountain home and loved to hang out and watch the world around him. He was a perfect field assistant for me as I was studying various birds living in the fields around my house. Indeed, one day when I threw a Frisbee for him that landed on the roof of my house during a study of anti-predatory vigilance in Western Evening Grosbeaks, I noticed how these birds formed groups that varied geometrically, and this was the beginning of a long project that I had not previously thought about. As a result, we discovered that along with group size, the geometry of a group also influenced patterns of feeding and scanning (the text of the essay can be seen here). 

Jethro rescues a bunny in need

One day, while I was sitting inside, I heard Jethro come to the front door. Instead of whining as he usually did when he wanted to come in, he just sat there. I looked at him and noticed a small furry object in his mouth. My first reaction was "Oh no, he killed a bird." However, when I opened the door, Jethro belched and dropped a very young bunny at my feet -- drenched in his saliva -- who was still moving. I couldn't see any injuries, only a small bundle of fur who needed care, warmth, food, and love. Jethro looked up at me, wide-eyed, as if he wanted me to praise him for being such a good samaritan. I did. He stood tall and clearly was proud of his compassionate self and kept looking at me saying something like, "Come on, do something." 

I guessed that the bunny's mother had disappeared, having likely fallen prey to a coyote, red fox, black bear, or cougar who also hung out (and still do) around my house. When I picked the bunny up Jethro got very concerned. He tried to snatch her from my hands, whined, and followed me around as I gathered a box, a small piece of cloth that would serve as a blanket, and some water and food. I gently placed the bunny in the box, named her "Bunny," and wrapped her in the cloth. After a while I put some mashed up carrots, celery, and lettuce near her and she tried to eat. I also made sure that she knew where the water was. All the while, Jethro stood behind me, panting, dripping saliva on my shoulder, and softly whining, while watching my every move. I was concerned he would go for Bunny or the food, but rather, he just stood there, fascinated by this little ball of fur slowly moving about in her new home. 

When I had to leave the box I called Jethro but he simply wouldn't leave. He usually came to me immediately, especially when I offered him a treat, but with Bunny around he steadfastly remained near the box for hours on end. Finally, I had to drag Jethro out to give him his nightly walk. When we returned home he bee-lined for the box and that's where he slept through the night. I tried to get Jethro to go to his usual sleeping spot in my bedroom, but he adamently refused - "no way" he said, "I am staying here." And, he did. 

I trusted Jethro wouldn't harm Bunny and he didn't during the two weeks I nursed her back to health so that I could release her near my house. Jethro had adopted Bunny -- he was her friend. He would make sure no one harmed Bunny.  

Finally, the day came when I introduced Bunny to the outdoors. Jethro and I walked to the east side of my house and I released her from her box and watched her slowly make her way into a woodpile. She was very cautious. Her senses were overwhelmed by the new stimuli -- sights, sounds, and odors -- to which she was now exposed.  Bunny remained hidden in the woodpile for about an hour until she boldly stepped out to begin life as a full-fledged rabbit. Jethro remained where he had laid down and watched the whole scenario. He never took his eyes off of Bunny and never tried to approach her or to snatch her. After she ambled off he went to the woodpile and sniffed around where Bunny had taken temporary refuge.  

Bunny hung around for a few months. I figured it was her because she showed no concern at our presence. Every time I let Jethro out of the house he immediately ran to the spot where she was released. When he was at the woodpile he would cock his head and move it from side-to-side, looking for Bunny. This lasted for about six months, long after she disappeared! When I would utter "Bunny" in a high-pitched voice, Jethro would whine and go look for her. Bunny was his friend and he was hoping to see her once again. 

I'm not sure what happened to Bunny. Other bunnies and adult rabbits have come and gone, and Jethro carefully looked at each of them, perhaps wondering if they were Bunny. He tried to get as close as he could but he never chased them when they ran away.  

Jethro was a truly compassionate soul. Nine years after he met Bunny and treated her with delicate compassion, he once again came running up to me with a wet animal in his mouth. Hmm, I wondered, another bunny? I asked him to drop the wet ball and he did. This time it was a young bird who had flown into a window. It was stunned and just needed to gain its senses. I held the bird in my hands for a few minutes. Jethro, in true fashion, watched my and the bird's every move. When I thought it was ready to fly I placed the bird on the railing of my porch. Jethro approached it, sniffed it, stepped back, and watched it fly away.

Jethro saved two animals from death. He could easily have gulped each down with little effort. But you don't do that to friends, do you?

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

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